In a way, it’s fitting that the flap over the White House email to Bob Woodward continues to rage on the same day that sequestration is set to kick in. Both are a reminder that we’re stuck in the wrong conversation, as Steve Benen has put it. They’re a reminder that we’ve been stuck in the wrong conversation since 2011.
The Woodward flap is superficially an argument about the meaning of Gene Sperling’s email, but as Jonathan Cohn details this morning, this is just a distraction from the broader, far more consequential argument over who is to blame for the creation of sequestration. The answer, of course, is that both sides are to blame for creating it — though one side is far more to blame for the failure to avert it — thanks to the deficit mania that gripped Washington in 2011, at precisely the time we should have been focused on unemployment and economic growth.
Meanwhile, the fact that sequestration is set to hit is a concrete reminder that we’re still stuck with the consequences of that misguided 2011 mindset. Indeed, the continuing argument over how to avert sequestration — whether to replace it with a mix of spending cuts and new revenues, or with just spending cuts — is itself a sign of the continuing power of elite consensus deficit-obsession. After all, the battle is still being fought on deficit/austerity turf, at a time of near-zero growth and mass unemployment, rather than over what government should be doing to boost the economy and alleviate widespread economic suffering. As Atrios has put it, we’re not debating whether to implement more austerity; we’re debating over how much austerity to implement.
It remains to be seen how damaging the sequester will be and how the politics of it will play out. But one can only hope that it will have one positive effect: Perhaps it will persuade people to rethink the relationship between federal spending and their own economic well being. As Brian Beutler has noted, Obama — through sustained and intense public persuasion — has already fixed the broken link in the public mind between the need for higher taxes and the value of sustaining popular government programs. Maybe the sequester will take this one step further and get folks to reconsider the relationship between government spending and economic recovery. Is there any other cure for the 2011 hangover that continues to dominate our policymaking?
Obama and Democrats appear to hope that some sort of eventual “grand bargain” will lock in a long-term consensus over the safety net and the deficit — over the size and nature of the welfare state and who should pay for it — and liberate policymakers to turn to the economy. One can hope. But for now, we remain trapped in the wrong conversation — one that is doing nothing to alleviate the suffering of untold numbers of Americans.
* John Boehner has painted himself into a corner: Republican aides are claiming today that they like their position on the sequester, arguing that the tax debate should be over and that they’re getting the spending cuts they want. But as Ashley Parker notes:
Republican aides say privately that Mr. Boehner sees no need to negotiate; Republicans are in a good place, they argue, because they want spending cuts and those cuts are happening. But Mr. Boehner’s tough-guy stance has also opened him to criticism that he has negotiated himself into a position from which he can no longer effectively negotiate.
Republicans have defined victory as conceding no new revenues whatsoever, which leaves no way out. Also: Pew finds that more than seven in 10 Americans want the sequester averted with a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes.
* Dems face a dilemma in government shutdown fight: Democrats are going to have to figure out how to react if and when House Republicans pass a bill funding the government past the shutdown deadline of March 27th, but at the lower sequestration levels. Dems appear uncertain at this juncture how to respond.
* Liberals still wary of “grand bargain”: Buzzfeed talks to liberals and Democrats who are still worried that the endgame in the sequester fight will be a “grand bargain” in which Democrats cede too much ground on entitlements. The White House has taken a Medicare eligibility age hike off the table, but Chained CPI on Social Security is still very much in the mix.
* A bold move on gay rights: Robert Barnes’ detailed overview of the Prop 8 brief the administration filed yesterday gets at the fundamentals of why it’s such an important moment. As one advocate put it: “It is an unprecedented call to action by our government that it is time to recognize gay and lesbian Americans as full and equal citizens under the law.”
While the brief doesn’t explicitly declare a Constitutional right to marry, it plainly lays out an argument for striking down laws that deny that right on the grounds that they’re at odds with the nation’s founding principles.
* Obama administration didn’t have to submit Prop 8 brief: Jonathan Capehart makes another important point: The administration was under no legal obligation to submit any brief in this case, let alone one as sweeping as this one, yet did so anyway. In so doing, it put the force of the United States government’s legal arguments behind the historic words Obama spoke in the Inaugural.
* Bernanke fails to put dent in elite deficit consensus: Paul Krugman asks a good question: Will Ben Bernanke’s recent testimony that cutting the deficit too quickly imperils the recovery do anything at all to puncture Washington’s deficit-mania bubble?
Right now Washington is focused on the idiocy of the sequester, but this is only the latest episode in an unprecedented run of declines in public employment and government purchases that have crippled our economy’s recovery. A misguided elite consensus has led us into an economic quagmire, and it’s time for us to get out.
* The last word on the Woodward tale: As I noted yesterday, Woodward himself never directly claimed he’d been “threatened” by the White House. On Hannity last night, he reiterated that he’d never used this word, but as Erik Wemple notes, he’s still using language that strongly implies this charge. Woodward can’t have it both ways. Is he saying he was threatened, or isn’t he?
* And liberals rally around Keith Ellison: Dem Rep. Keith Ellison, an outspoken liberal, had an epic confrontation with Sean Hannity on Fox that has drawn the attention of national Republicans. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee is raising money for Ellison off the exchange to show that liberals nationally will rally around those who aren’t afraid to engage in confrontational, unapologetic progressivism.