Political Animal


April 26, 2013 5:12 PM Know When To Fold ‘Em—Or Call For a Fresh Deck

By Ed Kilgore

I’m typically fearful of over-reacting to individual political events and making them seem epochal (an occupational hazard for bloggers). But it’s hard to argue with this assessment from Ezra Klein this afternoon:

The Democrats have lost on sequestration.
That’s the simple reality of Friday’s vote to ease the pain for the Federal Aviation Administration. By assenting to it, Democrats have agreed to sequestration for the foreseeable future.
[I]n any case where the political pain caused by sequestration becomes unbearable, they will agree to cancel that particular piece of the bill while leaving the rest of the law untouched. The result is that sequestration is no longer particularly politically threatening, but it’s even more unbalanced: Cuts to programs used by the politically powerful will be addressed, but cuts to programs that affects the politically powerless will persist. It’s worth saying this clearly: The pain of sequestration will be concentrated on those who lack political power.

Thus, a strategic retreat is indicated:

At this point, it probably makes sense for the White House to push for and accept an expanded version of the Inhofe-Toomey bill giving them some discretion over how the cuts are distributed. So far, they’ve resisted bills giving them the ability to choose, within sequestration’s broad parameters, how to allocate the cuts. But that refusal was based on the theory that making sequestration less painful would make it more permanent. If sequestration is permanent, however, they might as well make it a bit less painful.

The alternative approach is one that Ezra mentions but assumes has been discarded because it wasn’t used in the current case:

Democrats had other choices, of course. As Politico’s Glenn Thrush pointed out on MSNBC Friday, President Obama could’ve vetoed the FAA bill while standing at a Head Start that’s about to throw needy children out of the program. He could’ve vetoed it from the home of an jobless worker who just saw her benefits cut. Democrats could simply have insisted that the powerful can’t get out of sequestration unless the powerless can, too. But they didn’t — and they show no signs that they’ll start.

This last dismissive phrase is accurate, but doesn’t describe an inherently irreversible position. I’m not about to defend how the White House or congressional Democrats have dealt with sequestration (the last thing they did completely right was ensuring that Medicare benefits and Medicaid entirely stayed out of the process). But it’s not as though there’s some reliable guidebook on the subject, and you have to figure this week’s painful experience might provide some lessons for the future, if not on the sequestration fight, then on the next stage of the bigger fiscal struggle.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • esaud on April 26, 2013 5:22 PM:

    Wow. I don't have a government. It's just a collection of big money interests.

  • john sherman on April 26, 2013 5:48 PM:

    The Democrats could use a little help from the "liberal media"; NBC did a long segment on delays in air travel with the ultimate horror being that some reporter arrived a half hour late at her destination. I did not see any reports on Head Start kids or people who were going to lose their residences.

  • Peter C on April 26, 2013 5:54 PM:

    "By assenting to it, Democrats have agreed to sequestration for the foreseeable future."

    Democrats don't get to agree or disagree; they are stuck with the sequester as long as Republicans refuse to negotiate to stop it (as they have). Democrats can't force legislation in the Senate and they can't even bring up legislation in the House. We've been stuck with sequestration for the foreseeable future for a while now.

    What we shouldn't be stuck with is our lame strategic response. Reid, Obama and Pelosi need to introduce legislation to repeal the worst of the sequester cuts and fund them by closing the most eggregious loop holes. They need to go on the offensive! Yes, the legislation won't pass; it probably won't even get a vote, but it will force the Republicans to react. And when they react, they tend to make asses of themselves.

  • Dredd on April 26, 2013 6:46 PM:


    The military, if they are not already getting it from the classified budget, will get it next because you need to feel secure.

    War = defense
    War = security
    War = peace

    That is the way it works in a wartocracy.

  • sjw on April 26, 2013 6:56 PM:

    The above piece by Mr. Kilgore quoted several possibilities for Obama's leadership on this issue: at a Head Start, etc. But that leadership ain't comin'. Rather, we get more "'lead' from behind," which is Obama's way. (I'm wondering how all the defenders of Obama Jedi Leader are going to defend him here. Should be amusing ...)
    P.S. Who's the real Jedi Politician? McConnell. He even has something of a Yoda look going on.

