First some overdue business. On the authorship and meaning of the sequester, I think Ezra Klein basically cleaned Bob Woodward’s clock last week. Yes, the sequester appears to have been first suggested by Jack Lew, as a throwback to the 1980s, as a desperate last minute way to avoid a credit downgrade. But it was heartily endorsed by the GOP at the time as a way out of a horrible impasse and as a down-payment on triggered, automatic spending cuts. The pressure on the GOP was entirely because of possible defense cuts; the pressure on the Dems was because of automatic entitlement cuts. The goal was to make both sides so queasy they’d come up with a Grand Bargain of tax hikes, tax reform and entitlement cuts that would clear the air, end uncertainty and help us move on.
The committee failed; the elections loomed. Ezra’s right, I think, to see the elections as an endorsement of a mixed approach: raise revenues, reform taxes, and cut entitlements. Now some revenues have been raised – but only because without some modest concessions from the GOP, even more revenues would have been raised, tipping the economy into recession. But the implemented tax hikes, as the GOP has consistently and rightly argued, are nowhere near enough to tackle the debt. So we still do need real spending cuts in the medium and long run, especially in Medicare, and we do need defense cuts, to reduce a military-industrial complex now costing twice as much as it did a decade ago; and we desperately need tax reform and simplification. In that last option – tax reform and simplification – lies the least damaging way to raise essential revenues.
The GOP’s recent position, in contrast, was that all the cuts should come from the needy and entitlements, that none of them should come from defense, and that no increase in revenues is permissible at all – and that the sequester is horrible and all Obama’s fault. Perhaps sensing the total incoherence and unpopularity of this position, their response may be changing somewhat – and in a good way. More and more Republicans are prepared to see the military cut rather than raise taxes. That’s a BFD, if it pans out, a real shift in the balance of ideology within the Republican coalition. There’s a reason Bill Kristol is worried. This Kristol post is such an amazing bath in hathos I found myself reading it twice, letting the panicked, ponderous, pseudo-Churchillian prose roll joyfully around in the frontal cortex. It even has a shout out to Leo Strauss. Sit back and enjoy:
The plain is darkling. The world grows more dangerous. Yet we heedlessly slash our military preparedness. Iran hastens toward a nuclear weapon, which would pose an existential threat to Israel and signal a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Yet the president nominates for secretary of defense a man who is patently unqualified for the position, who despises Israel, and who has a record of being exceedingly solicitous of Iran. We win in Iraq and make progress in Afghanistan, thanks to the valor and sacrifice of our troops, and the president puts these accomplishments at great risk because he chooses to pander to public war weariness rather than attend to America’s national interests.
There is more complete delusion, absurd hysteria and outright deception in that hysterical passage than in Sarah Palin’s autobiography. (We won in Iraq! Won! No WMDs found, no sectarianism overcome, tens of thousands of bodies, the collapse of America’s moral standing, and a strengthened Iran … and we won! One wonders what losing would have looked like.)
The core fact to me, and, I suspect, many others who remain very concerned about financing the long-term debt indefinitely, is that the president has already cut $1.4 trillion in spending, while getting $600 billion in new revenues: more than 2:1, or roughly the balance of the British Tories. Going forward, if I understand this correctly, the president proposes $930 billion in new spending cuts, of which only $100 billion could come from defense. He’s also committed to cutting Medicare over the next ten years by the same amount proposed by Bowles-Simpson. If I were a Republican (and, of course, my brand of conservatism would make that currently quixotic), I’d jump at that deal.
Instead, the GOP is insisting on absolutely no new revenues, and recently insisted that all the cuts come from entitlements. I just don’t see how they win this argument, especially if they protect the Pentagon. And that may be why many of them are resigned to the sequester taking effect – and taking credit for it, including the big defense cuts. I have to say I’m fine with that. The spending reductions are not enough to fully sink the economy this year, although they will almost certainly drag us all down. I’d prefer a Grand Bargain, or a sane set of cuts (rather than the crude ones we now have), but if this is the only way we will ever be able to cut defense spending, I can live with it – especially if defense cuts implicitly get a GOP blessing. That’s a huge step forward toward some fiscal sanity on the right.
The trouble is: whichever of these positions the GOP takes will hurt them. The president’s proposals for debt reduction are simply much more reasonable and pragmatic and doable than the GOP’s – and he has far higher favorable ratings than the Congressional Republicans. Obama’s approach is also much more popular. He just won re-election on those priorities – against a ticket that included Paul Ryan, whose cuts-only approach was front and center. A cuts-only, protect-the-wealthy approach would be hard enough even if Ryan and Romney and the Republicans had won the last election. A cuts-only, including-the-Pentagon, approach won’t be much more popular, but it also presents the possibility of a serious split in the GOP between fiscal conservatives and the spendthrift neocons.
Yeah, it’s a meep-meep. But a depressing one. The only positive aspect is that finally, the Pentagon might be reined in a little, because the GOP wouldn’t stop it. About fucking time.
(Photo: The official photograph of President Dwight Eisenhower, the best Republican president of the 20th Century, war hero and champion of keeping the Pentagon’s spending and political power under control.)