Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sequester as a strategy - GOP, you're doing it wrong

In case anyone isn't clear about what's going on with the current sequester posturing, let me summarize it for you.

This is an attempt to use the same strategy applied by President Obama to deal with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, but in this case it's done with cynicism and a pathetic disregard for who gets hurt in the process.  Unlike the tax cut expiration, the responsibility for what's about to happen is in the hands of the Congress that set this up a year ago, with most of the same players still in charge.

The Bush tax cuts were passed over a decade ago with a specific time limit, so if they expired and rates reverted back to their Clinton-era levels (from a more prosperous time, ironically), it wouldn't even have been an Obama tax increase because this law wasn't passed on his watch.  The original law was set up by a GOP Congress and enacted by a GOP president, and no amount of spin could change that fact.

So with the expiration date approaching, the GOP was boxed in - they couldn't keep taxes from going up, and lacking the votes to override a veto, they could only propose a fix that Obama would sign off on.  So they sucked it up and gave Obama a victory by letting rates rise for some at the higher end, and keeping the lower rates for the rest.  Payback was promised, but the joke is that they did this to themselves.

So back to the sequester.  This was never meant to be a budget option, but rather a penalty so harsh and non-viable that it would motivate Congress to work out a plan to cut the deficit responsibly instead.  Congress failed, and now the self-imposed punishment is about to hit the country.

It's worth noting at this point that all the BS about this being "Obama's sequester" is just that - pure BS.  The bill came from the GOP-led Congress, and not a single Democrat in the House voted for it - not one.  Obama signed it because it was tied to raising our debt ceiling, and the fiscal hostage-taking the GOP was doing last year had already hurt our credit.  Bottom line is that these were the terms the GOP wanted to impose to allow the US to pay the bills Congress had already run up, so this was their idea.

Then a few weeks ago I finally understood the actual GOP strategy behind the sequester, and why they wanted it.

In their thinking, this is an analog of the tax cuts expiring.  Force deep, painful, unacceptable cuts across the board, and use the threat to try to get leverage.  If the threats don't work, the cuts kick in, and then Congress can pick and choose which funding to restore from the new, lower baseline.  That's how the tax battle was lost - they couldn't keep them from going up for everyone, so they could only restore the cuts the President wanted, with him in control.  In the sequester scenario, Congress gets to propose which spending to restore, and Obama has to accept what they propose since since funding increases are in their control.

So if you're a Tea Party supporter, this is great - it pushes the cuts so deep that something will have to be done to restore essential priorities, but they get to control what is considered "essential".  Obama has no choice but to accept this, because not accepting anything would be worse.  The rest of the GOP goes along with this so they can campaign as fiscal conservatives in the 2014 election cycle, rather than face primary challenges.

Except this is a huge miscalculation, based on hubris and an ignorance of recent history.

As I said before, Obama had no hand passing the original law that led to tax cuts expiring.  He wouldn't be the bad guy if they went up, but he could be the good guy for keeping them down even if it was only for some.

The GOP-led House forced the sequester to happen through posturing over a debt-ceiling increase - something the GOP-led Congress didn't do from 2001-06 when they approved multiple debt-ceiling increases for a GOP president.  Boehner, McConnell and Cantor were part of that - same players, different policies.  The sequester passed without Democratic votes in the House - they can't claim bipartisan support for it, and Obama signed it to prevent default, not to support the cuts.  The GOP leaders who passed the sequester are the same ones today - they can't pass off accountability onto their predecessors - they own this, and they own the economic fallout to come.

Some in the GOP have realized how they're not going to be able to pass the blame on this as the cuts kick in, and they're proposing a bill to give the President powers to re-allocate spending that the office has never had before.  That's crossing into the domain of Congress, and it's only being proposed because they want Obama to bear the responsibility that the Constitution says is theirs - to deal with the pain and scorn of the people & interests who get hurt when a smaller pie has to be re-divided.  These are the same GOP members of Congress complaining about "tyrants" using executive orders over access to guns, but here they are a few weeks later trying to hand off their Constitutional responsibilities to avoid blame for the damage they created.  People are catching on to this, and the even the Tea Party is calling it out as a cynical dereliction of duty.

So unlike the tax situation in late December  you have GOP leaders in Congress who set up this imminent crisis themselves, and they're trying to make the short-term scrambling Obama's responsibility.  Obama doesn't have to accept that responsibility and take on Congress' job, though.  Instead, he's working on messaging, and getting out a narrative about what's going to lost as of March 1st, and who they should blame when it happens.

That's the critical miscalculation by the GOP and the Tea Party.  They learned nothing from Newt Gingrich losing the messaging war over the government shutdown in the 1990's, and they haven't even learned from Romney losing the high ground on messaging this past summer.

If tax cuts expire, they take a bigger bite from incomes, but automatic furloughs don't happen and government services don't stop.  Unlike the showdown in the 1990's, the sequester cuts military spending by a set amount as law, and it immediately begins to have an impact on national defense capability, naval deployments, overseas rotations, and more.  It also affects Federal aid to the states, and in this aspect the GOP leaders in Congress have probably made their gravest tactical blunder.  The states which take from from the Federal government in assistance than they give back are mostly red states, and they will feel the pain hard.  Many of these states have GOP governors, some of whom have already agreed that signing onto Obamacare is more in their interest than not.  They have to live with the damage to their state budgets when the cuts kick in, and in states with a heavy dependency on the military for jobs and business, doubly so.  These people will scream the loudest, because it's their own party doing this to them.

Let me recap this in two sentences.  The GOP leaders in Congress and the Tea Party minority prodding them may have set the sequester into motion thinking that it would create a new, low baseline to rebuild the national budget using their priorities, with Obama powerless to stop them.  They've miscalculated badly, though, because the cuts will hurt grass-roots GOP interests and GOP-led state governments more than most, and all Obama has to do is win the messaging war over whose fault this is while the GOP consumes itself in a self-inflicted civil war.

No comments:

Post a Comment