Commentary Magazine


GOP Shouldn’t Fear Standing Up to Obama

With the sequester all but certain to go into effect at the end of the month, the only suspense associated with the topic is whether the Democratic expectation that the public will blame it all on the Republicans will be vindicated in the coming weeks. So far, polls show them to be largely correct, and should the administration’s predictions of post-sequester doom and gloom come true it may not be possible for the GOP to resist the pressure to give in to the president’s demands for more tax increases.

This belief in Republican defeat on the sequester is based in part on the experience of the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling deadlines, when the House majority believed it had no choice but to fold or face the wrath of an outraged nation. It may be that sequester-related chaos at the airports and the border–to cite two particular departments whose secretaries took to the airwaves in recent days to play Chicken Little–will be enough to stamped the GOP again. Of course, many Republicans are also rightly worried about the impact of the draconian across-the-board cuts on national defense. But integral to the idea that the party give in is the thesis that this confrontation will lead inevitably to victory for the Democrats in the 2014 midterms. But as Stu Rothenberg points out in Roll Call, this is a rather weak argument for those urging Republican sequester surrender.

Let’s concede that the sequester is a terrible idea (thank you Obama White House) and the consequences will be awful. The GOP, like the Democrats, was wrong to agree to it in order to get out of the 2011 debt ceiling impasse and they are paying a price for that mistake. But Republicans are right not to allow themselves to be bullied into submission only weeks after being bludgeoned into voting for tax increases with the idea that future deals would be about budget cuts, not more revenue being fed to the federal leviathan. Since President Obama has no credibility when it comes to promises about the entitlement reform that the country so desperately needs, or about making tough choices to reduce expenditures, GOP resistance to his pressure is justified.

But even if this means some bad poll numbers and public pressure, there is no reason to believe that this guarantees anything close to a Democratic takeover of the House next year.

First of all, whatever happens in the coming weeks isn’t likely to seriously impact what happens in November 2014. Twenty months is a lifetime in politics, and there’s no assurance that what seems like a matter of life and death today will motivate voters or even affect turnout then.

Like Rothenberg, I don’t think the GOP can count on historical trends, which almost always show the party that controls the White House losing seats in the midterms, bailing out House Speaker John Boehner and company, but there is also no clear path for the Democrats to give back the gavel to Nancy Pelosi. Partly, this is because there just aren’t many swing seats that present a reasonable hope for the Democrats. Having won almost every seat that was within reach last year, it’s hard to see how they better that showing by 17 seats in the next go-round.

Democrats are arguing that last year’s presidential election decided the question of which party was right on taxes and spending. But House Republicans can claim with justice that they were re-elected too, and their voters aren’t any more interested in increasing the size of government via more taxes and the president’s laundry list of new entitlements and programs to fund than they were a year ago.

The coming weeks may be rough sledding for Republicans, but any talk of the impact of the sequester on 2014 is, at best, premature. If they are inclined to stand their ground, as I think they should, the midterms ought not influence that decision.