President Obama traveled to Newport News, Virginia, today to highlight the damage the sequester will do to the military-heavy area. He took special care to give a shout out to GOP Rep. Scott Rigell, who was at the event, having previously called on Congressional Republicans to consider new revenues to avert the sequester cuts.
The highlighting of Rigell contained a clue as to how Democrats will proceed in the sequester battle, and as to why they are content to wait Republicans out in hopes that they’ll cave in the end. Democrats are hoping that the sequester deepens the divide between defense hawks and spending hawks in a way that makes the GOP position untenable over time.
The most important factor in this fight is probably the reality that Obama doesn’t have to face voters again and thus is willing to veto sequestration replacement bills if they’re composed of spending cuts alone. Congressional Democrats are fully aware of this, too, and that creates a powerful incentive for them to hold the line.
So sequestration will begin. Obama won’t cave. And then the tension sequestration was intended to create — and in fact has created — between defense hawks and the rest of the GOP will intensify and actually splinter the party. If that doesn’t happen quickly enough, then the sequestration fight will become tangled up in the need to renew funding for the federal government at the end of March. If Republicans don’t cave before then, they’ll precipitate a 1995-style government shutdown, public opinion will actually begin to control the outcome, and it’ll be game over.
So there are real dynamics at work here that can break the GOP’s resolve in this fight but that can’t easily be turned against Obama.
I’d only add that Democrats have literally no incentive to do anything other than follow this course. After all, there’s no reason for them to agree to any package of cuts to replace the sequester, since no package of cuts is preferable to them. What’s more, the current public opinion environment favors Democrats on not one, but on two levels. The public overwhelmingly favors the Democrats’ approach to bringing down the deficit — through a mix of spending cuts and new taxes on the wealthy — so Dems are already favored to win the basic policy argument that will unfold and be dramatized for voters throughout the month of March. Democrats will be arguing that we should replace the cuts with something voters actually want. Republicans can only continue to argue for more spending cuts to replace the sequester — which will only deepen the public’s identification of Republicans as the party of the sequester cuts in the first place.
More broadly, this will unfold in an environment in which general opinion about Obama is far more favorable than it is about Republicans. The new Pew poll today finds that an astonishing 62 percent of Americans think the GOP is out of touch with the American people, versus only 46 percent who think that about Dems — a 16 point gap.
It remains unclear how many Republican officials will break with the leadership in the spending/defense divide. Justin Green makes the case that this divide is overstated and that the spending hawks have broad dominance within the GOP. That said, defense hawks like Lindsey Graham and John McCain have now signaled an openness to new revenues. If they mount a very public campaign (including the Sunday shows) to pressure their leadership to accept new revenues, it’s conceivable that divide could deepen. And when the threat of a government shutdown looms, that could grow worse, with public opinion suddenly looming as large as it did during the shutdown fight in the mid-1990s. As we’ve seen in the payroll tax cut fight and fiscal cliff battle, these sorts of pressures can result in sudden, unexpected stampedes of GOP officials coming out and calling on their leadership to admit that the game is over.
Ultimately, what will be decisive is how public opinion plays out through March. The current environment suggests Republicans have a lot more work to do to shift the basic dynamic in their favor than Dems do.