With the sequester having taken effect at midnight on Friday, both Democrats and Republicans have good reason to set aside partisan differences and find a way do avoid draconian, economy-busting spending cuts. Unfortunately, both sides also have every reason not to do so — because both sides are hoping the other pays the price for political intransigence.
Republicans are hoping that the danger of a slowing economy will dent President Barack Obama’s approval ratings, which have jumped since his re-election in November. Democrats, meanwhile, are hoping that the public will once again see Republicans as the villains, willing to tie the economy to the tracks to score political points. Both sides are hoping that the other side will flinch first — and that has made at least short-term progress non-existent.
This is not to say that both sides are equally at fault for the current impasse. Democrats have repeatedly offered to accept a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes to balance the budget, while Republicans have been reluctant –to say the least — to accept any increased revenue whatsoever. Republicans have so far only considered bills to stop the sequester that would replace cuts in the military with cuts in social programs; needless to say, this is hardly reaching out across the aisle.
Nevertheless, now that the impasse has been reached, both sides are trying to do what politicians do: use it to make their opponent look bad. Whether either side can succeed will likely determine how — and if — the worst effects of the sequester can be avoided.
A Matter of Timing
Both sides are aware of one simple fact: the sequester does not kick in all at once. It will take time to wind down some of the programs that will be cut, and more time for those cuts to impact the economy. If a deal is reached sometime in March, the worst effects of the sequester could still be avoided.
For Democrats, the playbook is simple: once again paint the Republicans as a hopeless party of “no,” standing athwart reality, yelling “stop!”… make the sensible part of the GOP caucus uncomfortable with the ongoing political fallout over spending cuts, especially to the military … eventually force the sensible wing of the party to yet again push John Boehner to ditch the Hastert Rule, and allow a vote on a bipartisan bill that can earn enough GOP and Democratic votes to pass both houses. This is a tested strategy, one that’s already helped avoid the fiscal cliff and pass the Violence Against Women Act.
For Republicans, the strategy is different. The GOP is remarkably unpopular, with only 19 percent of Americans approving of Congressional Republicans. That may seem like bad news, but it does mean that if the public responds angrily to the sequester with a “pox on both their houses” mentality, the GOP has less to lose. With support in the teens, it’s hard to imagine the GOP’s popularity falling any farther. Meanwhile, Barack Obama and Democrats are relatively popular; anger at politics in general will hurt them more than it will hurt Republicans, since most Americans already despise Republicans.
That may sound like a ridiculous strategy, but it has been used by Republicans before, in 2011 during the debt ceiling crisis. Republicans damaged their brand significantly, but they also managed to hurt Democrats and the President in the process, forcing the White House to ultimately propose the sequester as a way to get something — anything — through.
Not Just the Sequester
The sequester is not the only battle looming. There is no general agreement among Democrats and Republicans on the next fiscal year’s budget, and that means that the potential looms for a government shutdown if a continuing resolution isn’t passed by March 27. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, says he’ll push the House to pass the resolution, but Boehner’s control of his caucus is hardly robust.
While a shutdown would be disastrous, the threat of a shutdown does allow both parties a way out of the game of chicken they’re playing with the economy. Negotiations over the budget can and should include ways to deal with the sequester, allowing the government to balance its books without driving the country into recession.
If Republicans could take yes for an answer, both parties could put together a budget that included some spending cuts, some increased revenue, and an ultimate path to fiscal responsibility without austerity. That would raise both parties’ standing with the public, and be good for the country, too. It’s not as fun as smashing your opponent to bits, but when you and the country get smashed to bits too, that process loses is appeal.