Liberals Agree: Democrats "Lost" the Great Sequestration War

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 26 2013 5:08 PM

Liberals Agree: Democrats "Lost" the Great Sequestration War

First Ezra Klein said it, then Noam Scheiber said it -- good enough for gospel. Klein's nut graf is usefully concise:

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Sequestration was supposed to be so threatening that Republicans would agree to a budget deal that included tax increases rather than permit it to happen. That theory was wrong. The follow-up theory was that the actual pain caused by sequestration would be so great that it would, in a matter of months, push the two sides to agree to a deal. Democrats just proved that theory wrong, too.
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If it was wrong, why? Because the president and Congress are not equal players, and Republicans worked hard to keep it that way. In December, Republicans generally told me that the "fiscal cliff" would be a disaster, but mostly for one side -- the Pennsylvania Avenue side. Voters blame the president, not the Congress, when everything goes south. Voters blamed George H.W. Bush, not Tom Foley, for the 1991 recession; they blamed George W. Bush, not Nancy Pelosi, for the 2008 collapse. (There are good reasons for this, but let's move on.)

In January, Republicans tested this theory by limiting and delaying their own leverage over Barack Obama. In 2011, eventually, they learned that holding the debt limit hostage for a political program was deadly. So they punted the debt limit fight to later in the year -- it may now come in early autumn -- realizing that sequestration was more of a winnable fight. (yes, I understand the glibness of reducing decisions that cause real pain in the lives of the poor as "fights.")

Sequestration arrived, and -- it was not as disastrous, for most people, as had been promised. Republicans worked hard to define every showy cut as an Obama stunt; anyway, they had promised legislation, sheparded by James Inhofe, that would have empowered him to get past the purposeful stupidity of the cuts move the money around, spending the same amount but spending it judiciously. It didn't pass, but in PR terms it didn't matter. Intuitively, voters don't understand that a president might be hamstrung when he's making decisions about spending.

The White House fought this meme. The most pushback I can find came from Jay Carney, who used questions about the furloughs to deliver extremely lengthy talking points. One sample, from Wednesday, of Carney attacking Republicans:

It's slightly ironic that -- and you never hear them mention this -- but they should also read the budget that they passed in the House of Representatives.  The Ryan budget cuts -- if the dramatic, non-defense discretionary cuts envisioned in that budget were applied across the board -- because of course they're not identified in the Ryan budget -- but if they were just applied across the board, the cuts to the FAA would be three times the size of the sequester budget reductions.  Three times.  That's what they voted for.  That's what they want to become the law of the land.
And it's not just the FAA.  The same dramatic, steep cuts in services for children, for seniors; the same kind of harm that we're seeing from the sequester -- eliminating children from Head Start, eliminating access to Meals on Wheels programs for seniors -- just multiplied and made worse.  That's the budget they voted for.

That was supposed to be the message, but when did you ever hear it? Call it the Maureen Dowd Paradox -- people are so inclined to see the president as powerful that they don't understand how and why he might be limited legislatively.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.