  • Josef K on April 26, 2013 7:00 PM:

    God, but this is just disgusting. Unsurprising, but still disgusting.

    I can't help but feel a genuine bolt of fear here that this little move is a precursor to something much, much more explosive. Not unlike the Tennis Court Oath effectively presaged the outbreak of open revolution in France. The circumstances are completely different, I know, but the sense of the old order about to be blown up is there all the same.

  • Linkmeister on April 26, 2013 7:14 PM:

    What I don't get at all is how the Dems could vote for this FAA deal without realizing how bad the optics would look. In the immortal words of Casey Stengel, "Can't anyone here play this game?"

    They had to know caving on this would give the Republicans a win, and they had to know caving on something which hurt the business class and the 1%-ers while continuing to do nothing for the poor would look horrid, yet they did it anyway. What the hell is wrong with their political sense?

  • jeri on April 26, 2013 8:51 PM:

    Linkmeister asks, "What the hell is wrong with their political sense?"

    Nothing -- they are as beholden to moneyed interests as Republicans.

  • Tom Maguire on April 26, 2013 9:12 PM:

    As I understand it, this deal did not give the Transportation Dept new money. It just allowed the Secretary more flexibility to move the sequester-reduced amount of money around while sparing air traffic controllers. Republicans are touting this as smart cuts versus dumb cuts, and I assume that if Democrats proposed similar cash shuffles to spare Head Start, Republicans would be all ears. Yoda-like ears, in some cases.

    One notion is that Democrats position themselves as the party of Smart Big Government - "We can control spending sensibly". Alternatively, they could position themselves as the party of Dumb Big Government - "You can't leave us in charge because any cut we make will be the stupidest cut possible".

    Cutting White House tours but preserving the "White House In Concert" series for the First Daughters to rub elbows with the stars - good optics? Smart government?

  • Spring Texan on April 26, 2013 9:49 PM:

    The problem, Tom Maguire, is that cutting this amount from government spending is a thoroughly bad idea that will inevitably cause harm. Debating whether to cause great harm randomly and across the board or by "smart cuts" (that are far from smart because they will hurt essential services and will as well markedly depress the economy) is a horrible Hobson's choice. Neither is in any way acceptable and that's why both Obama and the Republicans are so despicable.

  • RaflW on April 26, 2013 11:20 PM:

    The Democrats grossly mishandled the FAA sequester and I'm livid.

    I really have zero faith that the Democratic party gives even one sh*t about low or moderate income people, expectant mothers, kids needing education, any of it.

    They've sold their souls in a deal with Beelzebub on this one.

    It's a total cluster****/own-goal of epic proportion.

  • beejeez on April 26, 2013 11:23 PM:

    Perhaps we could start our sequester cuts by reducing the maximum allowable deduction for home mortgage interest. I think that might get a deal done pretty fast.

  • Raoul on April 26, 2013 11:26 PM:

    What the hell is wrong with their political sense?

    Well, despite various fairly bogus townhall type events, these Senators in particular never actually interact in any meaningful way with average, on-the-street human beings. They are handled 24 hours a day, talk to far too many lobbyists, hacks, and party strategists and have f*ck-all understanding of normal people or how things look & feel outside the Village.

    They are totally isolated and may as well live in Versailles. I say this with about as much scorn for Dems as for the utterly corrupt and horrid GOP.

  • pjcamp on April 27, 2013 12:41 AM:

    If they didn't see this was going to happen, they're not competent to govern.

    Barack Obama is a goddamn idiot.

    And you goddamn captchas are goddamn illegible.

  • Kyle McCullough on April 27, 2013 12:54 AM:

    The thing I learned here is that I am voting for the challenger in the next primary. If he or she loses, I'm voting third party in the election. If the Democrats can't stand up for us, I am not showing up for them.

  • Anonymous on April 27, 2013 5:39 AM:

    FWIW, at least one Dem (and I'm sure there are plenty more) is upset about the sequester fix for the FAA and not more worthy programs:

    "@SenJeffMerkley: Fine to fix travel cuts, but what about Head Start, cancer treatment & so many other important prgrms cut by sequester? Much more to be done."

    If Sen. Merkley did more than tweet (ie speak on the floor) I'm unaware of it.

    I also caught a rant by Steny Hoyer on the teevee...