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The Sequester: A Long-Term Win
House Republicans are successfully executing a long-term political and policy strategy.

House speaker John Boehner at a February 26, 2013, press conference.

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Andrew Stiles

GOP aides are somewhat baffled by the administration’s failed attempt to “scare Republicans into raising taxes” by portraying the sequester as “some sort of doomsday device.” At times, the White House embarrassed itself by promulgating easily refutable claims, a number of which were quickly exposed. Obama advisers also engaged in a frivolous tiff with legendary reporter Bob Woodward over where the idea of sequestration originated (hint: the White House). By the end of it, even the arch-conservatives at Saturday Night Live were mocking the president’s handling of the situation. The awkward saga continues, as evidenced by the following AP report from Monday (emphasis added): 

WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says U.S. airports, including Los Angeles International and O’Hare International in Chicago, are already experiencing delays as a result of automatic federal spending cuts.
Both of those big-city airports routinely suffer delays.

“The problem was, on day one when Obama started talking about how bad the sequester was, nobody was disagreeing with him,” a senior House Republican aide says. “We always agreed that there would be programs that were unnecessarily going to be impacted by this. The only way for them to gain ground was to go over the top, and they just boxed themselves into a corner of hysterics, claiming the world was going to end, and then it didn’t.” 

“Look, the sequester is going to have an impact, an adverse effect, that people notice,” says an aide to House leadership. “But by coming right out of the gate with scary statistics and easily disprovable claims, I think they really undercut their credibility.”

As the focus now shifts to upcoming fights — over the continuing resolution, next year’s budget, and the debt ceiling — Republicans think they are about as well-positioned as they could hope to be, given the existing balance of power in Washington. “One of the goals in all of this is to make certain that there is a contrast that the American people appreciate and can see between the solutions that Republicans are putting on the table, and the ideas that Democrats are putting on the table,” Price says. “The role of the minority is to contrast with the other side, and to hold the other side to account.”

House aides say that their decision not to pass, or even attempt to pass, a sequester alternative this year (they already passed two in the previous session) bolstered their position, given that the Democratic Senate was unable to pass its own alternative. “We didn’t feel any pressure at all to keep negotiating against ourselves,” the senior House GOP aide says. “We can’t keep giving them targets to shoot at.” However, when House Republicans introduce and pass their budget for next year, which they say will reach balance within a ten-year window, they will finally have a Democratic alternative to contrast with. And that will be thanks, at least in part, to the same strategic vision outlined at their retreat earlier this year. The only thing House Republicans requested in exchange for delaying a debt-ceiling confrontation earlier this year was a measure that would withhold Senators’ pay if they failed to pass a budget, something Democrats haven’t done in nearly four years. (They swiftly relented.)

Of course, Congressional Republicans’ dismal approval rating is well established, but Obama’s is nothing to write home about either, having recently fallen to 46 percent, down from a post-election high of 56 percent. It is something he needs to be mindful of, especially if he hopes to make any progress on an ambitious second-term agenda. In order to make any headway on budget issues, Republicans say, Obama will need to abandon his habit of negotiating against a caricatured, straw-man version of the GOP position. 

“The White House has been badly served throughout the Obama administration by making assumptions about what Republicans want, rather than actually talking to Republicans and conservatives, and finding out what moves them,” the House leadership aide says. “I don’t know if it’s because they watch too much MSNBC, or what, but they have a habit of telling us what they think we want, and have made some bad assumptions about the principles of conservatism.”

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.



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