the national interest

Democrats ‘Lost’ Sequestration Two Years Ago

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

Republicans spent the last few weeks mocking sequestration as a giant nothing-burger that nobody except Spendocrats  cares about. But Republicans — and Democrats, too — suddenly recoiled in horror when the Federal Aviation Administration had to furlough some air traffic controllers. Faced with cutbacks that inconvenienced air travels, and not poor people or shmoes like that, Congress raced into action to reverse the cuts at lightning speed.

Brian Beutler, Noam Scheiber, and Ezra Klein are despondent — especially the latter, who leads, “The Democrats have lost on sequestration.”  That seems a tad melodramatic. I wouldn’t say the Democrats have lost; I’d say they are losing. The current dynamic is that Republicans can reverse the cuts they don’t like, but refuse to reverse the cuts Democrats don’t like. If that continues perpetually, Democrats will lose. I wouldn’t automatically assume the same thing will keep happening. Sometimes, things change.

In any case, sequestration is clearly going worse for Democrats than Obama thought it would, or than I thought it would. The administration seems to have dramatically underestimated the GOP’s tolerance for defense cuts. The administration included large defense cuts in the automatic trigger it negotiated in 2011, assuming that the prospect would terrify hawkish Republicans, not recognizing changes the party has undergone that have made it more spending-phobic and less reflexively hawkish.

Still, once Obama was in the position of paying a ransom to avoid worldwide economic calamity, he didn’t have a lot of good options. If you have to accede to automatic spending cuts, then defense-heavy cuts that exempt entitlements and most anti-poverty programs and that don’t take effect until after the election is about as good as you’re going to do.

Obama’s mistake wasn’t the design of sequestration. It was finding himself in that negotiation to begin with. Earlier this year, Obama refused to negotiate over the debt ceiling, and Republicans caved and raised it. If he had done that in 2011, they would probably have done the same thing. Instead, Obama took their demand to reduce the deficit at face value and thought, Hey, I want to reduce the deficit, too — why don’t we use this opportunity to strike a deal? As it happened, Republicans care way, way, way more about low taxes for the rich than low deficits, which made a morally acceptable deal, or even something within hailing distance of a morally acceptable deal, completely impossible.

By the point at which Obama figured this out in 2011, the debt ceiling loomed and it was too late to credibly insist he wouldn’t negotiate over it. Sequestration was a pretty good way to escape fiscal calamity. The mistake was getting jacked up over the debt ceiling in the first place.

Democrats ‘Lost’ Sequestration Two Years Ago