Published February 21, 2013
“The president’s sequester is the wrong way to reduce the deficit, but it is here to stay until Washington Democrats get serious about cutting spending.”
-- House Speaker John Boehner in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed on Wednesday.
Is sequestration better than nothing?
The inability of Republicans to plainly answer that question is giving President Obama the upper hand in the ongoing spat over automatic decreases to automatic increases in federal spending due to kick in a week from Friday.
Republicans, especially Defense Department stalwarts, have spent 19 months doomsaying the reductions. The cuts have been described in apocalyptic terms over and over and over again. “Harsh.” “Brutal.” “Devastating.”
Did they suppose that Obama would be on the other side of this issue? Did they think that the greatest enthusiast for federal spending since Lyndon Johnson would suddenly become a deficit hawk? Did they think that the master of the perpetual campaign would grimly and stoically oversee the imposition of the cuts?
The answer to almost any riddle about Obama – the presidential response to almost any problem – involves three things: Campaigning, calls for more taxes and spending and blaming Republicans.
Millions out of work? Head to Ohio to call for tax increases on rich people to finance stimulus spending blocked by Republicans who are beholden to “millionaires and billionaires.”
Gas prices too high? Head to Virginia to call for tax increases on energy companies to finance solar-panel subsidies blocked by Republicans beholden to “big oil.”
Illegal immigrants driving down wages? Head to Nevada to call for tax increases on top earners to finance new education programs to help train workers for the “jobs of tomorrow” blocked by Republicans beholden to xenophobic rural voters.
Obama repeats this so often that if he were to run out of Rice Krispies at the breakfast table, one would almost expect him to hop Air Force One for Battle Creek, Mich. and call for a tax hike to finance research into renewable cereal technology blocked by Republicans in the thrall of “big breakfast.”
So how is it that even with nearly two years to prepare for this moment, Republicans are letting themselves get rope-a-doped again?
The biggest part is the GOP’s long-standing support for a mighty military. Their party was forged in its current form by Ronald Reagan and annealed in the 9/11 era, so many Republicans see keeping up Pentagon spending on an ideological par with low taxes and small government. Deficits, as Republicans argued in the Reagan and George W. Bush military buildups, were certainly secondary to a strong national defense.
Hawkish Republicans never liked making the military part of the cuts plan, preferring to hold the line that not cutting spending at all was better than having any cuts at the Pentagon. But their argument for maintaining military sacrosanctity lost out to the case made by deficit hawks who said that without the sequestration, Obama would end up getting a debt limit increase without ever making any real cuts.
This split produced a bizarre strategy to try to shame the president into agreeing to cut welfare and domestic programs he likes in order to spare the military.
But why would he do that? Obama has been trying to hike domestic spending and lower military spending his whole career. Did Republican members of Congress, who are mostly either unknown or disliked, believe that they could convince a war-weary public to push a re-elected president into doing the opposite of what he has always done?
After months of Republicans screaming about the damage and danger of the automatic reductions, they now are somehow surprised to see the president joining the chorus. “Yes!” he hollers. “Those guys are right. This thing is a doomsday machine! We have to stop it!”
And the Republican response to this? Complain that it was actually Obama’s idea.
It was. So what? It was his idea for placating Republicans into giving him a debt bump, not something that he wanted or liked. And now, he’s using his celebrity and media megaphone to try to undo it. That would mean that he would get nearly his original demand in the 2011 debt fight: an unconditional increase.
So here sit Republicans, teeth clenched, gripping their desks, waiting for the “devastating” cuts to explode the economy and just hoping that Obama will get some of the blame for having invented the thing. They are assuming that $85 billion less spent by the government will cause devastation in an economy of some $16 trillion. What a bunch of Keynesians.
If the cuts are so bad, why not just stop them? Quit the puffery about offsets versus tax hikes and just kill the monster they helped make. The Senate would surely go along and the president would only too happily sign.
As it is, Republicans and Obama look like two firemen standing outside of a burning building arguing about whether to use water from the hydrant or the truck to put it out. “Wait until you see my press release blaming you!” screams one. “Oh yeah, well I’m going to hit you with the snarkiest Tweets ever!” screams the other.
Republicans have rhetorically contorted themselves into what Obama has long accused them of being: politicians who would harm the American economy and people in order to win a political fight with him. Their message is that they could stop the terrible thing, but won’t until Obama gives in.
What they have never really done is make an argument that having the cuts go into place is better than not.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“They are doing it because it's the only hope of a dollar worth of cuts out of this administration. This is in law. It's an amount that at least you can get by doing nothing. And unless they allow this to go ahead Obama will give you no cuts in an entire term and we're going to go over a Greek cliff.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.