Politics & Policy

Will Democrats Learn to Love the Sequester?

As they originally admitted, it reflects their priorities better than most bargains.

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.

#ad#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.

#page#The crux of any potential “grand bargain” on the budget has always been significant entitlement reform in exchange for higher taxes. In the absence of such a deal, GOP opposition to raising taxes is often singled out as the main impediment. Perhaps it is because President Obama does a much better job of at least appearing willing and reasonable about entitlement cuts than Republicans do about tax increases. But meanwhile, his base, along with many Democrats in Congress, has always vociferously opposed any changes to entitlements and welfare programs.

That is why so many liberals were actively rooting for the supercommittee to fail. Labor unions and other activist groups threatened to withhold future support from Democratic supercommittee members who agreed to a deal that would affect entitlements. Robert Borosage, co-director of the left-wing activist group Campaign for America’s Future, wrote that “the programs for the poor and vulnerable are likely to fare better in event of failure, than in the event of a grand bargain.” Cuts to the military, on the other hand, were “long overdue,” he argued.

#ad#“If the supercommittee fails, as expected, it will be time to celebrate,” Paul Krugman suggestedJonathan Cohn of The New Republic was decidedly sanguine at the prospect of failure. “First, super-committee failure does not mean we’ve blown a chance to reduce the deficit,” Cohn wrote, noting that it would bring about the sequester cuts, which he described as “just a down-payment on what we should be doing about the deficit in the long term.” No inkling of today’s doomsday scenarios.

Elsewhere on the left, the sequester was (and still is) seen as an excellent opportunity to cut a bloated defense budget. “Most experts estimate that the defense budget would lose $600 billion to $700 billion over the next 10 years [under sequestration],” Fareed Zakaria wrote in 2011. “If so, let the guillotine fall. It would be a much-needed adjustment to an out-of-control military-industrial complex.”

Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, has been making a similar case for years. In 2012, Korb argued that dire warnings from the likes of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta about the impact of sequestration were “wildly exaggerated.” The defense budget, he added, “can and should reduce be reduced [sic] to 2006 levels, sequester or no sequester.”

CREDO Action, a left-wing organization, circulated a petition last year urging Congress not to do away with the defense cuts in the sequester. “Our defense budget is grotesquely bloated,” the petition read. “If there’s one thing we can cut, it’s defense spending.”

A recent Pew poll on federal-spending preferences found that most Democrats agree. Of the 19 spending areas included in the poll, the State Department and military defense were the only two for which more Democrats wanted to decrease spending rather than increase it.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the sequester-replacement plan drafted by Senate Democrats and endorsed by the White House included almost $30 billion in cuts to defense. And although the president has adopted a measured tone when it comes to prospect of further defense cuts, the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein notes that Obama has a long history of supporting such cuts. His nomination of former Republican senator Chuck Hagel for defense secretary is widely viewed as an effort to provide political cover for further spending reductions at the Pentagon.

These days, Ezra Klein is wondering if Democrats should “stop worrying and learn to love the sequester,” which would follow the argument he made in 2011. “The law will hit priorities Democrats care about, like education and research, but it’s hard to imagine an alternative that’s acceptable to Republicans and does less damage to core Democratic programs,” he writes. “Moreover, funding for those programs can always be restored later. But these defense cuts, as a number of liberal bigwigs have admitted to me privately, are a one-time offer.”

Which is probably true. Earlier this year, when House Republicans signaled their willingness to let the sequester take effect in an effort to gain leverage in budget negotiations, a top Republican senator told National Review Online he did not think the strategy would work because he thought “the president would go along with it. He wants to cut defense.”

The ongoing blame game over who created the sequester elides a couple of important facts that almost always go unmentioned because the media prefers to cast the GOP as the obstructionist party: First, Democrats and their liberal backers are not serious about reducing spending, and consistently view the defense budget as the only thing that can be cut without evicting the elderly from nursing homes. Second, the liberal base’s fierce opposition to entitlement reform has been as important a factor in scuttling grand-bargain negotiations as the GOP’s resistance to tax increases.

The sequester is certainly far from the Democrats’ implied preference of reducing the deficit almost entirely through tax increases (a split being billed as a “compromise”), and they will certainly try to pin the consequences on Republicans. But if, at the end of the day, Democrats have privately decided that an ill-conceived spending cut that targets one of their lowest priorities (the defense budget), while protecting their highest priority (entitlements), may not be so bad after all, who could blame them?

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...

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