The Democrats have lost on sequestration.
That's the simple reality of Friday's vote to ease the pain for the Federal Aviation Administration. By assenting to it, Democrats have agreed to sequestration for the foreseeable future.
Recall the Democrats' original theory of the case: Sequestration was supposed to be so threatening that Republicans would agree to a budget deal that included tax increases rather than permit it to happen. That theory was wrong. The follow-up theory was that the actual pain caused by sequestration would be so great that it would, in a matter of months, push the two sides to agree to a deal. Democrats just proved that theory wrong, too.
In effect, what Democrats said Friday was that in any case where the political pain caused by sequestration becomes unbearable, they will agree to cancel that particular piece of the bill while leaving the rest of the law untouched. The result is that sequestration is no longer particularly politically threatening, but it's even more unbalanced: Cuts to programs used by the politically powerful will be addressed, but cuts to programs that affects the politically powerless will persist. It's worth saying this clearly: The pain of sequestration will be concentrated on those who lack political power.
Democrats had other choices, of course. As Politico's Glenn Thrush pointed out on MSNBC Friday, President Obama could've vetoed the FAA bill while standing at a Head Start that's about to throw needy children out of the program. He could've vetoed it from the home of an jobless worker who just saw her benefits cut. Democrats could simply have insisted that the powerful can't get out of sequestration unless the powerless can, too. But they didn't -- and they show no signs that they'll start.
But that's game, then. Absent the willingness to accept the pain of sequestration and use it to overturn the whole policy, Democrats have no leverage to end it.
It is worth noting how different the Democrats' approach to sequestration has been to the GOP's approach to, well, everything. Over the past five years, Republicans have repeatedly accepted short-term political pain to win the leverage necessary for long-term policy gain. That's the governing political principle behind their threats to shut down the government, breach the debt ceiling, and, for that matter, accept sequestration. Today, Democrats showed they're not willing to accept even a bit of short-term pain for leverage on sequestration. They played a game of chicken with the Republicans, and they lost. Badly.
At this point, it probably makes sense for the White House to push for and accept an expanded version of the Inhofe-Toomey bill giving them some discretion over how the cuts are distributed. So far, they've resisted bills giving them the ability to choose, within sequestration's broad parameters, how to allocate the cuts. But that refusal was based on the theory that making sequestration less painful would make it more permanent. If sequestration is permanent, however, they might as well make it a bit less painful.