Romney Blames Obama for Paying GOP Ransom

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Photo: Mary-Louise Price; Photos: 20th Century Fox (Speed still), Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images (Boehner), JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images (Obama)

The basic ideological predicate of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy speech is that Barack Obama apologizes for America, but he used this hoary premise to drive home a second attack: that Obama would impose “massive defense cuts.” Here is Romney’s description:

Don't bother trying to find a serious military rationale behind any of this, unless that rationale is wishful thinking. Strategy is not driving President Obama's massive defense cuts. In fact, his own Secretary of Defense warned that these reductions would be 'devastating.'

The first clue that perhaps what he’s describing isn’t actually “Obama’s massive defense cuts” is that Obama’s own defense secretary denounces them. After all, if a defense secretary thinks his president is doing something irresponsible to the defense budget, his usual recourse is to resign. And if he says so publicly, he’s apt to get fired.

What we have here are not, of course, Obama’s massive defense cuts. It is a mutually negotiated budget trigger. Last year, Congress Republicans threaten to default on the national debt and risk financial apocalypse unless Obama agreed to $2.4 trillion in spending cuts, and Obama foolishly tried to cut a big deal with them. The GOP threat to unleash worldwide economic havoc naturally came down to last-minute brinksmanship, which required the two sides to devise a budget trigger that would go into effect if they couldn’t negotiate a bipartisan agreement, which of course they could not. Since Republicans would never agree to a budget trigger that included higher tax revenue, the closest thing to a mutually unacceptable trigger was cuts that affected not only domestic programs but also defense. The defense cuts were designed not to cut wasteful programs but to impose across-the-board cuts that nobody really liked, thus forcing some kind of deal.

Obama doesn’t have zero responsibility for the cuts, since, after all, he could have agreed to a trigger that placed all the burden of deficit reduction on domestic spending. But the defense cuts were not his idea. His idea was just to go ahead and not default on the national debt, and have the opposition party give some speeches blaming the president for needing to raise the debt, as always happened before. Likewise the defense sequester wasn’t the House GOP’s idea, either, but it was something they preferred to increasing tax revenue.

What the defense sequester drama actually shows, for the jillionth time over the last twenty years, is that Republicans don’t actually care about reducing the budget deficit. If you care about reducing the deficit, you want to keep in place these triggers in order to force some kind of agreement. But Republicans want to disarm the defense trigger, and also of course the expiring tax cuts, which are the other trigger, leaving no pressure mechanism to force a deficit agreement. They’re happy to use the pretext of the deficit to pass something that cuts upper-bracket tax rates and social spending (especially for the poor and non-elderly), but there’s no plausible way to read their actual legislative position as anti-deficit.