Commentary Magazine


Topic: sequester

Ideologues Shouldn’t Torpedo Budget Truce

The first reviews are in on the budget deal agreed to by Republican House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan and Democratic Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray, and people on both the left and the right have found plenty not to like about it. This is no grand bargain or long-term settlement of the great divide over how to achieve fiscal sanity.  It neither reins in spending nor does it provide for what Ryan has always said was most needed for the government to get its fiscal house in order: fundamental entitlement reform. That’s more than enough reason for many conservatives and Tea Partiers to reject it out of hand as an inadequate compromise that merely keeps feeding the government leviathan that they rightly believe needs to be cut back rather than maintained.

But, if, like the those on the left who will vote against it because it makes some cuts and doesn’t give them their wish list items like an expansion of unemployment benefits, conservatives manage to torpedo Ryan’s efforts, they will be making a huge mistake. After a three-year standoff between the parties on the budget, it was time for a truce. The modest deal restores certainty to the economy and eliminates some of the most painful sequester cuts, including those involving defense. Though it falls far short of anything that might be called reform, it does establish a principle that is necessary to it: any discretionary spending increases are offset by mandatory spending cuts. That is a step toward fiscal sanity that should be taken.

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The first reviews are in on the budget deal agreed to by Republican House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan and Democratic Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray, and people on both the left and the right have found plenty not to like about it. This is no grand bargain or long-term settlement of the great divide over how to achieve fiscal sanity.  It neither reins in spending nor does it provide for what Ryan has always said was most needed for the government to get its fiscal house in order: fundamental entitlement reform. That’s more than enough reason for many conservatives and Tea Partiers to reject it out of hand as an inadequate compromise that merely keeps feeding the government leviathan that they rightly believe needs to be cut back rather than maintained.

But, if, like the those on the left who will vote against it because it makes some cuts and doesn’t give them their wish list items like an expansion of unemployment benefits, conservatives manage to torpedo Ryan’s efforts, they will be making a huge mistake. After a three-year standoff between the parties on the budget, it was time for a truce. The modest deal restores certainty to the economy and eliminates some of the most painful sequester cuts, including those involving defense. Though it falls far short of anything that might be called reform, it does establish a principle that is necessary to it: any discretionary spending increases are offset by mandatory spending cuts. That is a step toward fiscal sanity that should be taken.

Those on the right who are dismayed about the abandonment of the sequester have a point. Only by insisting on mandatory and draconian across-the-board cuts have Republicans been able to make any kind of an impact on the fiscal debate. But as useful as the sequester has been, it is too imprecise an instrument to become a permanent part of the process. As our Max Boot has repeatedly pointed out, the cuts that have been imposed on defense are damaging national security and must, sooner or later, be eliminated.

Many on the right are also denouncing Ryan’s deal not just because it doesn’t give them what they want on taxes and spending but because they don’t see the need to compromise at this moment. They see President Obama’s poll numbers falling and think the time is right to push hard again for the kind of reform that is needed, not an agreement that merely kicks the can down the road. But this is the same kind of faulty thinking from groups like Heritage Action and Freedom Works that led conservatives to shut down the government as part of a vain effort to defund ObamaCare. Apparently they’ve learned nothing from that debacle.

This is exactly the wrong time for the GOP to go back to a scenario where they can be depicted as impeding efforts to keep the government working. Doing so would distract the country from the ongoing worries about the devastating impact of ObamaCare on individuals and the economy.

Tactics aside, the deal is necessary because it reflects the reality of divided government that both President Obama and the Tea Party have been butting heads over ever since the 2010 midterms. Under the current circumstances there is simply no way for either the Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives or the Democrats running the White House and the Senate to get their way. The accord reached between Ryan and Murray is simply an acknowledgement of this fact and an effort to keep the nation on an even keel until we can have another election to try and resolve this mess next November.

Avoiding compromise and setting off another cataclysmic fight over the budget or the debt ceiling (the latter is not part of this deal, leaving both parties free to set off another confrontation sometime in 2014 if they wish) satisfies the conservative impulse to draw a line in the sand over an ever-expanding government. But, as Ryan has said, Congress must deal with the world as it is rather than merely operate on the basis of how they’d like it to be. The only hope of getting closer to real entitlement reform is for the GOP to win the 2014 midterms. Some on the right are still laboring under the delusion that staging another shutdown or threatening a default is the right way to make their case to the country. But only someone utterly insensitive to the mood of the country would think that is either good politics or good public policy. If they go back to those tactics, Republicans will be forfeiting any chance of winning back the Senate in the coming year.

There’s little doubt that Republicans worried about primary challenges from the right or thinking about running for president in 2016 will be inclined to eschew any such compromise. But passing this budget will give their party a shot at winning in the midterms and take the wind out of the Democratic effort to paint them as irresponsible. Compromise is often the coward’s way out and leads to more trouble. But in this case, it is simply good sense. Though the cuts it imposes are no more than a rounding error, Republicans will do well to take what they can rather than to seek the impossible and thus render more progress less likely.

A truce is something you embrace when it will enable you to go back into the fray better prepared to prevail. Ryan is smart enough to know this, even if some of his colleagues don’t. It’s time for the GOP to keep its powder dry and come back to the table when they’ve got the votes and the seats to pass the kind of reform budget that Ryan and the rest of his party would prefer.

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Sequester Isn’t a GOP Achievement

Boy do I miss Leon Panetta. That’s no knock on his successor as defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, who has done a better than expected job. At least he hasn’t done anything that has triggered much controversy. But Panetta has a well-justified reputation for plain speaking, and his voice is now worth listening to, more than ever, because he is one of the few people in Washington still reminding us of the continuing costs of budget sequestration.

The rest of the political class has moved on: the subjects du jour are the aftermath of the government shutdown and yet another looming fight over yet another deadline to raise the debt ceiling yet again. But sequestration–which amounts to $1 trillion in budget cuts over the next decade, half of them hitting the armed forces–remains in effect and the negative consequences continue to pile up.

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Boy do I miss Leon Panetta. That’s no knock on his successor as defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, who has done a better than expected job. At least he hasn’t done anything that has triggered much controversy. But Panetta has a well-justified reputation for plain speaking, and his voice is now worth listening to, more than ever, because he is one of the few people in Washington still reminding us of the continuing costs of budget sequestration.

The rest of the political class has moved on: the subjects du jour are the aftermath of the government shutdown and yet another looming fight over yet another deadline to raise the debt ceiling yet again. But sequestration–which amounts to $1 trillion in budget cuts over the next decade, half of them hitting the armed forces–remains in effect and the negative consequences continue to pile up.

On “Meet the Press” last Sunday; Panetta reminded viewers “our readiness has been badly damaged.” Earlier, in the Washington Post, he elaborated on the impact:

Fewer than half of the Air Force’s frontline fighters are combat-ready; 12 combat squadrons have been grounded; key Combat Training Center rotations have been canceled; multiple ship deployments, including the USS Truman carrier strike group, have been canceled; and furloughs for 650,000 civilian employees continue, resulting in a 20 percent pay reduction during every furlough week. These and other effects of sequestration are weakening the United States’ ability to respond effectively to a major crisis in the world beyond the war zone in Afghanistan.

Panetta concludes correctly: “To have this happen under any circumstance is irresponsible. To have it happen as the result of a self-inflicted wound is outrageous.” He notes that every member of the Congressional leadership he has talked to, whether Republican or Democrat, agrees with his analysis yet they tell him to give up the fight because “Congress is resigned to failure.”

But while the failure may be Congress’s–and the president’s–the consequences will be borne by the entire country. If the armed forces are not ready for future emergencies, the impact on America’s standing will be dire–and, even worse, good men and women in uniform will die needlessly. That is the direct consequences of Washington’s shameful failure to turn off sequestration. That some on the right are now touting sequestration as a major Republican Party achievement shows how far the GOP has lost its way.

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The Challenge of Making Commonsense Cuts to the Pentagon

Those of us who are opposed to major cuts in the defense budget–which, on the current trajectory, will amount to a trillion dollars over the next decade–often hear this objection: But isn’t there a lot of waste in the massive Pentagon budget? Surely it’s possible to eliminate needless spending while preserving essential weapons and capabilities. Possible, yes, but not likely. Because cutting the Pentagon budget is not an arid academic exercise. It is an intensely political process where fat often gets shielded while muscle gets cut.

To see what I mean, read this fascinating Washington Post article which details how a Pentagon consultant identified $1 billion in unnecessary spending: That’s the amount the Pentagon spends to run giant commissaries on domestic military bases that replicate the functions of nearby supermarkets while underselling them by roughly 30 percent. (You could achieve even greater cuts by closing unnecessary commissaries in advanced countries such as South Korea, Japan, and Germany where there is no shortage of supermarkets.)

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Those of us who are opposed to major cuts in the defense budget–which, on the current trajectory, will amount to a trillion dollars over the next decade–often hear this objection: But isn’t there a lot of waste in the massive Pentagon budget? Surely it’s possible to eliminate needless spending while preserving essential weapons and capabilities. Possible, yes, but not likely. Because cutting the Pentagon budget is not an arid academic exercise. It is an intensely political process where fat often gets shielded while muscle gets cut.

