WASHINGTON — Nobody is going to win the Battle of Sequester Gulch. The Republicans are going to lose, the Democrats are going to lose, President Barack Obama is going to lose, the economy is going to lose, the nation’s image is going to lose, and the entire political class is going to lose. It’s not every day that Washington pulls such an arresting inside straight.
“Only Congress could find a way to cut spending and put the economy at risk and cripple the military,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in an interview the other day. “That’s pretty impressive. We need to think of a new word that means ‘beyond stupid.’ We need to go to adjective school and find one.”
Former Democratic Sen. Paul Kirk Jr. of Massachusetts wandered over to the conversation and added: “I shake my head watching this.”
But it’s not only Congress that looks bad. The White House often seems more interested in assessing blame than in ascertaining whether a deal might be made. And earlier this month, it contrived to shift responsibility for the capital stalemate by one of the smarmiest stunts in a generation: It canceled White House tours.
That may seem innocent enough — until you realize that visitors to Washington get their tour tickets from congressional offices, which will be in the position of delivering the bad news.
In the unlikely event you don’t intuitively know the case against both parties, here’s a political primer for our time:
The case against the Republicans
They limped out of the 2012 elections bleeding from multiple wounds — their presidential candidate stumbled over immigration, portrayed the very people whose votes he needed as slugs with their palms up for a government handout and showed no affinity for understanding the middle-class Americans who his advisers told him were the swing voters.
Some Republicans concluded that the only thing wrong with Tea Party ideas were that they hadn’t been advocated with enough conviction and implemented with enough enthusiasm. Others argued that the problem with the party was that it showed a harsh, uncompromising face to a country desperate for a comforting, compromising outlook. Almost all of them maintained that the party’s identity depended upon an unwavering opposition to new taxes.
At first the Republicans looked intransigent: the party of no. Then late last year, battered, they agreed to raise taxes. But rather than seem flexible and responsible — any halfway good public-relations firm could have made that case easily — they now seem confused and unfocused.
And while it is possible to argue that the Republicans have bent more than the Democrats since the election, they still are regarded as the stubborn party in this struggle. This is not an easy task, but they have accomplished it.
The case against the Democrats
Obama won the election and claimed a second-term mandate the public might not have conferred upon him. Ordinarily this might not be toxic, but the low point of his first term was when he reminded Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia of what he already knew: that Obama was president and the then-GOP minority whip was not, and that elections (here he was speaking of his first victory, in 2008) had consequences.
Translated into English that meant: I won, you lost, get in line, Buster.
That was maybe not the best negotiating tactic for a president whose engagement in direct negotiations is a part-time thing and who might have blamed the economic crisis on his predecessor for a bit too long, perhaps forgetting that he asked for the job of president.
The Democrats profited for a few years by portraying their rivals as obstructionists, failing to recognize that their convictions were as strongly held and as deeply rooted as the Democrats’. Just this week Obama, on a dining spree, invited some Republican senators out for supper, the White House emphasizing that the event was at a neutral site. This was a very good impulse and a very bad explanation.
The White House and the Capitol themselves are neutral, American sites, no matter who has temporary political custody of them, and in the Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan years the White House was often used for presidential dinners with opposition leaders. That may be why the 88th and 97th Congress were so productive, and why the 112th and (so far) the 113th have been so frustrating.
One slick maneuver yet to be pulled: A former Democratic senator wonders whether a devilish Republican caucus might agree to a tiny tax increase as part of a stopgap measure in the sequester drama. Then the Republicans could go to the country and say they gave Obama a tax increase not once but twice — and now it is time for Obama, his reputation as a big taxer secure, to give them the big spending cuts they want and their constituents demand.
The worst-case scenario: This would be today’s paralysis carried on endlessly, which would challenge our faith in democracy. Put aside the question of who is punished most severely by the sequester and whether it is really bad for the economy. This impasse undermines our system and is a symbol of our leaders’ inability to do what they were elected to do: not to win a debate but to serve the country.
The best-case scenario: Let’s return to Sen. Graham of South Carolina, born in a town called Central, often at the center of things but seldom a centrist. This is his take: “We might have maneuvered ourselves into some place that is so stupid that we have to do something rational.”
This is a heck of a position to occupy, the world’s sole superpower forced to be rational as a result of its own stupidity. But in the end, the much-avoided truth may be that it is easier, and better, to do a big budget deal — the grand bargain, as it is termed in the capital — than to implement the sequester.
Let’s see how stupid our public servants can be in the hope that they might wake up and do the rational thing. Maybe they will. Because now it is clear that nobody is going to win the Battle of Sequester Gulch.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.