The Mythical "Sequester Gaffe"

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 23 2012 9:20 AM

The Mythical "Sequester Gaffe"

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- When the Wall Street Journal speaks, Republicans listen. And the WSJ op-ed is telling Republicans that the president gaffed by saying "the sequester won't happen."

Mr. Obama's aides rushed out after the debate to say he meant to say the cuts "should not happen." But the truth is that Mr. Obama has been using the fear of huge defense cuts as a political strategy to force Republicans to accept a tax increase. As Bob Woodward describes in his recent book, Mr. Obama and the White House helped to devise the defense sequester strategy—no matter the actual risk to defense.

This is a lazy half-history of what happened, really a disservice to the WSJ reporters who owned the debt limit story. The only reason that spending cuts got scheduled in 2011 was that Republicans used the debt limit vote to negotiate for spending cuts. After the House passed cuts that the Senate and president couldn't agree to -- their first version included a mandatory vote on the Balanced Budget Amendment before the debt limit could be raised -- the White House proposed sequestration as a threat to 1) drag out the final decision on cuts and 2) come up with plans so offensive to everyone in Congress that they'd have to undo them. Half of the sequester would hit discretionary spending, and half would hit "security" spending -- defense and homeland security. The "defense" part was watered down by Republican demand.

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Since then, the White House has given details of what would be subject to a "meat-axe" cut while arguing that it will use the lame duck session to replace the sequester. That's where the "asking millionaires and billionaires to pay a little more" stuff comes in -- that's how they get the projected savings that allow the sequester to be nixed.

"What the president is likely to do when he's re-elected is to come up, in the lame duck session, with an alternative to the sequester," said Sen. Dick Durbin when I asked him about this last night. "I asked Tom Coburn, I said -- okay, it's December 31. Which party has the stronger hand? He said, 'The Democrats. You don't have entitlements on the table. We have tax cuts.'"

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.