February 22, 2013

White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer and the National Journal’s Ron Fournier got into a fascinating Twitter exchange this morning that sheds light on an increasingly apparent reality: There is a fundamental imbalance between the two parties’ approach to the sequester — and our fiscal problems in general — that many commentators are going to extraordinary lengths to avoid reckoning with or even acknowledging.

To summarize, Fournier and Pfeiffer argued over who is to blame for the sequester. Pfeiffer criticized David Brooks’ “pox on both houses” column this morning and noted that only one side (the GOP) is not willing to compromise to avoid the sequester. Fournier, who also tweeted a link to Brooks’ column, replied with several tweets arguing that it’s on the President to secure compromise from the opposition, such as this one: “only one side is president. Both sides should be ashamed.”

This echoes Fournier’s recent column arguing that while Republicans have adopted a fundamentally uncompromising position (which to Fournier’s credit he’s been willing to acknowledge), “in any enterprise, the chief executive is ultimately accountable for success and failure.” Brooks’s column, meanwhile, argues that both sides are to blame, because Obama doesn’t have a plan to avert the sequester (which is false). So, some questions for the “blame it on both sides” crowd:

1) Let’s grant Fournier’s premise that a president should do all he can to secure cooperation from the other side. What more, if anything, could Obama actually do to win cooperation from today’s Republican Party on averting the sequester, short of giving in to the GOP demand that we replace it only with spending cuts? Republicans say no compromise to avert the sequester is acceptable. That’s not an exaggeration: It’s the party’s explicit, publicly stated position. What more specifically could Obama do to change this? If the answer is “nothing,” then why are both sides equally to blame?

2) Which side’s approach to averting the sequester, and solving the deficit, do these commentators actually agree with? That is to say, do they think we should avert the sequester with a mix of spending cuts and new revenues via the closing of loopholes — as in the Senate Dem and White House plans — or do they think we should avert it only with spending cuts? Which side’s approach do they agree with when it comes to the remaining $1.5 trillion or so in deficit reduction many experts want to see? Whose argument do they agree with: The GOP claim that the tax debate should be entirely over, because Republicans already agreed to $600 billion in tax hikes, or the Dem argument that we’ve already cut spending by $1.5 trillion, and finishing the deficit job through cuts alone would be so damaging as to be deeply reckless and unrealistic?

Commentators should reckon honestly and directly with these questions. Of course, this would require a serious reckoning with the history of the last four years — and a forthright engagement with the larger question of whether there’s something fundamentally new and different going on with today’s Republican Party — both of which many have also refused to undertake.

 * The new “Obama Plan Truthers”: Speaking of David Brooks’ column today arguing that Obama has no deficit plan, don’t miss Jonathan Chait’s short-and-sweet takedown, which also gets into the epic unwillingness of commentators to admit it when they agree with Democrats and disagree with Republicans:

Advocates of what Matthew Yglesias calls “BipartisanThink” have found themselves trapped between two impulses. On the one hand, they fervently believe that the country’s most vital priority is to pass a plan to reduce the deficit through a mix of cuts to retirement programs and reduced tax deductions. On the other hand, they believe with equal fervor that the two parties are equally to blame for the country’s problems in general, and the failure to pass such a plan in particular.

Their problem is that one party agrees with them completely, and the other rejects them. This creates a paradox between the two mental tentpoles of BipartisanThink. The solution is to simply wish away the facts, thus bringing them into line with reality.

Also see Steve Benen, who rightly points out that there is simply no way to engage in constructive policy discussions when one side is denying reality.

* GOP splits over sequester: The Wall Street Journal has a good piece on the divide that’s opened up between defense hawks and spending hawks over the sequester, with some of the former so upset about the coming defense cuts that they’re even willing — gasp! — to consider new revenues to avert them:

Rep. Scott Rigell (R., Va),, whose Hampton Roads district is home to the largest naval base in the world and relies heavily on Pentagon spending, said he is reaching the point where he will consider whatever Senate Democrats offer up, even if that includes closing tax loopholes. “I want our leadership to consider it and not reject it outright,” he said.

Rigell has been one of the lonely few who’s been saying this for some time. If the sequester would damage the military and compromise our national security, why not close a few loopholes — as part of a deal in which Republicans would get more in spending cuts than they’d concede in revenues — to avert it?

* White House believes it has upper hand in sequester fight: The New York Times reports from behind the scenes that Obama and his advisers view this fight as fundamentally different from the standoffs of 2011: The public, they believe, is firmly on the president’s side on the substance, and Obama is resolved to continue taking his case directly to the people more aggressively than in previous fights.

Beyond the fact that seven out of 10 Americans back the Dem position in the sequester battle, I continue to think the key to who will win the “blame game” is that the GOP’s standing with the public is far lower than Obama’s, which could color public views of who is at fault for any economic damage the sequester inflicts.

* Don’t bite on GOP’s sequester ruse, Dems: As expected, Republicans are going public with their “offer” that the Obama administration have discretion over how to implement the sequester. Dems should not bite on this transparent trick, for all the reasons outlined here.

* Dems predict economic Armageddon from sequester: The DNC is out with a new Web video that paints a dire picture of the economic doom that will hit the country once the sequester hits. It concludes: “If Congress doesn’t act by March 1st, all those cuts will happen at once.” The video doesn’t name Republicans, only targeting Congress for blame — part of a broader strategy designed to place the onus of the sequester entirely on that unpopular branch of government.

* The fundamental imbalance in the sequester battle: Paul Krugman has a great column tracing today’s sequester madness straight back to the misguided preoccupation with the deficit in 2011, at precisely the time when we should have been more focused on jobs and the economy. This is key:

As always, many pundits want to portray the deadlock over the sequester as a situation in which both sides are at fault, and in which both should give ground. But there’s really no symmetry here. A middle-of-the-road solution would presumably involve a mix of spending cuts and tax increases; well, that’s what Democrats are proposing, while Republicans are adamant that it should be cuts only. And given that the proposed Republican cuts would be even worse than those set to happen under the sequester, it’s hard to see why Democrats should negotiate at all, as opposed to just letting the sequester happen.

All of this is just objectively true. Yet there is literally nothing that will get reporters and commentators to acknowledge the fundamental imbalance between the two parties’ handling of this issue.

* And GOP needs more than a cosmetic makeover: Don’t take my word for it. Michael Gerson makes the case at length today, calling on the party to do a serious rethink of its actual ideas, particularly about the economy, and insisting the party must ditch its “unreconstructed anti-government message.” I’d only add that if your policy platform has amounted to little more than “get government out of the way” (Mitt Romney’s actual words) it’s hard to pivot back to an affirmative case for the positive role government can play in people’s lives.

What else?

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