To see what I mean, read this fascinating Washington Post article which details how a Pentagon consultant identified $1 billion in unnecessary spending: That’s the amount the Pentagon spends to run giant commissaries on domestic military bases that replicate the functions of nearby supermarkets while underselling them by roughly 30 percent. (You could achieve even greater cuts by closing unnecessary commissaries in advanced countries such as South Korea, Japan, and Germany where there is no shortage of supermarkets.)

This consultant talked to Wal-Mart and the giant retailer agreed to give military families, both active duty and retirees, the same discount at their stores as they currently receive at the commissaries. Since Wal-Mart has stores within 10 miles of most military bases (and since other retailers would no doubt emulate its example), this would seem like a no-brainer: the government would save $1 billion and military families would still have access to low-cost groceries.

But as soon as news of the proposed plan leaked out, veterans’ organizations and the commissary organization got busy lobbying against it. Members of Congress intervened to protect the commissaries. Then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates decided to shelve the plan for fear of losing a bruising battle.

That’s what happens to well-intentioned plans to cut unnecessary spending in the real world of Washington. Meanwhile, military end-strength and training–which apparently doesn’t have as much of a constituency–is being cut, thereby jeopardizing the military’s ability to respond to a crisis.

Faced with this unpalatable reality, we are faced with essentially two choices: either keeping the military budget as is and accepting some needless spending or cutting the military budget and getting rid of vital capabilities while preserving a lot of needless spending. I would opt for the former option, especially since military spending today, at less than 4 percent of GDP, is hardly unsustainable. But Washington, in its wisdom, is opting by default for the latter option.

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UN Chutzpah and the Refugee Racket

Between the national security cuts in the sequester and the new scrutiny to which foreign aid is being subjected in a time of budget belt-tightening, those abroad looking for American taxpayer cash have something of a hill to climb. And just like with any foreign affairs issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict commands its fair share of attention. With regard to foreign aid to Middle East governments, it can be argued that while such aid should come with strings, those checks should still be signed lest rogue regimes fill the vacuum with their own cash and influence.

This is certainly the argument that usually prevails when it comes to the Palestinian Authority. Though some in Congress considered punishing the PA for its unilateral declaration of statehood at the UN, even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has argued against cutting their funding, which could risk the collapse of Mahmoud Abbas’s government and speed up the rise of Hamas in the West Bank. But there’s another Palestinian interest group in Washington this week to lobby for taxpayer cash, and it will likely not find nearly so sympathetic an audience: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has worked for decades to keep Palestinians in squalid refugee camps and radicalizing schools while helping to prop up Hamas, provide terrorists with jobs, and fleece American taxpayers–all while utilizing a definition of “refugee” at odds with American law and practice. Josh Rogin reports on his interview with UNRWA commissioner general Filippo Grandi:

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Between the national security cuts in the sequester and the new scrutiny to which foreign aid is being subjected in a time of budget belt-tightening, those abroad looking for American taxpayer cash have something of a hill to climb. And just like with any foreign affairs issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict commands its fair share of attention. With regard to foreign aid to Middle East governments, it can be argued that while such aid should come with strings, those checks should still be signed lest rogue regimes fill the vacuum with their own cash and influence.

This is certainly the argument that usually prevails when it comes to the Palestinian Authority. Though some in Congress considered punishing the PA for its unilateral declaration of statehood at the UN, even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has argued against cutting their funding, which could risk the collapse of Mahmoud Abbas’s government and speed up the rise of Hamas in the West Bank. But there’s another Palestinian interest group in Washington this week to lobby for taxpayer cash, and it will likely not find nearly so sympathetic an audience: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has worked for decades to keep Palestinians in squalid refugee camps and radicalizing schools while helping to prop up Hamas, provide terrorists with jobs, and fleece American taxpayers–all while utilizing a definition of “refugee” at odds with American law and practice. Josh Rogin reports on his interview with UNRWA commissioner general Filippo Grandi:

Grandi said that U.S. contributions to UNRWA, which are voluntary, are needed more than ever due to the dire situation of Palestinian refugees caught up in the Syria crisis. Right now, the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration require that all accounts be cut evenly, but Congress is expected to provide the State Department flexibility in deciding what to cut. Grandi said he feels confident State won’t choose to disproportionately cut money for UNRWA.

UNRWA and the refugee issue have been in the news over the past year, as Illinois Senator Mark Kirk has sought to clarify the actual number of refugees from the standpoint of American policy and how they are counted. It’s controversial because UNRWA counts refugees differently than the U.S. does, and in fact differently than other UN agencies do for other refugee populations. Neither UNRWA nor its supporters at the State Department want to conduct such a count, because it would reveal that UNRWA is overcounting refugees by several hundred percent in order to gain funding for them. American taxpayers might wonder why UNRWA is allowed to make up its own rules in order to gain access to more of their money. They might also object to the fact that UNRWA has thrust itself into the conflict as a partisan actor and not as an “independent” or “nonpolitical” aid organization, and ask why they should have to fund its efforts to delegitimize Israel and prolong the conflict on which it depends for its money.

In May 2012, Rogin reported on the initial controversy. The State Department criticized Kirk’s legislation, saying Foggy Bottom “cannot support legislation which would force the United States to make a public judgment on the number and status of Palestinian refugees.” The State Department then expressly contradicted itself by telling Rogin that there were 5 million Palestinian refugees and that the State Department agrees with UNRWA in how to count them, despite being inconsistent with American law. In other words, the State Department absolutely believes the U.S. can and should “make a public judgment on the number and status of Palestinian refugees,” as long as that judgment accords with what these individual officials believe, and that the outcome of certain final-status issues should be pre-judged, as long as those issues are pre-judged in the Palestinians’ favor.

Of course, there’s a reason those considered by UNRWA to be refugees need aid–and it’s not the behavior of Israel or the U.S. Leila Hilal of the New America Foundation told Rogin that (emphasis mine) “to honestly determine which Palestinians remain refugees, one would have to wade into a long, complicated legal and factual analysis about which Palestinians in the region have adequate national protection that would end their refugee status.” And a State Department official told Rogin that Palestinian refugees remain under refugee status “until they return home or are resettled in a third country.”

That is, as long as the Arab states in the region mistreat them, the Palestinians will remain eligible for American “refugee” cash, which will be distributed by agencies who work with the regimes responsible for this racket. As you can see, it isn’t easy to justify making exceptions to American budget cuts to preserve cash that incentivizes and rewards Arab states’ abuse of Palestinian migrants and is distributed to and by Hamas and its allies. But I suppose you can’t blame UNRWA for trying.

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Obama’s Second Term Troubles Have Begun

In the aftermath of President Obama’s now-obvious-to-all sequester overreach–in which he first predicted the end of the world as we know it, then backed away from those claims once the cuts went into effect, then attempted to inflict maximum pain on the American people, and is now blaming the Secret Service for the stupid and unnecessary decision to shut down White House tours–something is changing.

President Obama’s RealClearPolitics.com approval rating is in the 40s. His disapproval rating exceeds his approval rating in three different polls (Fox, McClatchy/Marist, and Quinnipiac). Congressional Democrats are beginning to grouse. And according to a Washington Post story yesterday, Mr. Obama’s approval rating at this early stage in his second term is among the lowest of any president in the post-World War II era.

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In the aftermath of President Obama’s now-obvious-to-all sequester overreach–in which he first predicted the end of the world as we know it, then backed away from those claims once the cuts went into effect, then attempted to inflict maximum pain on the American people, and is now blaming the Secret Service for the stupid and unnecessary decision to shut down White House tours–something is changing.

President Obama’s RealClearPolitics.com approval rating is in the 40s. His disapproval rating exceeds his approval rating in three different polls (Fox, McClatchy/Marist, and Quinnipiac). Congressional Democrats are beginning to grouse. And according to a Washington Post story yesterday, Mr. Obama’s approval rating at this early stage in his second term is among the lowest of any president in the post-World War II era.

According to the Washington Post-ABC News poll, half of independents express a negative opinion of the president’s performance; just 44 percent approve.
 A majority of Americans give Obama negative marks on handling the economy. And the president has only a four-percentage-point lead over Republicans when it comes to whom the public trusts more to deal with the economy.

This is clearly not where a president who is less than two months into his second term wants to be. But in some respects, it’s not all that surprising. Mr. Obama, while he won his contest with Governor Romney fairly handily, was not a particularly popular president for most of his first term–and the key elements of his agenda are decidedly unpopular.

It hasn’t helped the president that the transition period was characterized by a fractious debate with Republicans over the so-called fiscal cliff, followed by an equally fractious debate with Republicans over sequestration. The public appears to be tiring of these Obama-manufactured crises. And polling indicates that they are tiring as well of tax increases, which is at the heart of Obama’s economic theory, such as it is. So the president’s standing is fairly weak.

That could of course change; public opinion polls are ephemeral and the currents in politics can shift quickly. That said, I believe that one of the most important political facts of Obama’s second term will be the increasing unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act, which is the crowning domestic achievement of the Obama presidency.

