The (One) Republican Accomplishment

Top Stories of the Year: #3

Number 3 in our countdown of the top stories of 2013 is the Republicans’ biggest accomplishment in recent years: the automatic spending cut known as the “sequester.”

Naturally, Republicans have spent the last part of the year undoing this accomplishment.

The sequester cuts were negotiated two years ago on the premise that Congress would be able to cancel them, delay them, or shift them around before they actually came into effect. But Republicans couldn’t come to an agreement with Democrats or with the Obama administration—so they let the automatic cuts go through.

My friend Jack Wakeland describes the results:

“The sequester is the only policy that has reduced spending by the federal government. In fiscal year 2013, total federal spending decreased 1.5% to 2.0% in real, inflation-adjusted dollars. And it promises to do so again in 2014.

“The FY 2013 sequester is the first time in my lifetime that federal spending shrank in absolute terms. After the ramp-down from WWII, the only decreases in federal spending were decreases as a percentage of GDP, e.g., during the Clinton-Gingrich term in 1995-96. These occurred only because GDP expanded more quickly than spending.”

This result is all the more remarkable because it was achieved under such inauspicious circumstances, with Republicans controlling just one house of Congress and facing a president who is dead set against any reductions in government spending.

Given that the sequester reduces government spending from what is already a very high level, its impact is limited. But it was crucial for Republicans to show that they could do this, because reducing the size of government is the Republicans’ distinctive agenda and reason for being.

If you snorted skeptically when you read that last sentence—well, by the end of the year, the Republican leadership validated your skepticism, passing a bipartisan budget deal that eliminates many of the sequester cuts, particularly in the bloated defense budget, and offsets some of the restored spending with tax increases disguised as “fees.”

So why would Republicans want to give up their one real legislative achievement?

The Republican leadership wanted to make the issue of the budget go away, to have it settled and decided and to not have to fight any battles over it until well after the next election.

Yet this is the same Republican caucus that sought out a battle over the government shutdown in early October. What changed? First, the government shutdown was a moderate loser, politically, for Republicans, in part because of what I described as “Shutdown Theater of the Absurd,” the bizarre attempts to magnify the impact of a small, partial government shutdown and make it look as if it were paralyzing the nation.

As I pointed out, the real story here was all of the government spending that was not shut down by a congressional impasse over the budget.

Welfare-state spending keeps going because it is permanently authorized and requires no special congressional approval. That means that most government spending is outside the normal process of congressional budgeting and appropriations. The money comes in and goes out automatically, with no need for any ongoing authorization and review by Congress….

So all of the current conflict over whether Congress will pass a budget or a funding resolution masks the fact that Congress and its budget have been made largely irrelevant to the question of the size and power of government. That is the real absurdity behind the shutdown theater of the absurd.

The second reason Republican leaders were eager to avoid future budget standoffs is that the moment they gave up on the shutdown, everyone’s attention switched to the launch of ObamaCare, which was an unmitigated disaster for Obama and the Democrats.

Here is how I described the results.

The shutdown was triggered when House Republicans demanded a one-year delay in the implementation of ObamaCare, and the complaint about this demand is that Republicans really had no realistic strategy under which they would succeed.

Now, thanks to the very people in charge of ObamaCare, they have one: declare victory and go home. Pass a “clean” continuing resolution funding the government for another year—and then wait for President Obama to come back to Congress asking to delay the implementation of ObamaCare for another year. Or, given how this administration has acted so far, wait for them simply to declare such a delay.

Which is precisely what is happening, as Obama himself suspends or delays one provision of ObamaCare after another.

The essence of the current political environment was captured in the Virginia governor’s race, where the Democrat opened an early lead and widened it when the government shutdown angered the bureaucrats who live in Northern Virginia. But then he nearly lost the election when press coverage shifted back to ObamaCare, which his Republican opponent had vigorously opposed.

Clearly, the Republican leadership doesn’t want to present the public with any distraction that would divert their attention from the ObamaCare debacle. So there can’t be any more budget battles or standoffs.

This is the essence of the new Republican political strategy: in effect, to stop fighting Obama’s agenda and instead watch it play out in all its disastrous details. Then be ready to sweep back into power when the Democrats collapse politically.

