Yesterday, I argued that Republicans had the upper hand in the upcoming fight over the automatic spending cuts scheduled to go into effect on March 1, but the Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis counters that that I’m wrong. Lewis makes two basic arguments. One is that defense hawks will make noise about the military cuts in the sequester. The other is that Republicans will be “up against the bully pulpit” — essentially, the argument is that President Obama could blame them for any economic consequences. But neither of these arguments changes my initial assessment.
It’s true that a number of Republicans will raise hell about the defense cuts, but at the end of the day, I’d bet a critical mass would learn to live with them if the alternative is another negotiation with Obama in which he demands more taxes. There’s no greater evidence of this then the very design of the sequester itself. When Republicans originally agreed to create a sequester as part of the debt limit deal, they chose to include defense cuts rather than tax increases. That was a clear sign that defense cuts were considered the lesser of two evils among Republicans. This is even more true now that taxes went up as part of the fiscal cliff deal.
As for the idea that Obama could blame Republicans for the consequences of the sequester, I have no doubt that he’ll try to do so and he may have some success on that front when it comes to non-defense spending. But he’ll have a much more difficult time pinning the blame on Republicans when it comes to the defense cuts. The reason is simply public perceptions of the two major political parties based on their long standing positions. The public thinks of Republicans as the party that wants to cut social programs and protect military funding, while Democrats are known as the party that wants to preserve social programs and cut defense. Obama has done a lot to cement this impression. Check out this 2007 video in which he sought the endorsement of Caucus4Priorities, a group founded by Ben Cohen (of Ben And Jerry’s) to get candidates to commit to cutting defense. (Text here.) Throughout his presidency, Obama has spoken of cutting defense spending and its been reported that he picked Chuck Hagel as defense secretary in large part to oversee defense cuts.
I’m not saying the situation caused by the sequester is ideal for Republicans, but I do stand by my argument that they have the upper hand.