You thought November was the political 'silly season'? Guess again. February is the new November, with the 'sequestration silly season' reaching a fever pitch usually reserved for the first Tuesday in November. Calls for common ground on policy have given way to partisan finger pointing, an environment with substantial political advantages for the president.
The president is playing a high-stakes game of poker, using one, strong political card to bolster a losing hand; but if his bluff were to be called, his 'fold' would fundamentally change the terms of the debate. Keeping this fact in mind, anyone who cares about serious solutions needs to pull themselves out of the Washington spin-cycle and propose policy alternatives that speak directly to hardships facing the middle class across America today. Turns out, good policy can also be good politics.
This weekend brought yet another round of the inside-baseball Beltway blame game; with the president scolding uncompromising Republicans during his weekly address and GOP operatives--armed with Bob Woodward's Washington Post column--trumpeting the technicality that sequestration was originally the president's idea.
The sequestration debate is utterly confusing, even to those who follow politics closely. The president was for the sequester, before he was against it. He insists that he is willing to entertain entitlement reform if Republicans would consider raising taxes on the rich (a "balanced approach"). Republicans want spending cuts, but not these spending cuts--passing two alternate House plans (weighted towards entitlement reform and minimal defense reductions). But they won't budge on closing tax loopholes to increase revenue because the debt ceiling deal two months ago included a de-facto tax increase for the wealthy.
Does any of this confusing he-said, she-said posturing really matter? Yes, and no. Yes, because you need to know the terrain of the debate in order to propose a solution that has a shred of success. And, no, because most Americans have a limited understanding of what sequestration really means. Viewed from the real world, this is just Washington being Washington: more dysfunction, more grandstanding.
All things considered and viewed from outside the beltway, the president holds the winning political hand and Republicans hold a better policy hand (in that, raising taxes will not fix our fiscal woes). But right now the most important hand to hold is the political one, precisely because the technical policy solutions are difficult to succinctly explain, but easy to optically demagogue.
Technically, this Congress already raised taxes. Technically, the sequester was the president's idea. And technically, the GOP House has passed two alternative budget plans (Senate Democrats, zero). But, optically, people believe the wealthy can afford to pay more. Optically, both sides share blame for the sequester. And, most importantly, optically, this president makes his opponents look unreasonable and obstructionist, a clever tactic that makes governing that much more difficult.
The president has masterfully continued this winning campaign approach, broadly painting himself as the defender of the middle class while Republicans object on technical, and seemingly tired, points that rarely penetrate outside the political chattering class and make them look like defenders of the rich. Republicans may be technically correct, but they're politically bankrupt.
All the while, a sad irony persists: as the president postures politically, the economic situation of middle class Americans gets worse. Gas prices have increased 50 cents a gallon in the past month and taxes went up for every American in January, when the 2 percent payroll tax holiday expired. Spending $10 more each trip to the pump--and losing $60 a month in wages (for someone making $40,000 a year)--has a disproportionate impact on the middle class. Taken together with political uncertainty that is freezing hiring, the president's "middle class champion" rhetoric does not jive with reality.
It doesn't take a political spinster to see that this script could have been flipped a long time ago. Call the president out, and take away his trump card. He wants to close some personal and corporate tax-loop holes for the rich--why not? In exchange, demand a payroll tax decrease and further simplify the tax code for the little guy. Who's the middle class champion now?
Moreover, do even more of the unexpected--call for targeted defense cuts. Not cop-out, across-the-board sequestration cuts, but targeted reforms that cut fat and preserve muscle. The bi-partisan plans are out there--here. are. a. few.--whereby somebody--anybody!--could advocate a "balanced approach" as both a defense and deficit hawk.
Coming out of a Chicago political culture where posturing is more important than governing, the president is much better at political optics than his sparring partners in the GOP. This imbalance is tragic, because it perpetuates a stalemate that prevents the very reforms needed to induce the economic growth and return our country to fiscal sanity.
In his aforementioned weekly address, the president closed by saying, "We just need Republicans in Washington to come around..." He's right, but not for the reason he thinks. The president waited to act until 18 days before the sequestration deadline--after sitting on the problem for 18 months. He didn't speak to GOP congressional leadership until last Thursday, a week before sequestration hits. How anyone could lose the public relations battle with those optics is almost incredible; and yet, it appears to be happening.
Until the GOP, or even members of his own party (whose voters will also suffer the real-world effects of this dysfunction) call his bluff, the president will continue to win the politics, sequestration will happen, no reforms will take place, and the lives of the middle class--and all Americans--will be worse off for it.
Until a credible force--making a broad and compelling counterargument that resonates outside the beltway--comes to the negotiating table, the president won't. He doesn't have to. His job is secure, even if there rest of ours are not.