How Republicans Flipped on Sequestration

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The military will be reduced to a handful of elderly men firing tiny, antiquated rifles, wearing top hats and assorted headgear rather than helmets. Photo: Keystone

The next semi-apocalyptic economic confrontation in Washington concerns “sequestration,” the automatic budget cuts set to begin on March 1. President Obama and Congressional Republicans designed these cuts to be so painful and unworkable neither side could spare them, in order to force the two sides to replace them with some sane, or at least mutually agreeable, long-term plan to reduce the budget deficit.

Of course, the Republican Party since 1990 has been opposed at the most fundamental level to mutually agreeable, let alone sane, plans to reduce the budget deficit. And so we have another standoff.

Obama’s position is that he wants to replace the sequestration cuts with a mix of higher revenue via tax reform and cuts to retirement programs. The Republican position is that no increase in taxes whatsoever is permissible. Indeed, the party has taken the position that the sequestration would be a perfectly splendid policy to enact permanently if the alternative involves raising taxes.

The Republican debate here is weirdly inscrutable. If you read accounts in the conservative media — see here, here, and here, for instance — you would think that Obama’s position is that the only acceptable alternative to sequestration is tax hikes. They have all argued that sequestration is better than tax hikes (or, as Jennifer Rubin hilariously described Obama’s position in one of the above links, “raising taxes and continuing to spend with abandon”). I have yet to see a single conservative writer explain why sequestration is a better policy option than Obama’s actual bargaining position. The entire conservative movement is existing in a factual alternative universe.

In any case, sustaining the GOP’s position now requires the right to downplay the threat of sequestration. Today’s Wall Street Journal editorial, “The Unscary Sequester,” nicely totes the line:

Washington is in a fit of collective terror over the "sequester," aka the impending across-the-board spending cuts. …

As always in Washington when there is talk of cutting spending, most of the hysteria is baseless. 

Huh. Who could be fanning this “fit of collective terror” and “hysteria”? Let us go all the way back to the halcyon days of July, 2012. A nation fell in love with the musical stylings of Carly Rae Jepsen. Everybody started saying “yolo” and the rest of us googled it to figure out what it meant. Kale went mainstream. And The Wall Street Journal editorial page was warning of the dire consequences to national security if sequestration went into effect. An editorial entitled “The Coming Defense Crack-Up” painted a terrifying picture:

Some policy train wrecks in Washington are sudden. Then there's the catastrophe playing out in slow motion known as defense sequestration. …

Like an audience at a horror movie, nearly everyone paying attention is yelling "watch out!" into a political and media void. …

Sequestration compounds the damage because the cuts would be automatic and indiscriminate. The Pentagon now concedes that funding for the war in Afghanistan would be hit, contrary to past assurances. So would current operations in the Persian Gulf. Training programs, equipment maintenance and military benefits are affected too …

But perhaps they never expected that a Commander in Chief who swore an oath to safeguard America's national security would play such a dangerous game.

Train wreck! Catastrophe! Horror movie! Dangerous game! Today it’s all a fit of baseless terror. The Journal even signals its contempt by now putting the term sequester in scare quotes, its favorite literary device to signal to readers that they should sneer at something.

To be sure, we could suss out a sort of logical consistency here. The Journal editorial page may tremble at the prospect of savage defense cuts that leave the United States as but a trembling naked babe in the woods, ready to be torn limb from limb by Iran and Russia, yet prefer even such a terrible fate to the yet more horrifying possibility of limiting tax deductions for wealthy taxpayers.

Indeed, the whole Republican Party has shifted with lightning speed from a campaign stance of decrying the defense cuts in sequestration and touting unspecified revenue gains from tax reform, to its current position of waving aside the damage of defense cuts and insisting that there is not a penny to be had from tax reform. At least for zealous supply-siders at the Journal who would rather sell the entire nuclear arsenal to Al Qaeda than close the carried interest loophole, this represents a coherent (if not honest) set of issue preferences. The real mystery is why so many other conservatives seem happy to go along with it.