It’s never been popular, even when it passed–and it’s gotten less popular over time. Moreover, it’s noxious effects are only now beginning to be felt–and they’ll get worse, not better, as more and more of this monstrously unworkable plan begins to kick in.

My assumption is that by the middle and end of Obama’s second term, reactionary liberalism, having been tried, will have failed. Badly. At that point the public will turn its lonely eyes to Republicans. They need to be ready. My guess is they will be.

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Dinner Diplomacy Shows GOP Strength

Ever since the November election, the conventional wisdom of the political world has been that the Republican Party has made itself irrelevant. President Obama seemed to agree with this point of view and has acted as if his re-election meant that the opposition should just shut up. That attempt to bully the GOP into inaction–if not silence–seemed to be working well during the fiscal cliff crisis when the president forced the House Republican caucus to give in on tax increases. However, the notion that the presidential election was a signal for the GOP to abandon its principles and simply knuckle under to the White House’s demands is not holding up as well as it was only a few weeks ago.

The president’s hard line on taxes helped ensure that the sequester budget cuts would go into effect. He was sure that a public backlash against the GOP would soon force them to their knees. To that end, he and members of the Cabinet launched a campaign not only claiming the cuts would grievously affect the lives of ordinary Americans but also blaming an idea that was hatched in the White House on Republicans. Yet with the Democrats’ statements looking like a case of crying wolf, the pressure that was supposedly going to bring Republicans to their knees is proving to be a figment of the imagination of both Obama and his media cheerleaders. The GOP is standing its ground and it is the president’s polling numbers rather than theirs that are sinking.

It is in that context that the president’s latest tactic for dealing with Republicans needs to be understood. Last night’s dinner with a dozen Republican senators at a fancy Washington venue and today’s lunch with Representative Paul Ryan suggest the White House is waving the white flag on its assumption that it can bulldoze Congress. After more than four years, the president is finally learning that if he wants to get something done, relying on demagoguery alone is a formula for failure.

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Ever since the November election, the conventional wisdom of the political world has been that the Republican Party has made itself irrelevant. President Obama seemed to agree with this point of view and has acted as if his re-election meant that the opposition should just shut up. That attempt to bully the GOP into inaction–if not silence–seemed to be working well during the fiscal cliff crisis when the president forced the House Republican caucus to give in on tax increases. However, the notion that the presidential election was a signal for the GOP to abandon its principles and simply knuckle under to the White House’s demands is not holding up as well as it was only a few weeks ago.

The president’s hard line on taxes helped ensure that the sequester budget cuts would go into effect. He was sure that a public backlash against the GOP would soon force them to their knees. To that end, he and members of the Cabinet launched a campaign not only claiming the cuts would grievously affect the lives of ordinary Americans but also blaming an idea that was hatched in the White House on Republicans. Yet with the Democrats’ statements looking like a case of crying wolf, the pressure that was supposedly going to bring Republicans to their knees is proving to be a figment of the imagination of both Obama and his media cheerleaders. The GOP is standing its ground and it is the president’s polling numbers rather than theirs that are sinking.

It is in that context that the president’s latest tactic for dealing with Republicans needs to be understood. Last night’s dinner with a dozen Republican senators at a fancy Washington venue and today’s lunch with Representative Paul Ryan suggest the White House is waving the white flag on its assumption that it can bulldoze Congress. After more than four years, the president is finally learning that if he wants to get something done, relying on demagoguery alone is a formula for failure.

No one should mistake this long put-off outreach to the other side of the aisle as a sign that the correlation of forces in Washington does not favor the president and the Democrats. Control of both the White House and the Senate gives them the preponderance of power and responsibility. But just as it is impossible for Republicans to govern the country from the House of Representatives, so, too, is it impossible for President Obama to act as if he can merely give orders to his opponents. But the shift in White House tactics shows that the GOP isn’t nearly as weak or powerless as many have assumed it to be.

It’s not clear that any amount of haute cuisine consumed at the same table by both Democrats and Republicans will ensure compromise on the sequester, let alone a grand bargain on the tax reform. But whether or not these Republicans succumb to the president’s dubious charms it is still a healthy sign for both sides of this standoff to understand that they must work with each other. Much of the media has promoted the idea that it is only the Republicans who are motivated by ideology. But the president’s liberal beliefs about soaking the rich and expanding government power are just as much of a factor as any of the Tea Party’s principles. The two sides may never bridge the gap between their positions, but if the president has stopped pretending that he needn’t negotiate in good faith then perhaps we are taking a step toward ending the dysfunctional dispute that has brought Washington to a standstill.

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The Military and the Monument Syndrome

Over the course of the past weeks as we’ve covered the sequester crisis, I have agreed with Max Boot that the impact of the sequester on the military is especially regrettable. After years of cuts it has suffered at the hands of the Obama administration, and with threats to our security around the globe getting more serious, this is no time to try to fund national defense on the cheap. But I part company with Max when he insists that the manner with which the unfortunate sequester cuts are being implemented cannot be questioned.

In his most recent post on the subject, Max takes George Will to task for voicing suspicions that the U.S. Navy’s decision to keep a second aircraft carrier at home rather than deploy it to the Persian Gulf as part of the cutbacks is just another attempt to hype hysteria about the sequester. I’d rather the Navy not be forced to cut a dime, but I share Will’s doubts that there was no better way to trim expenses than to keep the USS Harry S. Truman in port or to stop pilot training. Like the threats being voiced last week by various Cabinet secretaries about the impending sequestration apocalypse that don’t seem to have materialized, the Truman’s extended shore leave seems to me to be a classic case of the military employing its own version of the Washington Monument syndrome.

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Over the course of the past weeks as we’ve covered the sequester crisis, I have agreed with Max Boot that the impact of the sequester on the military is especially regrettable. After years of cuts it has suffered at the hands of the Obama administration, and with threats to our security around the globe getting more serious, this is no time to try to fund national defense on the cheap. But I part company with Max when he insists that the manner with which the unfortunate sequester cuts are being implemented cannot be questioned.

In his most recent post on the subject, Max takes George Will to task for voicing suspicions that the U.S. Navy’s decision to keep a second aircraft carrier at home rather than deploy it to the Persian Gulf as part of the cutbacks is just another attempt to hype hysteria about the sequester. I’d rather the Navy not be forced to cut a dime, but I share Will’s doubts that there was no better way to trim expenses than to keep the USS Harry S. Truman in port or to stop pilot training. Like the threats being voiced last week by various Cabinet secretaries about the impending sequestration apocalypse that don’t seem to have materialized, the Truman’s extended shore leave seems to me to be a classic case of the military employing its own version of the Washington Monument syndrome.

Max says Will is wrong to imply that our admirals would do such a thing without proof. Maybe he’s right, but I’d bet most Americans aren’t willing to salute the brass hats or their political masters on this call.

This sort of budgetary trick is called the Washington Monument syndrome because it calls for any government agency that is forced to cut expenses to eliminate spending that is most visible rather than that which is most superfluous. Thus, if you are a government bureaucrat who must stop spending on something, you choose to shutter the Monument or Mount Rushmore or lay off firemen rather than fire clerks or stop spending on other non-essential projects because those kinds of cuts are far more visible and therefore more likely to create pressure on politicians to restore funding.

In the case of the Navy, I’m sure that any cuts it had to implement would hurt our security and/or make the job that our brave sailors and marines have to do that much harder. But it is difficult to view a decision to thin out our forces in Persian Gulf at a time when the need to deter Iran is growing as anything more than a naval Washington Monument.

I share Max’s respect for our military, but asking us to believe that its leaders are above stunts to increase funding or to avert cuts is not merely naïve, it requires us to ignore much of the history of our armed services. Generals and admirals, as well as the Pentagon’s civilian leadership, may be entitled to more deference on some issues than those in charge of less heroic endeavors, but they are just as capable of orchestrating events to highlight what they believe are their needs as any other part of the government. And when they do things like cancel troop and naval deployments and vital training in order to make a point about the sequester, I think it is up to them to prove to us that there was no alternative to such dangerous decisions rather than for skeptics to prove the opposite.

It would be better if the White House had never thought up the sequester and the Congress had not agreed to it. But as much as the armed services are a victim of Washington’s dysfunctional political culture, there is no escaping the conclusion that much of what we have heard about the impact of the sequester is overblown. If they want us to believe that the Defense Department is not as guilty of trying to manipulate the crisis as the Department of Transportation, they’re going to have to do better than merely pull rank on people like George Will.

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ObamaCare and the Sequester Ideologues

The administration’s main talking point in the debate about the sequester has been that a “balanced” deal is being stymied by a band of ruthless conservative ideologues in the House of Representatives. This narrative, which has been endlessly echoed in the mainstream media, is based on the idea that conservative opposition to the idea of raising taxes has so distorted the Republican Party that it is unable to do the right thing, strike a deal with a president, and avert the looming draconian budget cuts. There is some truth in the assertion that the current Republican caucus is far more influenced by a desire to adhere to conservative principle than was the case with their predecessors. The problem with that argument is that it has been just as apparent that, far from advocating true balance, the Democrats are just as committed to their own ideological point of view about the budget as the GOP. Since the government has a spending problem rather than one of taxing too little, the White House’s hard line about there being no deal without more revenue has always been a reflection of their own beliefs about the need to expand government rather than shrink it. However, the administration’s attempt this week to scare the country silly about the sequester has revealed even more about the way ideology has influenced their stand.

