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Published: Tuesday, 3/12/2013

Salvaged by stupidity: Can the spectacle of sequester lead to a resolution?

DAVID SHRIBMAN
PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE EXECUTIVE EDITOR

WASHINGTON — Nobody is going to win the Battle of Sequester Gulch. Republicans are going to lose. Democrats are going to lose. President Obama is going to lose. The economy is going to lose. The nation’s image is going to lose. 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 last week. “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. 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 Republicans: They limped out of the 2012 elections bleeding from multiple wounds — their presidential nominee stumbled over immigration, and portrayed the very people whose votes he needed as slugs with their palms up for a government handout.

They showed no affinity for understanding the middle-class Americans who his advisers told him were the swing voters.

At first, 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.

Although it is possible to argue that 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 Republicans have accomplished it.

The case against Democrats: Mr. Obama won the election and claimed a second-term mandate the public might not have conferred on him.

Ordinarily, this might not be toxic, but the low point of his first term was when he reminded Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia (Mr. Obama’s lunch pal last week) of what he already knew: that Mr. Obama was President and the GOP majority 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.

Last week, President 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 good impulse and a bad explanation.

The White House and the Capitol themselves are neutral, American sites, no matter who has temporary political custody of them.

In the Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan years, the White House often was 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 Republicans could go to the country and say they gave Mr. Obama a tax increase not once but twice — and now it is time for Mr. 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 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 Senator Graham. 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 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.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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