Commentary Magazine


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.

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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