After a week of doom and gloom predictions from Cabinet secretaries about the world coming to an end if the government is forced to live without spending more than it was shelling out when Barack Obama became president, it looks as if the public isn’t buying the Democrats’ Chicken Little routine. The impact of these cuts will be felt across the board in indiscriminate and often stupid ways, especially those affecting national defense, but it looks as if everyone understands that civilization is not about to come to a standstill because of the sequester. Yet it is highly instructive that amid all the shrieks of grief and horror about the anticipated cuts that may well be implemented by the administration to maximize the pain felt by the public, there is one piece of discretionary spending not already protected in the sequester legislation (which exempts things like military pay and entitlement spending) that will not be halted by the shortfall: the implementation of ObamaCare. As Politico reports today, there are no plans to slow or even postpone the costly expansion of government power no matter how much the administration tries to play the “Washington Monument” game, in which cuts are made so as to emphasize the costs of the measure:

The Obama administration has issued ample warnings how the sequester can have dire effects on health programs. Official talk about fewer vaccines, cuts in medical research grants, less money to treat HIV, fund cancer screenings or respond to outbreaks. But they haven’t been issuing a lot of warnings about how it’s slowing down the rollout of Obamacare.

Because sequester or no sequester, the administration is trying to keep work on the core elements full steam ahead. The Department of Health and Human Services wouldn’t respond to questions about the automatic budget cuts and health law implementation. But both advocates and critics of the law expect HHS to use all the flexibility it can muster to keep it moving — although it could get harder if the sequestration is prolonged.

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The administration’s main talking point in the debate about the sequester has been that a “balanced” deal is being stymied by a band of ruthless conservative ideologues in the House of Representatives. This narrative, which has been endlessly echoed in the mainstream media, is based on the idea that conservative opposition to the idea of raising taxes has so distorted the Republican Party that it is unable to do the right thing, strike a deal with a president, and avert the looming draconian budget cuts. There is some truth in the assertion that the current Republican caucus is far more influenced by a desire to adhere to conservative principle than was the case with their predecessors. The problem with that argument is that it has been just as apparent that, far from advocating true balance, the Democrats are just as committed to their own ideological point of view about the budget as the GOP. Since the government has a spending problem rather than one of taxing too little, the White House’s hard line about there being no deal without more revenue has always been a reflection of their own beliefs about the need to expand government rather than shrink it. However, the administration’s attempt this week to scare the country silly about the sequester has revealed even more about the way ideology has influenced their stand.

After a week of doom and gloom predictions from Cabinet secretaries about the world coming to an end if the government is forced to live without spending more than it was shelling out when Barack Obama became president, it looks as if the public isn’t buying the Democrats’ Chicken Little routine. The impact of these cuts will be felt across the board in indiscriminate and often stupid ways, especially those affecting national defense, but it looks as if everyone understands that civilization is not about to come to a standstill because of the sequester. Yet it is highly instructive that amid all the shrieks of grief and horror about the anticipated cuts that may well be implemented by the administration to maximize the pain felt by the public, there is one piece of discretionary spending not already protected in the sequester legislation (which exempts things like military pay and entitlement spending) that will not be halted by the shortfall: the implementation of ObamaCare. As Politico reports today, there are no plans to slow or even postpone the costly expansion of government power no matter how much the administration tries to play the “Washington Monument” game, in which cuts are made so as to emphasize the costs of the measure:

The Obama administration has issued ample warnings how the sequester can have dire effects on health programs. Official talk about fewer vaccines, cuts in medical research grants, less money to treat HIV, fund cancer screenings or respond to outbreaks. But they haven’t been issuing a lot of warnings about how it’s slowing down the rollout of Obamacare.

Because sequester or no sequester, the administration is trying to keep work on the core elements full steam ahead. The Department of Health and Human Services wouldn’t respond to questions about the automatic budget cuts and health law implementation. But both advocates and critics of the law expect HHS to use all the flexibility it can muster to keep it moving — although it could get harder if the sequestration is prolonged.

The point to be gleaned from this is not just that the administration thinks ObamaCare is so sacred that its funding must be protected even as it claims vital services must be sacrificed because of the sequester (which the White House thought up in the first place). It is that its commitment to its big government agenda is the guiding principle that animates everything it does. That is the sort of thing that leads Republicans to believe that any compromise on their part that provides more revenue to government will go toward furthering the president’s laundry list of new spending projects as well as his signature health care legislation that will deepen our budget woes rather than solve them.

The decision to prioritize the ObamaCare rollout gives the lie to the administration’s phony crisis talk this week. But it also illustrates just how deep the ideological commitment to spending and taxing is inside the White House. There is nothing balanced about an approach to the budget crisis that places the new health care plan on a pedestal that vital services such as air traffic control, border security and education (all of which we have been told will be drastically affected by the sequester) do not merit in the view of the administration.

Having gotten its way on raising taxes in January in the fiscal cliff negotiations, a balanced approach might have impelled the administration to work with Republicans and put talk of more tax increases on the shelf. Instead, imbued with the fervor of true believers, the president and his minions have steered the country into the ditch in the name of their faith in expanding government. They may have fooled their cheerleaders in the press into buying their party line about their opponents being extremists, but everything they have done in the past months has only reinforced the impression that they aren’t serious about cutting spending or balancing the budget.

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War on Woodward May Be a Tipping Point

A week ago, the White House was absolutely sure that its position on the sequester would prevail and that the Republicans would soon be surrendering on the president’s demands for even more new taxes in order to avoid the implementation of the draconian across-the-board budget cuts. Most of the press, backed by polls that showed the unpopularity of Republicans, agreed. But the discussion has shifted a bit in the last few days and the administration’s confidence in its ability to prevail in this political struggle has to be slightly shaken, even if they are not publicly admitting it. Part of the president’s problem is that the attempts of the secretaries of transportation and homeland security to scare the public about airport delays and the border if the sequester went ahead sounded fake and appeared to be politically motivated. But just as important was the intervention into the debate of an icon of liberal journalism: the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward.

Woodward’s op-ed reminded the public that the sequester was the White House’s idea and that any attempt to include a request for more taxes into the discussion of putting it off was “moving the goalposts.” While seemingly just one voice among many talking heads, the Woodward assertions touched a nerve in the White House and set off a furious back-and-forth argument that betrayed the administration’s sensitivity to criticism as well as a thuggish intolerance for anyone who would try to alter their hand-crafted narrative about the issue. Most of the attention on this spat today is focused on a senior White House official’s threat to Woodward that he would “regret” contradicting the president’s chosen spin.

This has provoked a discussion about how this administration and its predecessors have used threats about future access to intimidate journalists. This is a long and unfortunate tradition, and it often works when applied to less influential persons than the man who was portrayed by Robert Redford in the film account of his Watergate reporting that took down Richard Nixon. But there is more at work here than just a case of White House flacks picking a fight with the wrong guy. The problem here for President Obama is that the willingness of Woodward to expose the falsity of the administration’s position on the sequester, as well as their threat, could mark the beginning of the end of the administration’s magic touch with the mainstream press.

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A week ago, the White House was absolutely sure that its position on the sequester would prevail and that the Republicans would soon be surrendering on the president’s demands for even more new taxes in order to avoid the implementation of the draconian across-the-board budget cuts. Most of the press, backed by polls that showed the unpopularity of Republicans, agreed. But the discussion has shifted a bit in the last few days and the administration’s confidence in its ability to prevail in this political struggle has to be slightly shaken, even if they are not publicly admitting it. Part of the president’s problem is that the attempts of the secretaries of transportation and homeland security to scare the public about airport delays and the border if the sequester went ahead sounded fake and appeared to be politically motivated. But just as important was the intervention into the debate of an icon of liberal journalism: the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward.

Woodward’s op-ed reminded the public that the sequester was the White House’s idea and that any attempt to include a request for more taxes into the discussion of putting it off was “moving the goalposts.” While seemingly just one voice among many talking heads, the Woodward assertions touched a nerve in the White House and set off a furious back-and-forth argument that betrayed the administration’s sensitivity to criticism as well as a thuggish intolerance for anyone who would try to alter their hand-crafted narrative about the issue. Most of the attention on this spat today is focused on a senior White House official’s threat to Woodward that he would “regret” contradicting the president’s chosen spin.

This has provoked a discussion about how this administration and its predecessors have used threats about future access to intimidate journalists. This is a long and unfortunate tradition, and it often works when applied to less influential persons than the man who was portrayed by Robert Redford in the film account of his Watergate reporting that took down Richard Nixon. But there is more at work here than just a case of White House flacks picking a fight with the wrong guy. The problem here for President Obama is that the willingness of Woodward to expose the falsity of the administration’s position on the sequester, as well as their threat, could mark the beginning of the end of the administration’s magic touch with the mainstream press.

