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david shribman

So who won the Showdown at Shutdown Gulch?

The answer there is surprising: Not who you think. And maybe nobody.

On the surface, Barack Obama won. His signature health-care law remains intact and his government isn't going to default, at least not this week.

But what kind of triumph is a victory in which the president can boast he possesses something (Obamacare) that he had in his possession when the fight began? And can you really describe as a victory the failure of a global superpower to default?

So if there is no winner, could there still be a loser?

That's a question worth pondering as Congress and the president return to their normal activities, which is to say postponing the decisions they must make to bring the deficit under control even and create conditions for economic growth. Their failure to do so in this round only portends a more difficult round in the future.

Because in truth there are losers in this 16-day debacle.

The losers include the Americans who traveled to their national capital to reflect on the vicissitudes of democracy only to be locked out of their own national monuments. They include those who were deprived of vital services because the lawmakers who were elected to serve them could not resolve their differences.

And they include the people whose engagement in the ordinary commerce of the day was interrupted because government offices were closed. One example: A new resident of Pennsylvania couldn't get his driver's license because the process required a Social Security card. But he couldn't get that card because the Social Security Administration office across the street was closed.

Plus the economic cost of the entire episode: lost profits, higher interest payments, lower growth. No reliable estimates on all that.

How about the political losers? The early answer is that the Republicans have lost this showdown, for five reasons: Their most vocal element, the Tea Party rebels in the House, didn't prevail in their effort to de-fund or substantially change Obamacare; their leaders were unable to rein in the rebels in the House (and a few in the Senate); they look like intransigents; their allies in business are alienated; and, the perception is that they surrendered.

But the early answers aren't always the best answers, or the final answers.

The quote of the day, from House Speaker John Boehner – "We fought the good fight. We just didn't win" – merits serious parsing. The rebels in his party almost surely did not win. But they may not have been defeated either.

They suffered a setback, to be sure, but the business interests that have been reliable Republican allies aren't about to defect to the Democrats (the party of robust regulation) and business leaders' qualms about Obamacare (their critique: too expensive, too unwieldy, too intrusive) have not been salved. No long-term erosion there.

Most if not all of the House rebels are in legislative districts – the American equivalent of parliamentary ridings – drawn specifically to accommodate conservative interests. They will face no primary challenge from the right and any challenge in the general election from the left will be easily deflected. So they have lost nothing.

In fact they are in a stronger position politically than are the moderates and regulars in their party – and, pointedly, in the Democratic Party – because their resistance to compromise only has fortified their positions at home if not in Washington.

The risk for almost all of those involved in these proceedings – and, as you will see, the word "almost" is critical here – is that this showdown has soured many Americans on the political class, already in serious disrepute.

For years, lawmakers have operated in Washington with the assurance that their actions were being monitored carefully by special interest groups – business, labor, environmentalists, other activists – but were being watched only glancingly by the public. This may not be the case in this situation. For a fortnight, Washington's inability to resolve its differences, and the possibility the nation would be unable to pay its bills, were the talk of every town, not just the capital.

The result very likely could be a whole-scale rebellion against politicians in general. That would not affect President Obama. He can't run for re-election. And by preserving Obamacare in this episode and, 15 months ago, in a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court, he has reasonable assurance that his signature domestic priority will be preserved.

But such a rebellion would affect Democrats and many Republicans – but not the rebels who prompted this standoff.

Here's the irony of this episode: Scores of careers may be toppled in the coming elections, but the insurgents in the Republican rebellion will be spared any cost. They are safe for re-election. What the United States experienced in October was no laughing matter, but next November – 13 months from now, when the entire House is up for grabs and when a third of the Senate is elected – these House rebels may get the last laugh.

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.

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