Conventional wisdom in Washington is a creature of the daily news cycle. It can evaporate overnight. For now, though, the budget cuts known as sequestration are being spun as a victory for House Republicans. Officially, neither the White House nor the House leadership was in favor of the sequester per se. But Republicans staked out a position that, at least temporarily, was a win-win: if the cuts were averted, great; but if no agreement could be reached on how to responsibly replace the cuts, then they should stick.
I’m still doubtful that the sequester will remain fully in place, but, in the meantime, it’s worth registering a couple of arguments that the sequester isn’t just a short-term win for Republicans. From this vantage point, the fiscal cliff deal was a high-water mark for Obama’s second term.
The first is from GOP strategist and former House leadership aide John Feehery. He writes in The Hill:
[T]he White House has gotten nowhere on its two biggest non-fiscal legislative agenda items, immigration and gun control. On the fiscal issues, the Republicans have succeeded in getting 98 percent of the Bush tax cuts made permanent. On spending, they have been successful in rolling back spending to 2009 levels. And what has the president achieved in these first two months of the new year? Outside of putting new Cabinet secretaries in place — and not without some controversy — he hasn’t accomplished much.
It seems to me it’s a little early to break out the champagne, but Feehery has a point: President Obama himself conceded that this year is crucial for his second-term legislative agenda. In that light, two months really is a long time. If his fiscal leverage is gone, and the rest of his agenda a prisoner of Senate otiosity—well, that doesn’t bode well for 2014 and beyond, does it?
Even more intriguing is Matthew Miller’s analysis in the Washington Post, in which Miller sees Obama’s agenda in the jaws of the “meaningless elite consensus” on fiscal responsibility. Since Obama rhetorically shares this consensus, and since voters see debt as a “values issue,” Miller writes, next week’s unveiling of a Republican proposal to balance the budget in 10 years could be a game-changer:
Democrats can’t come close to [Rep. Paul] Ryan’s goal in a responsible way without raising taxes on people who earn less than $250,000 a year. That’s the one thing Obama will never do (sorry, but the president didn’t mean it when he said he’d tell us what we needed to hear, not what we wanted to hear). He, like Republicans, will leave that painful truth to a successor. …
So what will they do? They can say balance isn’t important. They can say it is and fudge the numbers in a Democratic answer to the big Ryan fudge. Either way, these questions will expose rifts in the Democratic caucus that could keep the White House scrambling for months, as progressives rightly say we need to focus on jobs and growth, and centrists rightly say the party can’t be cast as fiscally irresponsible.
I don’t profess to know what will happen six days from now, let alone six months.
But I agree with Feehery and Miller in this sense: Democrats are in for a much tougher battle than most thought two months ago, and liberal skeptics of the fiscal-cliff compromise are starting to look prescient.
The key, as I’ve been arguing all along, will be how wisely Republicans use their leverage: Will they get something in return for it, or will they bludgeon themselves with the lever?