Last week, Politico’s feature on the ability of the Obama White House to manipulate the coverage they received generated a heated discussion about whether the supine attitude of mainstream journalists toward the president was the result of clever tactics and not, as they claimed, liberal bias. I agreed that the administration had broken new ground in employing smart ways to bypass and frustrate the working press, but pointed out the obvious fact that these strategies wouldn’t work half so well if the vast majority of the publications and networks that employ the journalists weren’t happy to roll over for Obama. No president has received the sort of adulation and fawning coverage from the mainstream since the halcyon days of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot White House.

While the Woodward rebellion hasn’t really altered that reality, it is a sign that his expectation that he will be treated with kid gloves for four more years may not be fulfilled. That the administration is pushing back so hard on Woodward betrays their worry that if the Watergate icon can get away with saying the emperor has no clothes, lesser mortals will soon be tempted to do it too.

As important as the sequester may be, this spat is about more than just that issue. The White House has assumed all along that its narrative about the budget cuts and the need for more taxes–even after the recent hikes enacted to avert the fiscal cliff as well as the raise in payroll deductions–would never be contradicted by what has been their active cheering section in the press corps.

As Max pointed out, there are good reasons to fear the effect of the sequester. But the idea that the president can bulldoze his way through Republican opposition to his big government agenda armed with the notion that the public and the media will unite behind him has been shaken. Today, even the still loyal New York Times admitted the public might not be panicked into pressuring the Republicans into submission. If the White House is today waging an unexpected war on Bob Woodward, it is because they fear the beginning of the end of their four-year honeymoon with the media.

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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.

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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. 

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The Sequester Airport Shakedown

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been under fire the past few days for his role as one of the leading front men for the president’s effort to scare Americans about the sequester. There are good reasons to fear the impact of these across-the-board spending cuts, especially to defense, as Max wrote last week. But the manner in which the administration is attempting to claim that the country’s business will grind to a halt is prompting some skepticism about the sequester as well as the government’s credibility.

There’s no doubt the sequester will inflict real pain on the Department of Transportation and other government sectors. But Republicans are publicly wondering whether that pain will be disproportionately applied to services that will directly affect the public as opposed to other, far less vital expenditures that might well be eliminated without creating the sort of havoc that the White House has been warning us about. Who is right? We’ll find out soon enough, as at this point either side of this argument can say anything it wants without fear of being proven wrong. But once the sequester starts going into effect it will be possible to see whether the government is being straight with the public or not. That’s the danger for the White House.

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Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been under fire the past few days for his role as one of the leading front men for the president’s effort to scare Americans about the sequester. There are good reasons to fear the impact of these across-the-board spending cuts, especially to defense, as Max wrote last week. But the manner in which the administration is attempting to claim that the country’s business will grind to a halt is prompting some skepticism about the sequester as well as the government’s credibility.

There’s no doubt the sequester will inflict real pain on the Department of Transportation and other government sectors. But Republicans are publicly wondering whether that pain will be disproportionately applied to services that will directly affect the public as opposed to other, far less vital expenditures that might well be eliminated without creating the sort of havoc that the White House has been warning us about. Who is right? We’ll find out soon enough, as at this point either side of this argument can say anything it wants without fear of being proven wrong. But once the sequester starts going into effect it will be possible to see whether the government is being straight with the public or not. That’s the danger for the White House.

Up until this week, the contest to see who will get the lion’s share of the blame for the sequester has been the main event in Washington. Part of that was involved in the White House’s effort to disavow the paternity of this awful idea. But now that Bob Woodward has blown that up, they are back to their main task of arguing that any suffering or inconvenience that stems from the measure will be due to the GOP refusing to accept the president’s demands and raise taxes. While talking about the long-term impact of layoffs or lower allocations for programs can certainly drive the argument about the sequester, Democrats also know that the way the cuts impact the daily life of Americans will be even more influential.

That’s why the focus this week has been on things like the possible travails that travelers will experience at airports when the sequester goes into effect. In theory that ought to create tremendous pressure on Republicans to give in to the president, evoking the spectacle of aggravated passengers as canceled flights and long security lines bring air travel to a grinding halt.

But if it comes out that these delays have been as much the result of manipulative decisions by the authorities that are geared toward maximizing inconvenience rather than just cutting expenditures, it could cause some real blow back for the administration. Figures such as LaHood need to be very careful in the way the sequester is administered. As much as the president is the beneficiary of a largely complacent press corps, any monkey business aimed at making things look even worse than they are could erase any temporary advantage the president might get from this dustup.

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The President’s Sequester Deception

Something interesting happened this weekend in Washington. After weeks of the mainstream media acting as President Obama’s echo chamber when he blamed the impending sequester budget cuts as being solely the fault of the Republicans, an icon of the liberal press finally did what the rest of the capital’s journalists should have been doing all along. The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward has written an op-ed drawing on the research and reporting he compiled when writing his book The Price of Politics. He explains that not only was the sequester the brainchild of the White House and not the GOP, but that in asserting that any deal to avert the draconian cuts it will exact requires new tax increases, the president is making a new unreasonable demand that moves the goalposts of the negotiations. Doing that may be clever politics but it is, contrary to the rhetoric of the Democrats, anything but balanced.

Some in the media have treated the question of who deserves the blame for the sequester as irrelevant or, more to the point, a distraction from the president’s campaign that they support to pressure Republicans to fold and accept more tax increases. But, as Woodward (who supports the president’s liberal line about taxes) points out, determining the origin of the sequester is anything but trivial:

Why does this matter?

First, months of White House dissembling further eroded any semblance of trust between Obama and congressional Republicans. (The Republicans are by no means blameless and have had their own episodes of denial and bald-faced message management.)

Second, Lew testified during his confirmation hearing that the Republicans would not go along with new revenue in the portion of the deficit-reduction plan that became the sequester. Reinforcing Lew’s point, a senior White House official said Friday, “The sequester was an option we were forced to take because the Republicans would not do tax increases.”

In fact, the final deal reached between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2011 included an agreement that there would be no tax increases in the sequester in exchange for what the president was insisting on: an agreement that the nation’s debt ceiling would be increased for 18 months, so Obama would not have to go through another such negotiation in 2012, when he was running for reelection.

So when the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts. His call for a balanced approach is reasonable, and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more. But that was not the deal he made.

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Something interesting happened this weekend in Washington. After weeks of the mainstream media acting as President Obama’s echo chamber when he blamed the impending sequester budget cuts as being solely the fault of the Republicans, an icon of the liberal press finally did what the rest of the capital’s journalists should have been doing all along. The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward has written an op-ed drawing on the research and reporting he compiled when writing his book The Price of Politics. He explains that not only was the sequester the brainchild of the White House and not the GOP, but that in asserting that any deal to avert the draconian cuts it will exact requires new tax increases, the president is making a new unreasonable demand that moves the goalposts of the negotiations. Doing that may be clever politics but it is, contrary to the rhetoric of the Democrats, anything but balanced.

Some in the media have treated the question of who deserves the blame for the sequester as irrelevant or, more to the point, a distraction from the president’s campaign that they support to pressure Republicans to fold and accept more tax increases. But, as Woodward (who supports the president’s liberal line about taxes) points out, determining the origin of the sequester is anything but trivial:

Why does this matter?

First, months of White House dissembling further eroded any semblance of trust between Obama and congressional Republicans. (The Republicans are by no means blameless and have had their own episodes of denial and bald-faced message management.)

Second, Lew testified during his confirmation hearing that the Republicans would not go along with new revenue in the portion of the deficit-reduction plan that became the sequester. Reinforcing Lew’s point, a senior White House official said Friday, “The sequester was an option we were forced to take because the Republicans would not do tax increases.”

In fact, the final deal reached between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2011 included an agreement that there would be no tax increases in the sequester in exchange for what the president was insisting on: an agreement that the nation’s debt ceiling would be increased for 18 months, so Obama would not have to go through another such negotiation in 2012, when he was running for reelection.

So when the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts. His call for a balanced approach is reasonable, and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more. But that was not the deal he made.

What needs to be pointed out here is that Woodward isn’t just calling out the White House for their deceptions. The spin coming from the president and his minions is cynical and partisan in nature, but is to be expected. The real problem is the way the mainstream media has punted on its coverage of this vital issue and allowed the president’s disingenuous arguments to go virtually unchallenged.

Democrats keep telling us that the public blames Republicans for the sequester more than they do the president, and polls bear this out. But one of the main reasons that this is so is because the White House can depend on a largely complacent liberal press corps to let their spin be treated as historical fact. When Republicans claim that the president has not negotiated in good faith and has broken its word about taxes time and again, they are depicted as whiny complainers. But, as even a supporter of the president’s agenda like Woodward is compelled to note, the GOP’s assertions about the White House are fundamentally correct.

As I wrote last week, an integral factor in President Obama’s media mastery is based on more than the clever tactics and shameless manipulation that his White House handlers have employed. The liberal bias of so many of the working press has given the president the confidence to believe he can get away with just about anything in this debate and still be portrayed as an honest player in the Washington game.

