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The Morning Plum: No, the GOP isn’t “winning” the argument over sequester

President Obama is set to meet with House Republicans today, and the air is thick with suggestions that Obama is losing the political battle over the sequester. And indeed, a new Washington Post poll has some toplines that are troubling for the president. The Post homepage headline captures it well: “Obama losing trust on the economy.”

But dig deeper into the poll and you find something striking: Public disapproval of the sequester is running high — and more Americans hold Republicans responsible for it. Solid majorities oppose specific cuts to government programs to replace the sequester — even as solid majorities support closing tax loopholes to replace it. Solid majorities reject the basic Republican argument about the sequester and the economy.

It’s true that the poll finds that Obama only holds a small edge over Republicans on who is most trusted on the economy, 44-40. His approval rating has slipped, though it remains at 50 percent. The public also is split on who has the balance right on government spending (though this may again reflect that people always like cutting spending in the abstract). But look at these findings:

* 72 percent of Americans, including 74 percent of independents and 81 percent of moderates, disapprove of the Congressional GOP.

* Americans disapprove of the sequester cuts by 53-39; 64 percent say they’ll hurt the economy; 60 percent say they’ll hurt the government’s ability to provide basic services; and 69 percent say they’ll hurt the military.

* Americans hold Congressional Republicans responsible for the sequester cuts by 47-33.

* 68 percent want Obama and the GOP to work together to avert the cuts, while only 28 percent want them to continue (the conservative position).

* 71 percent oppose cutting spending on Medicaid to replace the cuts; and 60 percent oppose raising the Medicare eligibility age to replace them. By contrast, 58 percent support replacing the cuts with more targeted cuts to military spending.

* 56 percent support replacing the cuts with an agreement that includes limiting deductions enjoyed by higher income individuals.

To summarize: People say they agree with the GOP about spending cuts in the abstract. But when you get specific, solid majorities disapprove of the sequester cuts and think they’ll harm the economy — rejecting the conservative argument about the relationship between the economy and spending cuts. Solid majorities oppose replacing the sequester cuts with cuts to major social programs the poor and elderly rely upon — rejecting the conservative argument about the safety net. (In fairness, Obama is also prepared to cut entitlement benefits as part of a grand bargain, but more judiciously.) Solid majorities support asking for more revenues from the rich, rather than cutting social programs, to replace the cuts — rejecting the conservative argument about taxes.

To be clear, the sequester fight almost certainly holds political peril for Obama, and it very well may already be taking a toll on him. But when it comes to the substance of the argument over the sequester, there is no way to look at the above numbers and declare Republicans are “winning” it, if by “winning,” we mean, “persuading the public to see things their way.” Majorities reject the values, priorities, and governing vision at the heart of the GOP stance on the sequester. Though it’s certainly possible the public could ultimately hold Obama as responsible or more responsible than Republicans for the damage the sequester does, the above findings underscore that the political outcome of this battle is uncertain. GOP triumphalism about the sequester is seriously premature.

* No, the deficit is not our most urgent short term problem: This is welcome: The New York Times weighs in with a big piece quoting economists making the case that we are not obligated to rapidly slash the deficit amid a fragile recovery, and making a distinction between short term and long term fiscal policy. What’s interesting is how rarely this point of view makes it into the coverage.

As others have noted, coverage is frequently biased in the sense that it treats the idea that immediate deficit reduction is a good thing as an objective truth, and not a policy preference. What’s more, the coverage too rarely reflects that this preference is widely disputed by those who want to defer immediate deficit reduction and focus on the economy and job growth (which would also help with the deficit).

* Liberals press Obama on entitlements: In their private meeting yesterday, Senate liberals apparently pushed Obama to back off his willingness to cut Social Security benefits as part of a “grand bargain,” but the President stood firm. In an interview with me on Monday, Bernie Sanders vowed to join with other liberals to hold the line against cuts, perhaps even with a filibuster, but it remains unclear whether such an effort would block a big deal.

* Paul Ryan budget needs tax hikes to balance budget: Glenn Kessler cuts through Paul Ryan’s fibbing about how he’s supposedly balancing the budget with no tax increases, noting that Ryan is pocketing the tax hikes in Obamacare in order to do it. Of course, these are tax increases Republicans once described as “job killing,” but Ryan is keeping them — and the $716 billion in Medicare cuts in the law he campaigned against extensively last fall — while vowing to repeal the rest of the law. Very Serious!

* About Paul Ryan’s vow to repeal much of Obamacare: This is a fascinating factoid ferreted out of Ryan’s budget by the Post editorial board. After noting that the budget relies on a fantasy tax cutting vision and disproportionately slashing programs for low income beneficiaries, the editorial notes:

This brings us to the ideas that are too unrealistic to worry about: chiefly, Mr. Ryan’s proposal to save $1.8 trillion by repealing Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and insurance exchanges. Combined with $700 billion in anticipated net interest savings, the Obamacare repeal accounts for more than half of the deficit reduction in Mr. Ryan’s budget — which pretty much closes the book on it as a serious guide to future policy.

Ryan’s apparent need to continue providing care and feeding to the GOP base’s unshakable Obamacare repeal fantasy doesn’t bode well for that GOP “makeover.”

* Dems will campaign against Paul Ryan plan in 2014: It’s often argued that the fact that Dems didn’t take back the House proves that the Ryan plan isn’t the political albatross Dems claimed it would be. But Steve Benen has the rundown on Dem plans to use the Ryan budget against GOP Congressional candidates — and points out that there’s reason to think Medicare could resonate as an issue in a cycle only focused on Congressional races.

* Is Mitch McConnell worried about his seat? The Senate GOP leader is already running his first ad of the 2014 election cycle, some 18 months before election day, persuading Kentucky Democrats that he’s concerned about holding his seat. I don’t know if the race will truly be competitive or not. But if it does turn out that way, McConnell’s special status as author of one of the most important quotes of Obama’s first term — the one vowing to make Obama a one-term president — ensures an epic contest with intense national attention.

* And the GOP message about Obama’s outreach: With the president set to meet with House Republicans today, here is the GOP’s message about it, courtesy of a spokesman for John Boehner:

“The troubling part of the president’s outreach is that it is so infrequent that it can rightly lead to cynicism about his motives. We’re taking him at his word that this is a good-faith effort. But the proof will be in the follow-through.”

I’m curious to know what would count as a “good faith effort,” short of giving Republicans everything they want. After all, as we keep seeing again and again, there is no compromise offer trading entitlement cuts for new revenues that would be acceptable to them.

What else?