Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Politics of Crisis

One of the most frustrating stunts in politics that is practiced by all sides, on the local, state and national level, is the gun to your head, "if you don't pass this, **insert necessary government service** will be cut/suspended/eliminated."  There's a word for that -- extortion.  Everyone has seen it. Government officials threaten citizens to pass spending measures, raise taxes, pass levies or services will be gutted.  The problem is, the services they opt to put on the chopping block are always vital services like schools, police, and fire departments whose absence would cause the most pain and/or disruption.  They never cut bureaucracies, non-vital programs, or find ways to streamline operations by eliminating waste and inefficiency.

The current sequester "crisis" is the same.  Having conceived of, and signed into law the sequester, President Obama is now demanding that congress raise taxes (after just getting new tax hikes) or he will allow the sequester cuts to kick in, which according to his rhetoric, will invite Armageddon.  Air traffic controllers, first responders, TSA workers will be laid off.  Military readiness will damaged.  Women and children will be cut from aid programs.  And it's all the Republicans' fault.  So what are these horrific cuts that threaten to undo the fabric of reality?  Annual federal spending will increase from its current $3.6 trillion to $6 trillion over the next ten years.  The sequester will cut 2.4% of that increase (click here for emphasis).  In other words, federal government spending will continue to increase (considerably) every year.

If we cannot withstand a 2.4% cut in the rate of increase over ten years, we might as well tell the European Union to save us a spot, 'cause we're DONE;  we will never be able to limit or slow the growth of, much less cut, government.

In her Wall Street Journal column, Government by Freakout, Peggy Noonan points out the problems with this style of governance, even if it works politically.
What effect do all the successive fiscal cliffs, ceilings and sequesters, have on public confidence? On the public's spirit? They only add to the sense that Washington is dysfunctional and cannot possibly help us out of the mire. 
It shows the world we lurch from crisis to crisis by habit now. This makes us look incapable and beset. 
It further sours the sourest White House-Capitol Hill relationship of modern political history. That relationship probably can't get worse—it was actually breaking news this week that the president picked up a phone and called a Republican senator—but it's not good to see no possibility of repair. 
It leaves the vulnerable feeling more anxious, and the sophisticated feeling more jerked around. The president is usually called popular, but his poll numbers are well below Bill Clinton's and Ronald Reagan's at this point in their presidencies. He's pretty much stuck at George W. Bush's levels. The president and his people overestimate his position in this 50-50 country. 
Beyond that, the president damages himself with his cleverness. At the end of the day he looks incapable of creating a sense of stability. The thing he misses as he shrewdly surveys the field is what he is: the president. He is the man people expect to lead, to be wiser. He is the one they expect to come up with a plan that is a little more than Let's Threaten Catastrophe.
The President could at any point work with Republicans to diffuse this "crisis."  But he won't.  He wants this fight.  Congressional Republicans are unpopular.  He has the bully pulpit.  Higher taxes or bust.  But I'm not so sure it will work in his favor, at least in the long term.  If the sequester kicks in, and the world doesn't end, it corrodes the Democratic mantra that every single government program, every single government dollar spent, is absolutely essential.

I don't think the President wants people catching on.

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