Woodward’s fact check on the president’s sequester lies may not alter the balance of opinion on the subject. But it is the sort of thing that ought to worry the White House, since Woodward’s willingness to say the emperor has no clothes may encourage others to do the same. The rules may be different for Barack Obama, and there’s good reason to believe his charmed existence–in which he is never held accountable for any disaster or lie–may continue. But eventually even he may find himself subject to the laws of political gravity. It could be that by blithely assuming that the public will always back him against the Republicans, he is setting himself—and the country—up for a great fall as we head back to the brink on the budget.

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Why the GOP Opposes Tax Increases

President Obama continued his campaign to demonize his opponents in the sequester standoff yesterday. Appearing on the radio show of racial huckster Al Sharpton, the president again attempted to frame the issue facing the country as one that pit the middle class and the poor against the wealthy. If Republicans refused to accede to his demands for a budget solution that would include more tax hikes, it was because affection for the wealthy was the core principle at the heart of their political coalition:

My sense is that their basic view is that nothing is important enough to raise taxes on wealthy individuals or corporations. And they would prefer to see these kinds of cuts that could slow down our recovery over closing tax loopholes, and that’s the thing that binds their party together at this point.

This is not just false but the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that gives the lie to the president’s pose of moderation and a willingness to reach out across the aisle. His claim that the rich don’t pay taxes is also false. So is the notion that it is only the wealthy who are being hurt by the government’s appetite for more “revenue” on his watch, as every American–be they rich, middle class or poor–found out last month when they saw their take-home pay drastically reduced by the increase in the payroll tax. But there is more to this debate than just Obama’s penchant for political talk. Conservatives do oppose tax increases as a general principle–not because they see it as their job to defend the wealthy but because they rightly understand their proper role as defending all Americans against the expansion of government power.

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President Obama continued his campaign to demonize his opponents in the sequester standoff yesterday. Appearing on the radio show of racial huckster Al Sharpton, the president again attempted to frame the issue facing the country as one that pit the middle class and the poor against the wealthy. If Republicans refused to accede to his demands for a budget solution that would include more tax hikes, it was because affection for the wealthy was the core principle at the heart of their political coalition:

My sense is that their basic view is that nothing is important enough to raise taxes on wealthy individuals or corporations. And they would prefer to see these kinds of cuts that could slow down our recovery over closing tax loopholes, and that’s the thing that binds their party together at this point.

This is not just false but the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that gives the lie to the president’s pose of moderation and a willingness to reach out across the aisle. His claim that the rich don’t pay taxes is also false. So is the notion that it is only the wealthy who are being hurt by the government’s appetite for more “revenue” on his watch, as every American–be they rich, middle class or poor–found out last month when they saw their take-home pay drastically reduced by the increase in the payroll tax. But there is more to this debate than just Obama’s penchant for political talk. Conservatives do oppose tax increases as a general principle–not because they see it as their job to defend the wealthy but because they rightly understand their proper role as defending all Americans against the expansion of government power.

The common thread throughout all of the president’s political pronouncements—such as the laundry list of liberal government projects he wishes to fund included in his State of the Union address—is the notion that big government is back to stay. Though he couches his rhetoric in such a way as to claim that he is not trying to expand the deficit, not even his supporters really believe that. But they are thrilled that the re-elected Barack Obama seems determined to bring the country back to a time when there was no end in sight to the growth of government-funded entitlements.

What conservatives understand is that this project is not something that will only be paid for by the rich. The top 1 percent of the country in terms of wealth already pay 38 percent of all taxes. And even if that figure is made to expand exponentially, it will never be enough to pay for all the things Obama wants government to do.

It may well be that, at least in the short term until the impending insolvency of our entitlement-bloated budget forces a change, those who promise the unending delivery of government goodies to as many people as possible will be politically successful. The president may certainly be forgiven for reaching that conclusion–especially after a re-election campaign in which his class warfare pitch was made even easier by Mitt Romney’s impolitic, but not altogether false, crack about Republicans not having a chance to gain the votes of the 47 percent of Americans who pay no taxes.

But Republicans should be united in their belief that the more money looted from the taxpayers, the bigger government and the federal bureaucracy will grow and with it an ever-rising federal debt that will eventually sink this country. The reason why Obama’s “balanced” approach to deficit reduction—which on the face of it seems so reasonable—must be opposed is that the president’s promises of cuts are no more credible than those of a “three-card monte” street game in which the pigeon can always count on being fleeced. No matter what he says now and no matter how much is taken from the wealthy, the government and the deficit will continue to grow and that will impoverish every taxpayer.

Calling the president out for this con game that liberals have been playing on the public for generations is a defense of the integrity of all taxpayers as well as common sense. The president may think he can evade a real debate about the deficit with name-calling and deceptive promises, but sooner or later the liberal project will be capsized by the debt he is running up. Though they have good reason to worry that Obama is getting the better of them at the moment, this is an issue around which Republicans ought to unite.

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The Rules Are Different For Obama

Republicans are experiencing a serious problem as they attempt to stand up to President Obama’s pressure to give in and raise taxes again in order to avert the sequester budget cuts. In spite of the fact that the idea for the scheme originated in the White House and that it is the president’s intransigence in insisting on more taxes rather than a spending solution, the public isn’t buying the GOP’s argument. Two new polls show not only that the president’s job approval rating is at its highest mark since his 2009 honeymoon, but that more people blame Republicans for the sequester and the damage it will do to the economy and national defense than blame Obama.

Democrats claim this is because they have the better argument when they put forward their so-called “balanced approach” to the deficit that calls, at least in theory, for both cuts and increased revenue. But though there may be some truth to this, when one looks deeper into the numbers it’s not clear this assertion stands up to scrutiny. As was the case last year when the country’s weak economy and the administration’s meager accomplishments seemed to guarantee the president’s defeat, Republicans are discovering anew that a situation that might sink another president is not hurting the incumbent’s public standing or giving them any leverage to resist his demands. The rules are just different for Barack Obama–and the sooner the GOP comes to grips with this reality, the better off they’ll be.

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Republicans are experiencing a serious problem as they attempt to stand up to President Obama’s pressure to give in and raise taxes again in order to avert the sequester budget cuts. In spite of the fact that the idea for the scheme originated in the White House and that it is the president’s intransigence in insisting on more taxes rather than a spending solution, the public isn’t buying the GOP’s argument. Two new polls show not only that the president’s job approval rating is at its highest mark since his 2009 honeymoon, but that more people blame Republicans for the sequester and the damage it will do to the economy and national defense than blame Obama.

Democrats claim this is because they have the better argument when they put forward their so-called “balanced approach” to the deficit that calls, at least in theory, for both cuts and increased revenue. But though there may be some truth to this, when one looks deeper into the numbers it’s not clear this assertion stands up to scrutiny. As was the case last year when the country’s weak economy and the administration’s meager accomplishments seemed to guarantee the president’s defeat, Republicans are discovering anew that a situation that might sink another president is not hurting the incumbent’s public standing or giving them any leverage to resist his demands. The rules are just different for Barack Obama–and the sooner the GOP comes to grips with this reality, the better off they’ll be.

Polls from Bloomberg, USA Today/Pew Research and even Rasmussen all show the president with positive job approval ratings. Even more to the point, both Bloomberg and Pew have survey results that seem to back up the idea that the administration’s “balanced” formula is better than one that concentrates solely on cutting spending. Those numbers have led the president to believe in the efficacy of a public campaign of demagoguery aimed at portraying Republicans as the party of the rich defending millionaires’ private jet deductions while seeking to cut aid to the poor.

But the same polls also show a majority don’t approve of the way Obama is handling the budget or the deficit. In a country in which those problems are viewed as the nation’s priority, Obama’s personal poll numbers ought to be lower. And even where the majority back both tax increases and spending cuts, most believe the emphasis should be on the latter rather than the former–which also ought to lead to more opposition to the president’s stands.

There is little doubt that most also understand that if Washington grabs more “revenue,” the result will be a bigger government, not a smaller deficit, as Jonathan Cohn admits today in the New Republic. Though Obama’s laundry list of liberal spending projects in his State of the Union address are all relatively popular, the national appetite for more government is still limited.

That ought to mean that Republicans should be on firm ground when they push back against the White House’s over-the-top dog-and-pony shows in which the president highlights the suffering that will be caused by Republicans. The notion that Republicans are being any more ideological in their stands than he is on these issues doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. His histrionic threats to shut down vital services to spite the GOP are also easily lampooned. And yet Obama remains popular and capable of inflicting real damage on his opponents in the debate on these issues.

The answer to the Republican Party’s problem revolves around the same factor that they failed to grasp in 2012: the president’s unique appeal and popularity. After more than four years of facing off against him, Republicans should understand by now that the laws of political gravity do not apply to Obama.

That doesn’t mean they must, as some faint-hearted Republicans think, surrender without a fight. There is nothing wrong with the conservative principles they uphold, and House Republicans can drive a hard bargain on the deficit that demands entitlement reform if they have the guts to stick to their guns.