The political logic of this position is very strong. When I began rounding up the top stories of this year, I knew the sequester would be one of the candidates, and as you can see, it ended up at #3. But the implosion of ObamaCare is hands down the top story. I know I’m supposed to save that announcement for a few days from now, but there just isn’t any suspense.

So why let a lesser story get in the way of the big story, especially when the big story is so politically advantageous? That’s the logic of the Republican leadership’s position.

Way back in February, I described how we faced a choice between two predictions of disaster. When it came to the sequester, it was the left that was screaming it was a catastrophe, while most on the right wondered, as I did, “will most people outside the beltway actually view a 3% decrease in government spending as a disaster?” But: “When it comes to Obamacare, the shoe is on the other foot: it is the right that is predicting disaster and the left that is telling us not to worry.” Guess who has been proven right?

Precisely that observation undermines the Republican leadership’s reasoning. If the sequester was such a non-disaster that everyone had forgotten about it already—why “fix” something that isn’t broken?

ObamaCare, by contrast, is really, really broken, and the story of its failure isn’t going away. It will unfold in increasingly grisly detail over the whole of the next year. So it’s not like we need to worry that Democrats can just change the subject and the story will fade away.

The big mistake Republicans are making is that their whole strategy depends entirely on a negative. They are hoping that independent voters will turn to Republicans in November simply because they hate the other guys. As for the Republican base—well, this is the same message on spending that we’ve heard from the leadership many times before: We would really like to cut spending, but gosh, it’s just so hard right now. Vote for us again, though, and next time we swear, honest, we’ll do it.

The Republican establishment may be right that it’s hard to accomplish much with Democrats still in the White House and controlling the Senate. But the problem is that they have no personal credibility. Nixon could go to China because he was a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Communist who had exposed Alger Hiss. But John Boehner cannot go to Harry Reid.

That’s why Republicans had to force the government shutdown in early October: to prove they could be serious about spending and the budget. But this end-of-the-year agreement wipes out any credibility they might have gained.

The Republican leaders haven’t grasped the implications of the “frog-pot hypothesis” I described during the shutdown (and later expanded on).

You have probably heard about Frog Pot Syndrome, in which a frog placed into a pot of water supposedly will allow itself to be boiled so long as you turn up the heat slowly. Each incremental increase in temperature is too small to be noticed until it’s too late, and the frog is cooked to death. My sense of the Tea Party reaction on the right is that the recession, the bailouts, and above all ObamaCare simply turned up the heat too quickly. The frog suddenly realized it was being boiled and jumped out of the pot.

This would explain the depth of the reaction. It can seem almost hysterical if you view it as a reaction just to the growth of government in the past few years. But it is actually a response to thirty or fifty or eighty years of growing government, which is suddenly being noticed and rejected all at once.

It is fitting, then, that the right has gone back decades to look for a pre-welfare, pre-Progressive-movement model of small government: the administration of Calvin Coolidge. As I observed, “Coolidge Is the New Reagan.”

A few years ago, I moderated a couple of debates for Republican candidates in congressional primaries. When I probed the candidates about their political philosophy, I noticed a trend I called the “flight to Reagan.” In stating where he stands, every Republican candidate finds it’s always a safe bet—and a convenient way to avoid specifics—to invoke the memory of the former president.

But now Reagan might be getting a little competition from another former Republican president: Calvin Coolidge.

So the underlying story behind the sequester is how the base of the right has turned toward a more radical free-market agenda, manifested in an ongoing rapprochement with “libertarians,” by which they mean radical pro-free-marketers. That’s not to mention the mainstream Objectivists’ own weird rapprochement with libertarians.

But as I pointed out, in questioning “Are Objectivists Libertarians?” this rapprochement will have a less beneficial aspect.

The rise of the libertarian influence—and a possible Rand Paul presidential candidacy, which I regard as likely—means we’re going to have to work harder to keep a clear head about the need for vigorous US action overseas, particularly because President Obama is going to leave us with a big international mess to clean up. So we’re going to have to be ready to fight a battle within the right to push back against the libertarian anti-interventionists.

That is one of the big tasks ahead for those of us who are Objectivists but not libertarians.

The foreign policy disaster that we’re going to have to clear up leads us to the next item in our countdown, which I will cover tomorrow.

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