Once the dust settles from last week's short-term budget battle, we may learn something important for the long term: What did voters really want last November when they handed control of the House of Representatives to Speaker John A. Boehner's Republicans?
Budget wonks complain that all that recent brinksmanship and fury was over relatively trivial sums of money, less than 1% of the government's annual spending. They point out that our real fiscal crisis amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade, not a few billion in the remaining months of this year.
They're right. But that doesn't mean this battle was meaningless or unnecessary. This struggle wasn't about money; it was about political power. And it needed to happen.
Think of the fight over spending for the current fiscal year as Act 1 in a three-part budget drama. Act 2, coming this spring, will be the fight over whether to raise the ceiling on the federal government's debt, and what conditions to attach to it. Act 3, in the fall, will likely be the biggest battle of all, over the federal budget for 2012.
But before the rest of the story can play out, politicians on both sides needed a clearer answer to one crucial question: How big a mandate for spending cuts did voters really intend to give Boehner and his fellow conservatives?
There are four competing narratives about what the voters wanted when they went to the polls in November. And we can't truly move ahead until that debate is resolved.
"Tea party" activists and their allies in Congress, like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), say the voters gave them a mandate to shrink the government dramatically. Mainstream conservatives, including Boehner, are a little more cautious; they think they have a mandate to cut spending, but they're not sure how far the writ extends.
President Obama and other pragmatic Democrats acknowledge that the Republicans won the argument last year over government spending, at least among the independent voters who swing elections. So now they're casting themselves as budget cutters too — but arguing for more modest cuts that would spare most of the pet programs of independents and Democrats.
Finally, there are the unreconstructed liberals, who think last year's voters simply made a bad choice and will soon wake up and ask for Nancy Pelosi back.
Polls tell us the extremes on both ends are wrong and the negotiators in the middle are right. The main thing voters want is a better economy with more jobs. They've accepted the argument — made by leaders of both parties — that the federal deficit must be reduced to keep the economy strong. But they don't want deep cuts to federal programs, especially in education and healthcare.
Do voters endorse the tea party's solutions? The polls say no. Several surveys have found the number of people who say they agree with the tea party has dropped below 1 in 4.
And a mild case of buyer's remorse may have set in over Republican rule. A Pew Research Center poll last weekend found the public evenly split on whether the Republican takeover of the House was a good thing; 44% said they were unhappy with GOP control, 43% said they were happy. But they're not happy with Obama's leadership either; the president's job approval was an anemic 47%, and 59% of poll respondents said they didn't consider him a credible leader on deficit reduction. One other thing: Voters don't want to see the government shut down.
All those results have helped Boehner make the case to his own Republican members of Congress that they need to compromise.
"If the government shuts down, there's no winner," Boehner's pollster, David Winston, told me last week. "Both sides will be blamed."
Boehner's dilemma, though, is that many in his Republican conference aren't as fond of compromise as voters are.
A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll released last week found, in effect, that on fiscal issues there are two publics, not one. Among Republican voters, more than half wanted their members of Congress to stick to their guns, even if it meant risking a government shutdown, and not to compromise. (Among tea party adherents, the no-compromise faction was more than two-thirds.)
But among Democratic voters — and perhaps most important, among independent voters, who often decide how elections come out — more than two-thirds favored compromise, not confrontation.
Those numbers suggest that Obama, even though he's been on the defensive, may emerge with his chances for reelection improved. He has cast himself as a centrist mediating between squabbling congressional leaders — a role that, if he succeeds, should improve his standing among independents.
Still, it's a long time until the 2012 election, when Obama will need that political capital. And Acts 2 and 3 of this budget drama are still to come. The conventional wisdom is that those fights will be much bloodier. If it takes this much pain to close a relatively minor funding gap, how much harder will it be to produce a budget for an entire year?
But there's a minority view that's more optimistic. It holds that Act 1 has served a useful purpose, by showing that a deadlock hurts everyone. That lesson might improve the chances for centrists like Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) to broker compromises on the bigger issues ahead.
There's no guarantee of that kind of positive outcome. But if politicians in both parties have paid attention to voters' reactions to their squabbles, they may feel more pressure to find their way to the middle.