Obama’s status as the nation’s first African-American president and the consequent kid-glove treatment he gets from the press make it difficult, if not impossible, to hold him accountable for his hypocrisy or his failures. As I wrote earlier in the week, the White House’s innovative strategies for manipulating the media do not fully explain his ability to evade the normal tough scrutiny that any president gets. Nor does the liberal bias of the mainstream media, though that, too, is a contributing factor.

Obama’s identity as the man who makes Americans feel good about their country renders all other factors irrelevant. This is something that conservatives struggle to understand primarily because they are immune to the president’s personal charm and speaking ability. But it is a fact they must accept if they don’t want to spend the next four years banging their heads against a wall. That’s why the GOP must stop focusing so much on trying to attack a president who is impervious to criticism and concentrate on the sort of big ideas about growth that made them the party of ideas in the ’80s and ’90s.

In the long run, Democrats are going to learn that without Obama fronting for them, their attempt to reboot the New Deal/Great Society coalition built on more and bigger government will fail. The notion that they can dominate the coming decade of American politics by spending and taxing more is a myth that will lead to future defeats at the hands of articulate conservatives who can run on a platform of reforming the government.

Until then, the GOP is stuck with the role of Obama’s punching dummy. So long as Barack Obama is in the White House, the struggle between Democrats and Republicans will always be an unequal one.

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Must the GOP Cave on the Sequester?

President Obama is pulling out all the stops in his campaign to blame Republicans for the impending sequester disaster looming over the federal government. In spite of the fact that the sequester was his idea and that he has had ample opportunities to avert the devastating across-the-board cuts that may shortly go into effect, the president is following the same playbook he used during the debt ceiling and fiscal cliff negotiations. This morning’s White House speech in front of a backdrop of first responders was typical of the genre in which he relentlessly demagogued the issue and placed the blame for the loss of public employee jobs as well as the deleterious impact of the cuts on the economy and national defense squarely on Republicans.

His position is that he will not consider any effort to avert the sequester except one based on the so-called “balanced” approach in which even more tax increases are added on those the GOP agreed to in the fiscal cliff deal. Buoyed by his re-election and the way he was able to bulldoze the House majority last month, the president clearly believes he need do nothing to accommodate opposition concerns. If they stand their ground on tax hikes, he seems to think the public will absolve him and blast his foes.

Given the unpopularity of Congress, especially as opposed to the president’s relatively high job approval ratings, he may be right. That means if the sequester is to be avoided it will require another Republican collapse. Since, as Max Boot wrote earlier today, the costs of the sequester will be disastrous for national defense, some conservatives are arguing, as Max did, that the GOP has no choice but to give in. I sympathize with that concern but this is not advice that House Republicans can heed.

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President Obama is pulling out all the stops in his campaign to blame Republicans for the impending sequester disaster looming over the federal government. In spite of the fact that the sequester was his idea and that he has had ample opportunities to avert the devastating across-the-board cuts that may shortly go into effect, the president is following the same playbook he used during the debt ceiling and fiscal cliff negotiations. This morning’s White House speech in front of a backdrop of first responders was typical of the genre in which he relentlessly demagogued the issue and placed the blame for the loss of public employee jobs as well as the deleterious impact of the cuts on the economy and national defense squarely on Republicans.

His position is that he will not consider any effort to avert the sequester except one based on the so-called “balanced” approach in which even more tax increases are added on those the GOP agreed to in the fiscal cliff deal. Buoyed by his re-election and the way he was able to bulldoze the House majority last month, the president clearly believes he need do nothing to accommodate opposition concerns. If they stand their ground on tax hikes, he seems to think the public will absolve him and blast his foes.

Given the unpopularity of Congress, especially as opposed to the president’s relatively high job approval ratings, he may be right. That means if the sequester is to be avoided it will require another Republican collapse. Since, as Max Boot wrote earlier today, the costs of the sequester will be disastrous for national defense, some conservatives are arguing, as Max did, that the GOP has no choice but to give in. I sympathize with that concern but this is not advice that House Republicans can heed.

The president seems to be operating on the theory that Republicans are powerless to oppose the drift toward higher taxes and bigger government. His false pose as the reasonable moderate willing to listen to both sides pays lip service to the notion that Americans want their leaders to compromise. But a closer look at his proposals shows that the cuts he says he is willing to agree to are largely ephemeral. Like his State of the Union speech which contained a laundry list of new government spending programs and entitlements but which he claimed with a straight face would not increase the deficit by “a single dime,” the president’s credibility on this score is nonexistent. Republicans are right to think that any revenue raised will simply lead to more government spending and enable Democrats to avoid thinking seriously about entitlement reform.

Yet to listen to much of the mainstream media and even some respected voices on the right, the idea of the GOP expending any political capital fighting Obama on tax increases is a replay of the Charge of the Light Brigade. It will, we are told, either lead to a cave-in which will make the party loose credibility in the short term or lead to electoral disaster in 2014. The conventional wisdom of the day on this dilemma is that Republicans might as well give up now rather than engage in a protracted and doomed political struggle that will only worsen their public standing. It was this thought that led the House leadership to punt on the question of extending the debt ceiling last month rather than fight it out.

It can also be argued that those Republicans who are welcoming the sequester as an opportunity to starve the government beast are not being any more responsible than the president. Just as some conservatives are prepared to accept the defense cuts as a fair price for shrinking domestic spending via the sequester, so, too, the president appears to be willing to live with the domestic cuts (his crocodile tears about first responders notwithstanding) in order to cut defense spending.

Given the president’s current political advantage, which is compounded by his manipulation of the media which I discussed earlier today, it would seem the sequester crisis is a perfect storm for Republicans to which the only rational response would seem to be surrender.

But if that is a course the House GOP caucus rejects, they should not be labeled as either extremist or suicidal.

As much as the shelf life of the Tea Party’s opposition to big government and higher taxes seems to have already expired, the idea that Republicans are better off abandoning their principles is not one that will ensure their political survival. A lot of the discussion about the GOP future rightly revolves around the need to put forward new ideas rather than to keep pounding the talking points of the past but a Republican Party that no longer possesses the ability to stand up to Obama’s demagoguery of these issues is not going to win in either 2014 or 2016. A defeat on the sequester after the fiscal cliff collapse could presage even worse to come as the president pursues the rest of his liberal agenda this year. If Republicans are incapable of mounting a spirited defense of their position that rejects the president’s false choices in which they are depicted as defending millionaires at the expense of the middle class and the poor, they might as well pack up and go home right now.

It is hard to compete with the bully pulpit of the presidency but there is still plenty of room for conservatives to make the case that the country has a spending addiction not a taxing problem. The president’s rhetoric seems to indicate that he doesn’t really want a deal to avoid the sequester but the idea that there is no political cost to him to such a course of action is based on a misreading of the situation.

The president may believe he can use the sequester to blame the economic downturn on Republicans much as he blamed the anemic economy of 2012 on George W. Bush. But the notion that he has nothing to lose in this standoff is White House spin, not common sense. The events the sequester will set in motion will do the GOP no political good. But it will hurt the president even more. It is he, and not Bush or John Boehner who will be blamed, as he should be, if the economy goes into another tailspin. Nor will he be able to pin all of the responsibility for the cuts on Republicans since they have consistently offered alternatives that avoid sequestration.

Now is not the time for Republican leaders to lose their nerve or to start thinking they must abandon the principles of limited government that elected them in the first place. The American public may like Barack Obama better than they do John Boehner or Eric Cantor but they are not stupid. The only way to deal with the president’s intemperate and misleading arguments is to answer them forthrightly. If that means going down to the wire on the sequester, then so be it.

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Where’s Steve Kroft When You Need Him?

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama spent much of the early part of his speech savaging the idea of sequestration. In his typically understated way, Mr. Obama referred to the sequester cuts as “sudden, harsh, and arbitrary.” In case he wasn’t clear, Obama also referred to them as “reckless.” And just in case this indictment was too vague, the president said the sequester was a “really bad idea.” 

Which makes this interview between Fox News’ Bret Baier and White House press secretary Jay Carney so delicious. Under Baier’s firm, skillful questioning, Carney is forced to admit that yes, that really bad, terrible, awful, reckless, harsh, vicious, offense-against-God-and-Man idea was … the president’s.  

How terribly inconvenient for Mr. Carney.

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In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama spent much of the early part of his speech savaging the idea of sequestration. In his typically understated way, Mr. Obama referred to the sequester cuts as “sudden, harsh, and arbitrary.” In case he wasn’t clear, Obama also referred to them as “reckless.” And just in case this indictment was too vague, the president said the sequester was a “really bad idea.” 

Which makes this interview between Fox News’ Bret Baier and White House press secretary Jay Carney so delicious. Under Baier’s firm, skillful questioning, Carney is forced to admit that yes, that really bad, terrible, awful, reckless, harsh, vicious, offense-against-God-and-Man idea was … the president’s.  

How terribly inconvenient for Mr. Carney.

What is also worth noting isn’t simply the admission by Carney, but his petulance. The former-Time-journalist-turned-Obama-mouthpiece is clearly very unhappy to be pressed on this matter. Because Mr. Carney, like the president, seems to believe that tough, direct, and respectful questions are a violation of journalist ethics in the age of Obama.

