David Brooks writes in The New York Times
(February 22, 2013; see below Postscript: February 22, 2013)
[P]ut politicians in both parties are secretly discovering that they love
sequestration now. It allows them to do the dance moves they enjoy the most.
Democrats get to do the P.C. Shimmy. Traditional
presidents go through a normal set of motions: They identify a problem. They
come up with a proposal to address the problem. They try to convince the country
that their proposal is the best approach.
Under the Permanent Campaign Shimmy, the president
identifies a problem. Then he declines to come up with a proposal to address the
problem. Then he comes up with a vague-but-politically-convenient concept that
doesn’t address the problem (let’s raise taxes on the rich). Then he goes around
the country blasting the opposition for not having as politically popular a
concept. Then he returns to Washington and congratulates himself for being the
only serious and substantive person in town.
Sequestration allows the White House to do this all
over again. The president hasn’t actually come up with a proposal to avert
sequestration, let alone one that is politically plausible.
He does have a vague and politically convenient
concept. (Tax increases on the rich!) He does have a chance to lead the country
into a budget showdown with furloughed workers and general mayhem, for which
people will primarily blame Republicans. And he does have the chance to achieve
the same thing he has achieved so frequently over the past two years, political
success and legislative mediocrity.
Republicans also secretly love the sequester. It
allows them to do their favorite dance move, the Suicide Stage Dive. It was
pioneered by Newt Gingrich in 1995 and has been repeated constantly since.
In this dance, the Republicans mount the stage and
roar that they are about to courageously cut spending. In this anthem they
carefully emphasize cuts to programs the country sympathizes with, such as
special education, while sparing programs that actually created the debt
problem, like Medicare.
Then, when they have worked themselves up into a
frenzy of self-admiration, they sprint across the stage and leap into what they
imagine is the loving arms of their adoring fans. When they are 4 feet off the
ground, they realize the voters have left the building in disgust and they land
with a thud on the floor.
Sequestration allows the Republicans to do the Suicide
Stage Dive to perfection. Voters disdain the G.O.P. because they think
Republicans are mindless antigovernment fanatics who can’t distinguish good
government programs from bad ones. Sequestration is a fanatically mindless piece
of legislation that can’t distinguish good government programs from bad ones.
Sequestration carefully spares programs like Medicare and Social Security that
actually contribute to the debt problem. Sequestration will cause maximum
political disgust for a trivial amount of budget savings.
So, of course, the conservative press is filling up
with essays with titles like “Learning to Love Sequestration.” Of course,
Republican legislators are screwing up their courage to embrace it. Of course,
after the cuts hit and the furor rises, they are going to come crawling back
with concessions as they do after every Suicide Stage Dive.
These two dance moves, the P.C. Shimmy and the Suicide
Stage Dive, when combined, are beautifully guaranteed to cause maximum damage to
the country. What’s America’s biggest problem right now? It is that business
people think that government is so dysfunctional that they are afraid to invest
and spur growth. So what are the parties going to do? They are going to prove
that government is so dysfunctional that you’d be crazy to invest and spur
In a normal country, the politicians would try some
new moves. For example, if they agreed to further means test Medicare they could
save a lot of money. Democrats would be hitting the rich. Republicans would be
But no. Both parties love their current moves.
Postscript: February 22, 2013
The above column was written in a mood of justified frustration over the
fiscal idiocy that is about to envelop the nation. But in at least one respect I
let my frustration get the better of me. It is true, as the director of the
Congressional Budget Office has testified, that the administration has not
proposed a specific anti-sequester proposal that can be scored or passed into
law. It is not fair to suggest, as I did, that tax hikes for the rich is the
sole content of the president’s approach. The White House has proposed various
constructive changes to spending levels and entitlement programs. These changes
are not nearly adequate in my view, but they do exist, and I should have
acknowledged the balanced and tough-minded elements in the president’s