January 31, 2013

Politico’s Glenn Thrush reports this morning that Republicans believe the GDP report showing the economy is shrinking gives them political “leverage” over Obama, since bad economic news is terrible for the President. But Thrush notes that this shouldn’t be the case, since the contraction was the result of a drop in spending, which in theory should undermine the GOP argument that we should cut spending as deeply as possible:

The fact that the shock this time came from a plunge in defense/federal spending should, in theory, bolster Obama’s contention that budget-cutting and trimming entitlement spending is the worst thing for the economy right now. It should, in a more Spock-like world, be an argument against the sequester cuts and big changes to Medicare and Social Security. Forget about that.

All nuance is lost in the howling gale of an economic “contraction” — and the advantage, at least in the current news cycle, shifts to a down-in-mouth GOP. It’s not likely to be a major shift in the dynamics of looming fiscal fights, but Republicans, in the words of one senior Hill staffer I spoke to this morning, “will take any leverage we can get.”

Thrush very well be right that people won’t take the right message from the contraction. But in a rational world, what should be glaringly obvious is that the belief that this gives the party “leverage” highlights how absurdly incoherent the GOP message about the economy has become. (Read Steve Benen for all the other problems here.)

The economic contraction was driven largely by a steep drop in defense spending. As Ezra Klein details, this shows that “government is hurting the recovery” by “spending and investing too little.” As Ezra notes, “government spending and investment have, at all levels, been contractionary since 2010.”

Yet Republicans are responding to the news of the economic contraction by suggesting it validates their view that we need to further cut spending to help the economy. Hence their claimed “leverage” in the coming battle over the sequestered cuts, half of which is to defense spending. Republicans are actively using the sequester to force Dems to agree to avert it by offsetting it entirely with other deep cuts to social programs, and no new revenues from the wealthy. In response to the contraction, John Boehner tweeted out this hashtag:

#spendingistheproblem

In other words, the contraction confirms that we need more spending cuts.

You could chalk this up as a philosophical difference between the two parties — Republicans think spending cuts help the economy; Democrats think spending cuts hurt the economy — except for one small problem: Republicans themselves previously said the sequestered spending cuts threatened severe damage to the economy, back before they had decided to use it as leverage to get other cuts they wanted.

Back in September, when Republicans were eager to avert the sequester’s defense cuts, Eric Cantor warned that the sequestered cuts would make unemployment “soar,” adding that this risked “setting back any progress the economy has made.” The RNC predicted that sequestered cuts would drive Virginia’s economy “into a recession.” On the stump, Paul Ryan repeatedly said the cuts threatened massive job loss.

Now that Republicans are trying to use the threat of the sequester to extract other spending cuts, they have backed off this rhetoric, since it would reveal their case to be untenable: If the sequestered spending cuts threaten dire harm to the economy, wouldn’t replacing them with other cuts do the same? At the same time, they are now claiming that the economic contraction validates their push for these new cuts.

But Republicans are unambiguously on the record previously saying that the sequestered cuts do threaten to damage the economy — which is to say, they have admitted spending cuts will imperil the recovery. Which is to say that they have confirmed what yesterday’s news of the economic contraction reminds us. And so even if it’s true that the public won’t necessarily perceive the contraction in these terms, those of us who are writing about this should note clearly that the contraction does, in fact, validate Obama’s claim that we should not offset the sequester only with deep and damaging spending cuts. Republicans themselves have essentially confirmed it.

 

More on this topic:

Samuelson: The sequester we need

Sargent: Don’t dilute message on economy, Mr. President

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.