You can just imagine what’s going through Carney’s mind during the Baier interview: Where is Steve Kroft when you need him?

This of course explains why the White House, and the president in particular, has obsessed about Fox News and targeted it so often (full disclosure: I appear on Special Report w/ Bret Baier from time to time). Mr. Obama seems to believe that being cosseted by the press is a basic human right, at least when it comes to him. And given how he’s treated by so much of the press corps, I can understand why.

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U.S. Weakness Provokes N. Korea and Iran

So much for the exaggerated hopes of those that believed Kim Jong-un would turn out to be a different kind of dictator. Following a long-range rocket test in December, North Korea has now apparently tested a nuclear weapon bigger than any it has tested before. This, despite warnings not only from South Korea, Japan, and the United States, but also from China, not to test. Far from being the reformer as many naively imagined, Kim is showing himself a chip off the old dynastic bloc, once again using North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction to posture before the world and no doubt to shake concessions out of the U.S., South Korea, and other states.

What makes this test truly disturbing is the close cooperation that is known to exist between Iran and North Korea in the development of ever-more destructive weaponry. The two countries have worked closely together on missiles and may well be working together on nuclear weapons. If so, the North Korean test is an indication of growing danger not only in Northeast Asia but also in the Middle East.

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So much for the exaggerated hopes of those that believed Kim Jong-un would turn out to be a different kind of dictator. Following a long-range rocket test in December, North Korea has now apparently tested a nuclear weapon bigger than any it has tested before. This, despite warnings not only from South Korea, Japan, and the United States, but also from China, not to test. Far from being the reformer as many naively imagined, Kim is showing himself a chip off the old dynastic bloc, once again using North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction to posture before the world and no doubt to shake concessions out of the U.S., South Korea, and other states.

What makes this test truly disturbing is the close cooperation that is known to exist between Iran and North Korea in the development of ever-more destructive weaponry. The two countries have worked closely together on missiles and may well be working together on nuclear weapons. If so, the North Korean test is an indication of growing danger not only in Northeast Asia but also in the Middle East.

And what is the American response to this latest provocation? To his credit, President Obama has not repeated the pattern of his predecessors in trying to shower North Korea with aid to get it to desist from its dangerous behavior—a pattern that only subsidized North Korean malfeasance. Rather than trying to relaunch stalled six-party talks, he has actually pushed for the toughest sanctions yet on North Korea although their ability to actually coerce Pyongyang is limited as long as China refuses to cut off economic aid.

But these tough responses are undermined to a large extent by the symbolism of Obama proposing steep cuts in the American nuclear arsenal—from 1,700 to 1,000 warheads—in the State of the Union address on the very day when North Korea is testing a nuke and Iran is drawing closer to acquiring its own nukes. It is hard to know why the president imagines unilateral American cuts will encourage more responsible behavior from the likes of Iran and North Korea. The more likely consequence is to call into question America’s deterrent capacity, an especially pressing issue if, as Bret Stephens argues in this Wall Street Journal column, China’s nuclear arsenal is actually larger than commonly supposed.

With the danger growing from both Iran and North Korea it is all the more incumbent on the US to reassure regional allies—from Saudi Arabia to South Korea–that they will be sheltered securely underneath the American nuclear umbrella. If we cut our own nuclear forces drastically, the credibility of our guarantees diminishes and the likelihood goes up that our allies will seek nuclear weapons of their own, potentially setting off two nuclear arms races.

Of course it is not just in the nuclear realm that the US is undertaking defense cuts. Our overall military budget is to undergo drastic cuts within weeks assuming that the Congress and White House do not reach an agreement to turn off the sequester. Already the military services are cutting back on readiness and training. The Navy, for one, has announced that the Persian Gulf area will for the time being have only one aircraft carrier battle group on station, rather than two.

It is hard to think of a more threatening prospect than unilateral American military reductions at a time when our enemies our growing stronger. Weakness, it is often said, is provocative. By that measure we are provoking two of the most dangerous rogue states in the world.

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Will Obama’s Lurch Left Reunite the GOP?

The spin coming out of the White House over the last several days about tomorrow’s State of the Union speech led some people to suppose that there would be a change of tone from the stridently ideological tone that the president sounded in his second inaugural. We were told that the centerpiece of the speech would be about jobs, a topic that President Obama all but ignored on January 21. There was some expectation that he would accompany it with an olive branch to Republicans rather than the “I won the election, deal with it” tone of the inaugural. But sources close to the president are saying that any idea that we’ll be hearing a kindler and gentler Barack Obama addressing Congress is pure fantasy. As Politico reports:

Emboldened by electoral victory and convinced the GOP is unwilling to cut deals, Obama plans to use his big prime-time address Tuesday night to issue another broad challenge at a Republican Party he regards as vulnerable and divided, Democrats close to Obama say.

The president’s goal is to use his current advantageous position to force the Republicans to accept more tax hikes and minimal spending decreases in any deal to head off the disastrous mandatory cuts that will be implemented as part of the looming mandatory sequester cuts. In other words, rather than trying to work with Congress, the president will be doubling down on his provocative inaugural lurch to the left. This strategy is based on a realistic evaluation of his current relative strength vis-à-vis the Republicans. But if he thinks he can repeat his fiscal cliff victory over Congressional Republicans he’s dreaming. He may think this is the path to a successful second term during which he will no longer be at the mercy of his opponents. But by choosing to fight rather than to deal, Obama may be setting in motion a chain of events that could derail the economy and his presidency.

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The spin coming out of the White House over the last several days about tomorrow’s State of the Union speech led some people to suppose that there would be a change of tone from the stridently ideological tone that the president sounded in his second inaugural. We were told that the centerpiece of the speech would be about jobs, a topic that President Obama all but ignored on January 21. There was some expectation that he would accompany it with an olive branch to Republicans rather than the “I won the election, deal with it” tone of the inaugural. But sources close to the president are saying that any idea that we’ll be hearing a kindler and gentler Barack Obama addressing Congress is pure fantasy. As Politico reports:

Emboldened by electoral victory and convinced the GOP is unwilling to cut deals, Obama plans to use his big prime-time address Tuesday night to issue another broad challenge at a Republican Party he regards as vulnerable and divided, Democrats close to Obama say.

The president’s goal is to use his current advantageous position to force the Republicans to accept more tax hikes and minimal spending decreases in any deal to head off the disastrous mandatory cuts that will be implemented as part of the looming mandatory sequester cuts. In other words, rather than trying to work with Congress, the president will be doubling down on his provocative inaugural lurch to the left. This strategy is based on a realistic evaluation of his current relative strength vis-à-vis the Republicans. But if he thinks he can repeat his fiscal cliff victory over Congressional Republicans he’s dreaming. He may think this is the path to a successful second term during which he will no longer be at the mercy of his opponents. But by choosing to fight rather than to deal, Obama may be setting in motion a chain of events that could derail the economy and his presidency.

The president’s confrontational strategy is based on two factors that were very much in evidence six weeks as the fiscal cliff was barely averted by a deal most Republicans hated. One is that the majority of the House GOP caucus fears being blamed for any standoff with the president that will harm the economy. The other is that the Republicans are so divided between mainstream members of Congress led by House Speaker John Boehner and Tea Party insurgents that there is no way for them to work together to thwart the president’s initiatives.

But what Obama fails to realize is that a presidential attempt to shove a liberal agenda down the throat of Congress is the one thing that can reunite the GOP. Moreover, having already given in on tax increases to avoid the fiscal cliff, the pressure he thinks he can exert on Congress to raise taxes again is not as great as he thinks it is. With some Republicans already foolishly welcoming the sequester, Obama may have created a set of circumstances in which Boehner will have no choice but to do something that he’d rather avoid and call the president’s bluff.

Barack Obama would not be the first president to misinterpret a relatively narrow if clear re-election victory as a mandate to transform American politics. But its doubtful that any of his predecessors have demonstrated more overconfidence than he is showing by assuming that a 51 percent vote means that a body of Congress led by his opposition must knuckle under to his dictates without a fight.

Republicans have decided that any effort to force the president to deal with the looming budget crisis by forcing his hand via the debt ceiling is a mistake. But the notion that they will abandon the entitlement reform that is the only path to fiscal sanity while also buying into his call for more “investments” that will sink the country further into debt is pure science fiction.

Throughout his presidency, Obama has always appeared to seek confrontation rather than agreement on the premise that doing so will only enhance his popularity. So far it has worked, but the tilt to the left may be based on an overestimation of the strength of his position. Contrary to what his aides seem to think, at this stage, he has every bit as much to lose from a standoff that will harm the economy. No matter how much he demagogues the GOP about taxing the rich and disingenuous arguments about helping the middle class, the voters will not reward him with victory in the 2014 midterm elections if the economy tanks in the next year.

In his inaugural address, the president demonstrated that he had learned nothing from his first four years in office about working with Republicans to help the country. Instead of further exploiting his opponent’s weakness, he may be on the verge of bringing together a badly divided Republican Party. By doubling down on this partisan tack in his SOTU speech, he may do himself far more damage than the GOP could ever think of doing to him.

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