To hear President Obama and Congressional Democrats speak of sequestration is to receive advance warning of drastic spending cuts that will put as many as 1 million Americans out of work, furlough enough air traffic controllers to delay a lot of flights, many National Parks will become almost impassable, productivity in the civilian Defense Department will plummet while all branches of our military will slip out of readiness while the Navy and Air Force will fall out of a state of good repair, and drug addicts, sick or disturbed children, destitute senior citizens, and very young children awaiting their vaccines all will be abandoned. Hundreds of millions of dollars in both humanitarian and military aid, including some funding for a successful program to fight AIDS in Africa started by former President George W. Bush, will be cut. The United States Border Patrol will be cut. 700,000 children lose Head Start services, resulting in the layoffs of 14,000 teachers. $1.12 billion in total funding will be cut from FEMA. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be cut from the FBI and prisons, among other law-enforcement and penitentiary institutions. The National Science Foundation will lose $375 million in research grants, while NASA will lose almost $1 billion in funding.
The Democrats tell us the cuts in spending on these priorities will be catastrophic. All of that is certainly bad–and that’s what the sequester, as programmed, entails. But what if the spending cuts aren’t as broadly-felt as it sounds like they will, or if creative operational changes or greater budgetary discretion blunts the edge of some of these spending cuts? What then?
Well, that could represent a major political victory for Congressional Republicans. In recent weeks, Republican Conference leaders have argued that the coming forced spending cuts of the sequester are insignificant in the scheme of things; as it turns out, $85 billion in cuts expected this year is at least statistically-significant, but a better way of making this point might be to say that the list of cuts described above tells you nothing about what Federal spending is left intact by the sequester, or about how massively Federal spending has grown over the last 12 years. Adjusted for inflation, President Obama’s budget proposal for 2013 calls for overall Federal spending that is 52.4% higher than the total for 2001, which was President Clinton’s final Federal Budget. Does a cut of just over 2% of that spending, Republicans ask, really herald the collapse of our civilization, or even more than the needy can bear?
Make no mistake about it: These Federal spending cuts will be as draconian as they are crudely-designed–to the people directly affected. But I ask my usual crass question: Will the persuadable center segment of the public feel the impact of the sequester cuts as advertised?
Much has been said in the political press about what a risk Congressional Republicans are taking in sitting on their hands over the sequester. It’s true that Congressional Republicans are already pretty widely disliked by the public; on a related note, it’s true that recent polls suggest Congressional Republicans face prospective blame from a much larger share of the public if the automatic spending cuts go into effect.
But I’m not crowing. I’m thinking.
Waxing cynical, Chris Cilizza and Aaron Blake at The Fix noted that most Americans are playing little to no attention to the coming budget sequestration, either because they don’t believe the spending cuts will affect them as directly as the tax cuts of the New Year’s Day “fiscal cliff” or because they simply don’t understand what in the budget is being cut. In any case, President Obama has taken to the road calling for public support for a negotiated budget solution–and it isn’t working.
There is a broadly-sustained conventional wisdom that Congressional Republicans are playing a dangerous game in waiting-out the President and Democrats to let the automatic spending cuts go into effect. They seem to think in part that they are doing what their base wants, and that they can deflect some of the blame back onto the President by noting that they are offering the Executive Branch greater discretion to decide just what parts of the budget get cut, as long as the cuts fall within the same broad portfolio and aren’t reduced in size. Reading polls which indicate a small majority of the public are ready to blame Republicans for the sequester, some pundits conclude this is a weak hand, and doomed.
But the impact of the sequester is going to hit some States much harder than others. This is a big country, and the broad-based spending cuts we’re talking about take more money out of programs that are important to particular cities and States. President Obama has issued dire warnings about the way people’s lives will be inconvenienced or even needlessly endangered under sequestration, but what if the proposed spending cuts aren’t perceived (or at least not fully-appreciated) by a broad swath of voters outside of the Democratic base? The dramatic warnings could then backfire, leading Republicans to repeat their charge that the President of playing politics and to demand further spending cuts.
So the conventional wisdom may be wrong. While most political prognosticators say the Republicans are so committed to the game of chicken that they’ll hurtle off the cliff, there may be less at stake for them in making this gamble. The Republican Party’s reputation is already in the toilet. It’s President Obama who commands a tenuous majority support but who is at the start of his 2nd term and whose party faces another Midterm Election in less than 2 years’ time. Midterm elections, especially in 2nd terms, are characterized by lower turnout–anywhere from 2/3 to 1/2 of what is expected in a Presidential Election–with the opposition party’s voters better-represented due to frustration with the President’s policies. While the massive Republican gains of the 2010 Midterms were an historic outlier case, they were definitely facilitated in part by President Obama’s and Congressional Democrats’ Liberalism.
Most of the public isn’t paying attention to budget sequestration, President Obama is calling the effects of spending cuts dire and Congressional Republicans are being pushed by some in their divided base to ask for further spending cuts. As previously noted here, President Obama has committed to a more-confrontational politics in order to inspire the Democratic Party’s growing Liberal base. He has successfully built public support for a number of his policies this way. But if, whatever the reason, the impacts of budget sequestration aren’t broadly-felt after the warnings he has issued, Congressional Republicans may choose to characterize his philosophy towards government as archaic.
If they can make that claim, President Obama may lose an edge he didn’t realize he’d wagered. In politics, it’s dangerous to confuse your own perspective with a microcosm of reality.