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Extremists' hot-air hurts budget process

By John Avlon, Special to CNN
  • John Avlon says it's good a shutdown was averted, but it bodes ill for debates ahead
  • He says social conservatives shouldn't have dragged issues like NPR funding into debate
  • He says House Speaker Boehner was in thankless position
  • Avlon: Partisan activists who criticized shutdown don't have to govern

Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.

(CNN) -- It's great that the government shutdown was stopped just before the midnight deadline. But it's pathetic that it got so far. And the damage done during the bitter and contentious debates is a troubling sign for what lies ahead.

After all, if a $5 billion difference in short-term cuts can bring the government to the brink of a shutdown, how is Congress going to deal with the multi-trillion dollar cuts in long-term spending that will be necessary to bring down the deficit and the debt?

Even worse was the stubborn insistence by social conservatives that policy riders defunding Planned Parenthood, NPR and the EPA be included in their list of demands until the 11th hour. These cuts were not about fiscal discipline, they were about social conservative litmus tests imposed to please the activist class.

House Speaker John Boehner is getting squeezed on both sides of his own caucus, trying to please social conservatives and the Tea Party crowd while also avoiding the massive popular backlash that would have accompanied a government shutdown. He is in the thankless position of being the responsible Republican in the room.

The $38 billion in cuts is the largest one-time dollar-for-dollar cut in American history, but still he gets no respect. Immediately after the compromise deal was announced, conservative congressmen and professional partisans were taking to Twitter to announce their disappointment, liberated by the absence of responsibility that comes with leadership.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann pronounced the results "disappointing" while Dick Morris' hot air reached Robespierre proportions, tweeting "The budget deal is a total surrender by a gutless Speaker. Those who vote for it deserve a primary!!!" Off with their heads!

No-drama Obama swooped in late to the negotiations, but was able to ultimately salvage a deal without getting strong-armed on social issues. Still, liberal activists like former Labor Secretary Robert Reich were unhappy as well, Tweeting, "The Prez and Ds caved in, endangering the recovery and strengthening the right-wing bullies. A tactical win for the Prez and a strategic loss."

Ideological inflexibility is not the same thing as political principle. Rooting for a government shutdown --especially over these comparatively small cuts and social issue riders -- is a sign of extremism and irresponsibility.

If the shutdown had occurred, they would have learned that the American people reject ideological extremism. Instead, many will be quick to play the government shutdown card as we head into a more serious round of negotiations about reducing the deficit and the debt.

America's strategic competitors like China must have watched our near self-sabotage with amusement over the past few days. Motivation through mutually assured destruction is no way to run a government. Politics in a democracy depends on the art of compromise, finding a way to reason together as fellow citizens. By viewing each other as ideological enemies we look foolish and weak, unable to muster the courage and unity necessary to deal with long-term challenges.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.