The Shrinking of Defense

Chuck Todd over at NBC has talked endlessly about the sequester, with today being no exception. He made some sense to me with his evaluation today, in which he said that nobody should be expecting a deal anytime soon. You can get his thoughts directly over at the First Read website,and see that the political calculations of all involved make a sequestration deal highly unlikely. But I think he leaves out one important calculation that will be made by the President and the Democrats as they mull their “sequestration options” in the days and weeks ahead. I will get to that in a moment. Let us look at the Todd theories, which in my mind are absolutely correct.

Third, the assumption that the cuts would force a compromise turned out to be incorrect. Whether it was during the Super Committee, the fiscal-cliff negotiations, or now, those spending cuts — especially on defense — weren’t enough to strike a deal. As it turns out, the deficit-hawk wing of the GOP got only larger in both the House and Senate. Fourth, all attempts for a Grand Bargain failed: In 2011, both sides retreated to let the election decide the fiscal fight. And at the end of 2012, they dealt only with the expiring Bush-era tax cuts (and not the sequester or increasing the debt ceiling again). Fifth and finally, that fiscal-cliff deal on the Bush tax cuts created a TREMENDOUS amount of intra-party blowback for House Speaker John Boehner, which only made resolving this sequester standoff even more difficult. (After all, remember that it wasn’t too long ago when the big discussion in DC was whether Boehner would lose his speakership.) And just as importantly, folks like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn — who are both up for re-election next year and both have colleagues from their states who have become Tea Party stars (Rand Paul, Ted Cruz) – are probably more reluctant to make a deal than ever before. Bottom line: The Senate escape hatch that saved the day during the fiscal-cliff fight isn’t there right now.

So Todd understands that the Republicans are not moving. I have understood that from day one.

So ultimately, the big miscalculation on the White House’s part on sequester was that defense spending would be a forcing mechanism. It is not and will not be. And, as things stand right now, they are wrong to believe the Republicans are going to break like they did at end of 2012. The law was on the president’s ideological side at the end of 2012. That’s why the GOP broke on taxes. In this case, the law is on the Republicans’ ideological side. It is easier for them to defend the sequester at home because they can say, “We said we’d cut spending and the size of government, the president tried to stop us but we wouldn’t let him.” A bad spending cut for many Republicans is easier to defend than any supposed fair tax hike on anyone. So if the White House really wants to stop the sequester, they might have to come up with their own set of $85 billion in spending cuts for this year to replace it. In this political environment, there is no way Boehner, McConnell and Cornyn can politically survive doing anything short of that. The president can still get more revenue down the road on tax reform, but he may have to fold on sequester if he wants a chance at winning in the long run. But that’s also a hard thing to ask a president who just won re-election on this very issue.

So Todd characterizes this as a miscalculation on the part of the White House. I might agree with him on that point if a legislative fix on sequestration was truly available, but not reached because the President did not try hard enough. But if Todd is correct on the Republican political dynamic preventing any movement from them, how was such a deal available on anything but Republican terms? That brings me to the one earlier mentioned miscalculation in the Todd analysis, which is the political problem for Democrats. If sequestration is to occur it is not in the President’s interests to change the current mix of spending cuts. If what Todd means by “folding” on sequester requires the President to advocate for replacing defense cuts with domestic ones then he is dreaming. The President will be in the same political boat that Todd feels the Speaker is in: changes to the sequester that further cut domestic programs in favor of defense will create a major firestorm in the Democratic Party, and on that basis are a non-starter.

For now the President will likely continue to speak publicly (campaigning) not because he thinks he can win the legislative fight that way but because he sees the stalemate ahead, and there are no palatable options for him. Folks from both parties better get used to the sequester, and significantly lower defense spending in the years to come. The country no longer wishes to pay for the type of defense spending that we have had over the past twenty years. The sequester of 2013 will be the first step in reducing the global American footprint because with tax revenue at 15.5% of GDP the nation can no longer pay for what we have built in defense. Military bases in Germany? I don’t think they will be there much longer. That debate is likely to be just as fierce as the fiscal debate is today.

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