The Debt Ceiling Debate and 2012

After big events like Tuesday's debt-ceiling vote, Washington goes into overdrive to declare who won and who lost. But politics is more complex and less binary than that. In this case, neither party helped itself with the public during this struggle.

But Democrats hurt themselves most of all. They made a huge strategic mistake by failing to raise the debt ceiling late last year when they still controlled Congress.

Instead, Democrats tried to make the GOP complicit in their spending excesses. On Dec. 8, for example, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid explained his decision not to tackle the debt ceiling until the new GOP House took office by saying he wanted to "let the Republicans have some buy-in on the debt." This ended up giving the GOP months to leverage the debt ceiling into a battle over spending cuts.

President Obama paid the highest price during this long confrontation. By the time he signed the debt ceiling, he had enraged his own party, issued demands that were routinely ignored, reinforced his reputation as being obsessed with raising taxes, and failed to produce a concrete plan of his own.

At the start of last December, Mr. Obama's job approval rating in the weekly Gallup poll was 47% approve and 45% disapprove. Last week, it was 40% approve and 52% disapprove. If the election were held today, Mr. Obama and his party would be swamped.

Karl Rove is a former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush. He is a Fox News contributor and author of "Courage and Consequence" (Threshold Editions, 2010). To continue reading his column in The Wall Street Journal, click here.