As we contemplate the winners and losers among the fiscal cliff dealmakers, I’d like to make the case for Harry Reid and the Democrats.

Reid is clearly not the most popular man in Washington. Look no further than the exchange he had with House Speaker John Boehner  outside the Oval Office last Friday.

As Politico reported:

It was only a few days before the nation would go over the fiscal cliff, no bipartisan agreement was in sight, and Reid had just publicly accused Boehner of running a “dictatorship” in the House and caring more about holding onto his gavel than striking a deal.

“Go f— yourself,” Boehner sniped as he pointed his finger at Reid, according to multiple sources present.

 Reid, a bit startled, replied: “What are you talking about?”

 Boehner repeated: “Go f— yourself.”

While Reid was undoubtedly pantomiming Boehner’s proposal, he was being cut out of the fiscal cliff negotiations.  The National Journal reported that Mitch McConnell snuck off to the Senate cloakroom to call Joe Biden, saying – in essence – that he was surrounded by fools.

McConnell had just very publicly announced his intention to try to end-run Reid and work directly with the White House. But would it work? After all, Biden had been sidelined by Obama. There had been no contact between the two men for months, despite their history of cutting high-stakes legislative deals. With time running out, McConnell gambled that the White House might let their closer out of the bullpen.

 Shortly after his speech, McConnell got a message. The vice president was on the phone for him. He walked off the floor during a rare weekend vote and sat down in a phone booth in the Senate cloakroom.

 McConnell voiced his frustration with the stalled talks. He wanted a dance partner, but didn’t have one in Reid. He needed Biden to step in. “There doesn’t appear to be the level of understanding that you have about these negotiations,” McConnell told the vice president. “It’s a lack of experience. Smart people, but they don’t have a good sense of the trip wires.”

Biden and the White House accepted McConnell’s invitation – doing an end-run around Reid – and negotiated a deal with Republicans. One version of the deal, according to Politico, Reid loved so much he “crumpled up the document and tossed it into the burning fireplace of his Capitol office.”  Reid described it as a bad deal that would increase Republican leverage in future budget fights.

I think Reid was right.

Many conservatives are going to look at the fiscal cliff deal and see an agreement to raise taxes with no commitment to reduce spending. But I can’t see how that sentence adds up to a win for Democrats.

For years, in every debate about spending cuts – whether centered around the debt ceiling, a government shutdown, or an election – Democrats have responded to demands for spending cuts with calls for raising taxes on the “rich.”

But that tactic is now gone. The Democrats mustered all the political capital and power they had and spent it on raising taxes on 1 percent of the population. Consider that chip, leverage, rhetorical trick spent.

So now, what will Democrats do, what will Democrats say, when Republicans demand spending cuts? In the next two months there will be big fights over the debt ceiling (I’m opposed to using it as leverage – I’ll write more about that later), over a government shutdown, and over the delayed sequester. I’m sure the Democrats will say we need to cut some tax loopholes on the rich and they will focus on defense spending, but none of it has the political power of raising rates on the “rich”.

So how will they run from spending cuts now? Harry Reid may not be popular, but he was right, and I don’t see how Democrats won this fight.

 

(Front page photo credit: Getty Images)