The Sequester, Moving Goalposts, and the 2012 Elections
Ezra Klein rightly disagrees with Bob Woodward:
I don’t agree with my colleague Bob Woodward, who says the Obama administration is “moving the goalposts” when they insist on a sequester replacement that includes revenues. I remember talking to both members of the Obama administration and the Republican leadership in 2011, and everyone was perfectly clear that Democrats were going to pursue tax increases in any sequester replacement, and Republicans were going to oppose tax increases in any sequester replacement. What no one knew was who would win.
“Moving the goal posts” isn’t a concept that actually makes any sense in the context of replacing the sequester. The whole point of the policy was to buy time until someone, somehow, moved the goalposts such that the sequester could be replaced.
Think back to July 2011. The problem was simple. Republicans wouldn’t agree to raise the debt ceiling without trillions of dollars in deficit reduction. Democrats wouldn’t agree to trillions of dollars in deficit reduction if it didn’t include significant tax increases. Republicans wouldn’t agree to significant tax increases. The political system was at an impasse, and in a few short days, that impasse would create a global financial crisis.
The sequester was a punt. The point was to give both sides a face-saving way to raise the debt ceiling even though the tax issue was stopping them from agreeing to a deficit deal. The hope was that sometime between the day the sequester was signed into law (Aug. 2, 2011) and the day it was set to go into effect (Jan. 1, 2013), something would…change.
There were two candidates to drive that change. The first and least likely was the supercommittee. If they came to a deal that both sides accepted, they could replace the sequester. They failed.
But Klein fundamentally misapprehends the American political system:
The second was the 2012 election. If Republicans won, then that would pretty much settle it: No tax increases. If President Obama won, then that, too, would pretty much settle it: The American people would’ve voted for the guy who wants to cut the deficit by increasing taxes.
The American people voted for the guy who wants to cut the deficit by increasing taxes.
In fact, they went even further than that. They also voted for a Senate that would cut the deficit by increasing taxes. And then they voted for a House that would cut the deficit by increasing taxes, though due to the quirks of congressional districts, they didn’t get one.
Here in DC, we can get a bit buried in Beltway minutia. The ongoing blame game over who concocted the sequester is an excellent example. But it’s worth remembering that the goalposts in American politics aren’t set in backroom deals between politicians. They’re set in elections. And in the 2012 election, the American people were very clear on where they wanted the goalposts moved to.
He’s right, of course, that Obama ran on tax increases for the rich while Romney ran on cutting taxes even further and some vague promises about closing the deficits via ending loopholes and whatnot. It’s less clear that their differences on this point was the primary decision point for the election—likeability, trust, and other factors were likely more important. But the polling showed and continues to show that they prefer Obama’s approach. Why wouldn’t they, after all? Getting someone else to foot the bill for things you want is a pretty sweet deal.
The problem, of course, is that the United States doesn’t have a parliamentary system. Voting in a president doesn’t settle policy disputes, particularly domestic policy disputes. We have, after all, a system of separation of powers. At the same time we re-elected Barack Obama, we also ratified divided government, keeping John Boehner and the Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives and allowing the Republicans to retain more than enough votes in the Senate to block Obama’s preferences.
In fairness, Democratic House candidates actually got slightly more votes than Republicans across the board, a function of both gerrymandering and the concentration of Democrats in major urban areas. But this is the system we have. The 234 House Republicans and 45 Senate Republicans weren’t put there to enact the wishes of the American people writ large but rather to serve their constituencies. And, like it or not, they were just as clear as to where they stood on the issue during their campaigns as Obama was during his.
As it happens, I think both parties are wrong on the sequester. Obama and Congresss should simply agree not to do this stupid thing they imposed on themselves rather than engaging in an unwise austerity program while the economy remains stuck in a funk. But our elected representatives seem to be in bipartisan agreement that solving the deficit problem is more important than fixing the national economy.