The Morning Plum: The false equivalence pundits are part of the problem

The battle over the sequester has sparked a corollary argument over the proper role of pundits in assigning blame in political standoffs of this type. A number of us have argued that the facts plainly reveal that Republicans are far more to blame than Obama and Democrats for the current crisis. The GOP’s explicit position is that no compromise solution of any kind is acceptable — this must be resolved only with 100% of the concessions being made by Democrats — which means any compromise Dems put forth is by definition a nonstarter at the outset.

Analysts reluctant to embrace this conclusion — an affliction I’ve called the “centrist dodge” — have adopted several techniques. One is to pretend Dems haven’t offered any compromise solution, when in fact they have. A second is to argue that, okay, Dems have offered a compromise while Republicans haven’t, but Dems haven’t gone far enough towards the middle ground, so both sides are still to blame for the impasse. (The problem with this dodge is that it fails to acknowledge that Republicans themselves have openly stated that there is no distance to which Dems could go to win GOP cooperation, short of giving them everything they want.)

We’re now seeing a third technique appear: Acknowledge that Republicans are the uncompromising party, but assert that it’s ultimately on the President to figure out a way to either force Republicans to drop their intransigence or to otherwise “lead” them out if it.

Case in point: David Brooks. Last week Brooks was widely criticized for a “pox on both house” column in which he based his entire argument on the falsehood that Obama has no plan. Brooks repented for his error, and today he offers a good faith effort to describe what he’d like Obama to do to change things. It boils down to this:

My dream Obama wouldn’t be just one gladiator in the zero-sum budget wars. He’d transform the sequester fight by changing the categories that undergird it. He’d possess the primary ingredient of political greatness: imagination. The great presidents, like Teddy Roosevelt, see situations differently. They ask different questions. History pivots around their terms.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether the prescriptions Brooks offers would really change the current dynamic, but at bottom, the suggestion that it’s all on the president to figure out a way to persuade Republicans to drop their intransigence is still a dodge. The idea that the President can necessarily bend Congress to his will is indeed a “dream.” It doesn’t reckon with the most fundamental question at the heart of all of this: What if there is nothing whatsoever that can be done by the president or anyone else to break the GOP out of its no-compromising stance?  This isn’t an unreasonable reading of the situation; it’s what Republicans themselves have confirmed, publicly and on the record — they will not concede a penny in new revenues, no matter what. And if this is the case — if the fundamental problem is that Republicans really do prefer the sequester to any compromise — isn’t it incumbent on commentators to explain this clearly and forthrightly to their readers?

As Josh Marshall puts it:

Over the last few days, as it’s become increasingly clear that the sequester cuts probably really will happen, the big name pundits are coming forward and complaining that President Obama needs to step forward and ‘exercise leadership’ and solve the problem.

It’s all similar to what we saw in the fiscal cliff negotiations. Official Washington is accustomed to having a Democratic safety net — not cash transfers for those who fall through the cracks of the market economy — but that Democrats will come in and solve crises created by GOP government by crisis. When the Democrats or the Democrats’ party leader — in this case, the President — won’t do that, everyone freaks out.

The argument now is basically that the president is the father who must make his problem children behave. Only this is worse than just a dodge. Lots and lots of people are going to get hurt by the sequester. Anyone who helps deflect blame from Republicans — in the full knowledge that they are the primary obstacle to the compromise we need to prevent serious damage from being done to the country — is unwittingly helping to enable their intransigence.

* GOP won’t accept any compromise solution: Last night, Lindsey Graham turned heads when he said on CNN that he’s willing to accept $600 billion in new revenues along with spending cuts to avert the sequester. This perfectly illustrates what I noted above: After all, no GOP leaders agree with Graham; meanwhile, Democratic leaders do agree with Graham that a mix is the best way to go.

* Another poll finds GOP will take blame for sequester: A new Post poll finds that 45 percent of Americans will blame Congressional Republicans if and when the sequester hits, versus only 32 percent who will blame Obama. Strikingly, 52 percent of moderates will blame Republicans; only 24 percent will blame Obama.

A lot of this is probably driven by the fact that Obama’s general standing with the public is far better; the question is whether that dynamic will hold as the cuts kick in over time.

* Americans think sequester will damage economy, military: Also key from the new Post poll: 60 percent think it will have a “major effect” on the economy, and 62 percent think the effect will be “negative.” Fifty five percent say it will have a “major effect” on the military.

* Don’t bite on the GOP’s sequester ruse, Dems: As expected, Republicans are laying plans to “offer” a proposal to the administration that would allow agency heads to have discretion over where the sequester cuts are allotted. Senator Tim Kaine gets at the irony underlying this proposal:

“These guys bash the president nonstop.Then they are going to take the power of the purse and say, ‘We are so unable to do our job we are going to give you complete flexibility to do it’?”

As I’ve noted before, his alternative would transfer ownership of the cuts to Obama, and would create a false sense that they are not all that threatening, allowing Republicans to evade some political responsibility for them — even as it doesn’t do much of anything to mitigate the actual damage they would do.

* Yes, sequester would mean major cuts to government: Glenn Kessler explains why the claim that the sequester would cut “only” 2.5 percent out of the government, which is widely cited by Republicans, is completely misleading, and why the cuts will be far bigger in practice. While Kessler also finds that there are problems with the White House’s predictions of doom, it is overwhelmingly clear that the sequester has the potential to do deep and serious damage.

* Virginia residents increasingly anxious about sequester: The Post has a nicely reported piece digging into one Virginia community’s increasing anxiety about the coming cuts. This is only a glimpse of what may be to come when the cuts actually begin to make their impact felt. What this article really drives home is that, as much as people hate government in the abstract, when specific programs are threatened people suddenly love government spending.

* And there’s real bipartisan consensus behind gay marriage: It’s good to hear that dozens of Republican officials, some of them very high profile, have signed a brief to be submitted to the Supreme Court that argues in favor of gay marriage. And yet as a whole the GOP has not evolved on this question. It’s one of the starkest tests yet of the party’s ability to adapt to the country’s changing politics and culture, since gay marriage has broad bipartisan support and is strongly embraced by young voters, a growing share of the electorate.

What else?

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