The Sequester and the New Washington Reality

Published February 10, 2013

President Obama insists that he’s prepared for a fight over the sequester with House Republicans. But his remarks read less like a politician scrapping for a fight than one who’s had a troubling moment of clarity: this was a trap, and he walked into it.

Senate Democrats are scrambling to come up with an alternate plan. But those working in the Defense industry increasingly expect these cuts are coming, and that Republicans will heed Charles Krauthammer’s words: “The political calculation was that such draconian defense cuts would drive the GOP to offer concessions. It backfired.

The Republicans have offered no concessions. Obama’s bluff is being called and he’s the desperate party. He abhors the domestic cuts. And as commander in chief he must worry about indiscriminate Pentagon cuts that his own defense secretary calls catastrophic. So Tuesday, Obama urgently called on Congress to head off the sequester with a short-term fix. But instead of offering an alternative $1.2 trillion in cuts, Obama demanded a “balanced approach,” coupling any cuts with new tax increases. What should the Republicans do? Nothing.” 

Why did the White House walk into this trap? How did Obama and the Democrats get themselves in this box? Simple: they assumed the Washington Republican elite still represented the dominant paradigm in policy on the right.

This is where Chris Cillizza has it totally backwards, suggesting that the lack of a sequester deal is typical DC politicking of the path of least resistance. On the contrary, that path would be taking Paul Krugman’s advice to kick the can. The calculation the White House and the Senate Democrats made was that Republicans would take the same typical approach. “[A]dministration officials have acknowledged all along that sequestration was meant to be so terrible to prompt lawmakers to compromise and avoid it.” What do Republicans love more than anything else? Defense pork, of course! Load the sequester up with that, and they’ll do anything to prevent cuts from going into place.

Except this was a flawed hypothesis. Obama and his advisors failed to recognize that today’s GOP isn’t the party of Cold War era buildups or George W. Bush’s unrestricted war on terror any more. Perhaps this is a conceit forged by the DC bubble – neoconservatism’s influence is strongest in Washington, and begins to fade as soon as you hit the beltway.

Bill Kristol speaks for a faction of Republicans, not the party in toto. And while it is inconceivable to many in Washington that the Defense budget would ever be cut, the right’s grassroots base has dramatically shifted on this point over the past several years. This is not your pre-Tea Party GOP any more. This is a post-financial crisis, post-TARP, post-bailout Republican Party, where concerns about unrestricted spending and out of control budgets take precedence over concerns about spending at the Pentagon.

There were signals of the shift. The joint AEI/Heritage/FPI Defending Defense project has never caught on as much as you would expect in former years. Consider the freshman House split over the F-35 second engine vote a while back. 47 Republican freshmen voted to cut funding, 40 voted to keep it – and those who voted to cut included people like Allen West, while those who voted to keep included Michele Bachmann. When the engine was cut, libertarian anti-tax and Tea Party groups held celebratory parties.

The sequester provides us with a revealing moment, one when we can see how much the Republican Party has shifted fiscal conservatism and limited government back into their top priorities. And it tells us something about President Obama, too. For all of his promises of altering Washington, he’s thoroughly accepted and applied the traditional machine politics approaches to policy fights. He did so once again here, attempting to create a wedge he could exploit to extract more concessions from Republicans.

If Obama fails in doing so now because he assumed predictable business as usual, because he assumed Republicans would have no backbone on spending cuts when it encroaches into their traditional territory, it will reveal for the GOP a possible blind spot they can exploit in the future. And it will illustrate an important lesson, if they can accept it: it may be that the only way to beat someone as savvy as Obama is at all this is to fundamentally alter the accepted rules of the game.

Benjamin Domenech is editor of The Transom. Click here to subscribe.

[First published at RealClearPolitics.]