Republicans Have Won a Budget Battle, But Not the War

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Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP

As sequestration begins, Republicans have been overtaken with something close to giddiness, and Democrats seized with gloom. It appeared as recently as a few months ago that the threat of across-the-board cuts, disproportionately hurting defense, would force Republicans to negotiate a long-term debt reduction agreement. But Republicans are happily announcing their willingness — and, in many cases, outright eagerness — to absorb a hit to spending of any kind whatsoever, and their total resistance to higher revenue in any form. And so the GOP is already celebrating its victory, even speaking of their great triumph in the past tense, as a done deal (“This was a necessary win for Republicans,” exults a GOP aide) while liberals are already bemoaning Obama’s miscalculation.

The great Republican budget victory may yet arrive. It certainly hasn’t happened yet, and it’s far from certain if it ever will.

The first question is whether House Republicans can sustain their refusal to consider their no-revenue, no-negotiation stance. Public opinion may not be the thing that stops them. Americans oppose government spending in general and favor it in particular. An ABC poll today finds strong public support for an across-the-board cut in federal spending. That is the result you’d expect from a poll that only asks about “federal spending.”

The same ABC poll found that the defense cuts, the only specific program it named, poll badly. This isn’t because military spending is especially popular — Americans are more willing to cut it than most programs — but that almost every actual spending program is popular. When Pew surveyed Americans about nineteen specific categories of actual federal spending, it found overwhelming opposition to cuts in any of them except “aid to the world’s needy,” the scale of which Americans consistently overestimate by an order of magnitude. And so, as is often the case, the political fight will center on Republican efforts to define the subject merely as “spending” against Democratic efforts to define specific elements of that spending.

The real problem for Republicans will be facing down the industries and communities affected by the cuts — and in particular, the defense cuts. In 2011, when John Boehner had to pass the bill creating sequestration through the House, he promised defense hawk members it would never be implemented. Boehner has managed to get most of those military hawks to quiet down, but has openly admitted that this is a negotiating strategy.

Can Boehner keep his defense hawks in line? The defense lobby was very slow to perceive the threat from sequestration and is currently in a state of disarray. Tens of billions of dollars in foregone income, though, tends to concentrate the mind quickly. Defense hawks like Lindsey Graham have already broken with Boehner and called for compromise, including revenue, to replace sequestration. Even some House Republicans are chafing. No Democrats, by contrast, have come close to advocating the Republican position (replace sequestration with cuts to social programs).

The deeper problem with Republican triumphalism is that it lacks any coherent definition of what victory means. Republicans appear to have settled on their approach by beginning with the premise that a major confrontation is necessary, and arriving at sequestration via process of elimination, after determining that the debt ceiling and a government shutdown were both worse fights. Andrew Stiles reports in National Review, “The recent showdown was precipitated by the decision to delay (until May) another confrontation over the debt ceiling (and force the Democratic Senate to pass a budget) in the hope that the politics surrounding sequestration would be more favorable to Republicans.”

Yet this isn’t a strategy at all but merely a kind of emotional catharsis for an activist base humiliated by its failure to force Obama to extend all of the Bush tax cuts. (Nelson Muntz, asked if he really believes his “Nuke the Whales” poster: “Gotta nuke something.”)

Republican strategist Ralph Reed seemed unaware of the absurdity he revealed when he declared, “The sequester and winning that fight — however you define what winning means — is critical for the party.” However you define what winning means? If you can’t define victory, how do you know if you’ve won?

It is true that, if you define the struggle in purely zero-sum terms, Republicans can “win.” What they can win is the ability to keep in place, more or less permanently, spending reductions that both exempt the programs they most badly want to cut and that are designed stupidly so as to create maximum harm for minimum budgetary saving. Yes, Obama would probably find this more bothersome than would Republicans.

Of course, this “victory” would mean giving up a chance to cut spending on Medicare and Social Security. Since these programs will consume a growing share of the federal budget, the Republican strategy would mean leaving in place higher spending. And since they’re so popular — even Republican voters don’t want to cut them — Republicans are determined to refuse a golden opportunity to secure bipartisan cover for something they’ll never have the political standing to carry out on their own. In a policy terms, “winning” means suicidal spite.