The Pivot – The Republicans’ Secret Weapon


When sequestration was designed by the Obama administration, the idea was that the required spending cuts would be unpalatable to both sides – cuts to Democrat-favored patronage programs would be balanced by cuts to Republican-favored defense spending.  Few of us who supported the debt ceiling deal realized how seriously the deck was stacked against Republicans, with tax increases scheduled to take effect, at the same time that entitlement spending remains untouched.

The game is to box the Republicans into permitting tax increases now, in return for promises of spending cuts, and promises to examine entitlements.  I’m sure Obama will give entitlements all the attention he can, in-between the front and back nines.

The game is aided and abetted by a number of institutional and political factors.  They have a President who seemingly believes that whatever the consequences of raising taxes on a fragile economy, and defense cuts in a world whose stability largely rests on US power, the political blame will largely fall on Republicans.  Republicans have allowed themselves to be trapped by the Democrat publicity arm media into negotiating with themselves on national television.  The President hints darkly about “not playing that game” of using the debt ceiling for leverage, but in the absence of a proper budget process, Congress institutionally has no other leverage to control executive spending.

While Harry Reid has steadfastly refused – in blatant violation of the law – to pass a budget, Speaker Boehner has abandoned that process in favor of closed-door negotiations.  The Speakership simply is simply not a position that generally produces men suited to that role.  Boehner is acting like most Speakers – a legislator who sees it as his job to legislate.  It is the relentless logic of the situation that led Boehner to punish fiscal hawks by removing them from key committee positions; he’s assumed a role that he really shouldn’t be in at all, and it’s led him to take some rash and unwise personnel decisions in order to try to preserve caucus unity.  He would be better served by trusting his committee chairmen in a complex process such as this.

But as long as the Republicans are committed to this process, the defense angle may not be as one-sided as we’ve been thinking.  Walter Russell Mead provides the clue:

The rising regional tensions, if anything, underline the need for a continuing U.S. presence. The Philippine foreign minister, like Japan, has welcomed that presence and agreed to “more U.S. ship visits and more joint training exercises.” This is a good sign. America is a stabilizing force in the region; we don’t want war, and we don’t want boundaries changed by force.

Reassuring our allies while reaching out to China and trying to keep the temperature cool is going to be a tough assignment, and there is no way to do this on the cheap. The President and his new Secretary of State have their work cut out for them. Pivoting is hard work.

Indeed it is.  The US has already been initially shut out of a new multi-lateral trade pact in Asia, and much of the Chinese aggressiveness can be traced to administration weakness around the world.  We can survive a couple of months of sequestration, if it leads the administration to recognize that its plans for its pivot to Asia depend on having a naval presence to back it up, assuming they really care.

In fact, the House Republicans could always simply walk away and let the cliff happen.  They could also do as Rand Paul suggests, pass the President’s plan, an immanentize the financial eschaton.  But they have a number of better options: they could pass Bowles-Simpson and dare the President and Harry Reid to ignore it; they could pass a bill retaining all of the Bush tax rates, and then pass an additional package that would target tax benefits largely enjoyed by blue-state limousine liberals.  They could pass actual budget and tax bills, and inform Sen. Reid that until he returns to lawful and orderly governance, there will be no debt ceiling increase.  The knowledge that the President’s high-profile foreign policy initiatives depend on getting a deal done should strengthen their hand considerably.

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