Will Democrats Learn to Love the Sequester?
As they originally admitted, it reflects their priorities better than most bargains.


Andrew Stiles

The Obama administration has gone to great lengths in recent weeks to portray a post-sequester America as a harrowing wasteland where criminals roam the streets, homeless people are tossed out of shelters, seniors and children go hungry, food goes uninspected, the mentally ill go untreated, and airports descend into chaos. (Interestingly, the majority of the administration’s horror stories seem to focus almost exclusively on the domestic-spending portion of the sequester.)

It marks a pretty stunning shift from the way Democrats talked about sequestration in the months following the debt-ceiling compromise, back when it was simply known as “the trigger.”

Days after the debt-ceiling bill was signed, Senator Ben Cardin (D., Md.) told reporters the sequester was not something Democrats should fear. “I think [we] are in a pretty strong position because we’re not too concerned, as we were with the debt ceiling, that if we don’t reach an agreement it will be devastating to our priorities,” Cardin said.

Democrats often boasted of their successful effort to shield Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and welfare programs from the automatic cuts. They reckoned (incorrectly, it turns out) that the sequester’s disproportionate cuts in defense spending would compel the GOP to accept tax increases, and, as Cardin suggested, gave Democrats a tolerable fallback option even if Republicans refused.

Months later, Representative Xavier Becerra (D., Calif.), a member of the supercommittee tasked with averting the sequester, argued that, absent a larger agreement, sequestration would be a perfectly acceptable outcome, and “a way to get us back on track” financially.

“Sequestration will give us progress whether we like it or not,” Becerra said. “I’d rather have a human hand fashioning the progress than, as I’ve said before, the blunt edge of a guillotine deciding what progress looks like. [But] any time you can get $1.2 trillion in savings, that’s not failure.”

Those remarks seem drawn from an entirely different universe, given the recent spate of dire warnings and appeals from sad-eyed seals. So what, exactly, has changed?

The presidential election obviously altered the political balance of power. But that has largely been reset following the resolution of the fiscal-cliff showdown, which saw Republicans surrender a $600 billion tax increase to President Obama, and subsequently postpone another showdown over the debt ceiling.

Few disagree that sequestration is bad policy, yet it has already survived two separate opportunities (the supercommittee and the fiscal cliff) to do away with it. Perhaps both parties have reason to believe the sequester is a more acceptable solution than the alternative proposals it was designed to inspire. But the GOP’s strategic, and at times bewildering, turnabout on sequestration has been examined at some length. The Democrats’ evolving, and similarly convoluted, rhetoric has received far less scrutiny.

Consider the arguments put forward by left-wing activists and liberal commentators before, during, and immediately following the supercommittee negotiations.

In November of 2011, as the supercommittee was winding down, Jonathan Bernstein wrote in the Washington Post that Obama’s long-term negotiating strategy on the debt ceiling “was a lot better than many liberals believed” because “it’s clear that Republicans are more worried about the trigger than are the Democrats.”

Also in the fall of 2011, Bloomberg View columnist Ezra Klein suggested that Democrats may come to view the sequester as a least-bad option for reducing the deficit. “An across-the-board sequester is the crude work of a hatchet, not a scalpel, but a lot of Democrats would prefer crudely implemented, broad cuts that target defense and exempt the social safety net to narrow cuts to social programs that are handled delicately,” he explained. To Klein, the current political environment was unlikely to produce a deficit-reduction compromise preferable to sequestration for most Democrats.