I'm having one of those days where I feel rather smart. The sort of day where you feel something click in your head and you feel like you've finally put all the pieces together. I may have figured out the October surprise that comes in every major U.S. election and it's only July. Now I'll stop the self-congratulations, because I could be very wrong.
On Tuesday, I listened as Mitt Romney talked about increasing military spending for ships, planes and 100,000 additional troops. It's a typical Republican line, but it seems to me that it sets him up for hard questions, that is, if his aides ever allow him to be asked one. How can he promise to balance the budget and increase military spending? The only logical explanation would mean drastically cutting every social program. That doesn't sound like a popular position going into an election. I'm beginning to suspect it's a purposeful plan to plant the thought into the collective conscience of the electorate because it could matter later.
Here is why that could win him the presidency. It's all about sequestration. I know... but stay with me. It is a rather clunky sounding word that doesn't say much, but what it means could have a huge impact. In a sign of how dysfunctional Washington had become, last July the president and the Republicans in Congress couldn't figure out how to cut the deficit during that whole debt ceiling debate. The final plan, lay out budget cuts that would be so bad for the economy, so unpopular with voters and campaign donors that politicians would be forced to come up with an alternative. They didn't, so now the federal government, under current law, HAS to cut about $100b in spending starting January 2, 2013.
You might be thinking, polls show that people like the idea of cutting the deficit so what's the problem? It's simple, Americans don't yet know what austerity feels like, but they might find out four days before the election.
Fifty percent of the cuts will come out of the politically untouchable five-sided building otherwise known as the Pentagon. There are defense contractors telling Congress if they don't get rid of the cuts, by law, they'll have to warn every single employee, contractor and supplier that they could be fired. That would happen 60 days the cuts would be put in place, yes that is November 2nd.
Just think about that for a second. I've seen one study that put the number of workers connected to the defense industry at about 3.5 million people. What would you do if you got that notice on November 2nd that you could be losing your job? Would you stand in the cold November rain for hours if you had to, in order to fire every single elected official that you believe might cost you your job? I'm betting a lot of people would do exactly that. In an election that is expected to be decided by a few thousand votes in a handful of states, that without question could make the difference.
Fifty billion dollars is, of course, not the entire budget for the Department of Defense, not even close. Why then would the defense industry notify every person who works on every program? The proposed cuts wouldn't cost everyone their jobs -- far from it. The bosses at the Department of Defense have decided not to say what programs could be impacted. In fact, they insist they aren't even beginning to think about it. The Pentagon spokesman told reporters the other day that the agency known for planning for every just in case scenario, isn't really looking at what it will cut in January, just a few months from now. If that seems beyond understanding, he tried to explain: "We typically don't plan against absurdities, and that's what we're talking about here. It is an absurdity." It also means that by not getting specific, the military industrial complex can continue to put fear into every single elected member of Congress. It is the case that the military industrial complex reaches into every Congressional District in this country.
It's a running debate if the Congress has the will or ability to come up with an alternative plan before November, because that would likely mean doing something as unpopular as raising taxes right when voters are deciding if they should keep you around. I have to wonder if anyone thought ahead when they came up with this plan. If anyone asked themselves, we look tough on the deficit for a bit, but then we'll have to decide to either raise taxes or lose jobs right before the election. It just doesn't seem like any politician would call that a good plan.
I asked a congressman with a very heavy military presence in his district, what layoff notices would mean for the election. He very simply answered: it depends on who they blame. Will the instant focus be on House Republicans who insisted on the deficit reduction? Will they blame the president who helped make the deal? Four days in a news cycle isn't a lot of time to explain something so complicated, or cement the idea of fault. For his part, Mitt Romney has four months left to continue to tell everyone that he wouldn't do either, raise taxes or cut the military. Regardless of the fact that seems to defy basic arithmetic, he might just have the time to make that stick.
Cross-posted from here.