Boehner Blows An Opportunity To Win On The Sequester

Remember that old adage about how it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt?

Well, it’s true. Our illustrious Speaker of the House John Boehner just proved it once again by offering up a poorly-thought out, badly-strategized and ill-considered op-ed in the Wall Street Journal which essentially agreed with the apocalyptic picture painted by President Obama on the sequester…but blamed it all on Obama and therefore it was OK that the sequester happens.

A week from now, a dramatic new federal policy is set to go into effect that threatens U.S. national security, thousands of jobs and more. In a bit of irony, President Obama stood Tuesday with first responders who could lose their jobs if the policy goes into effect. Most Americans are just hearing about this Washington creation for the first time: the sequester. What they might not realize from Mr. Obama’s statements is that it is a product of the president’s own failed leadership.

The sequester is a wave of deep spending cuts scheduled to hit on March 1. Unless Congress acts, $85 billion in across-the-board cuts will occur this year, with another $1.1 trillion coming over the next decade. There is nothing wrong with cutting spending that much—we should be cutting even more—but the sequester is an ugly and dangerous way to do it.

Boehner’s piece goes on to discuss the history of sequestration and why it’s all Obama’s fault.

Nothing he says isn’t true, mind you. Obama did demand the sequester, and Obama has stood in the way of legitimate legislation by the House that would replace it with more responsible budget cuts.

The people who have followed this budget process already know this and don’t need a rehash of it. It’s an extraordinarily bad sales job to go down that road again.

Like Byron York says, this isn’t helpful.

Why would Republicans support a measure that threatens national security and thousands of jobs?  Boehner and the GOP are determined to allow the $1.2 trillion sequester go into effect unless President Obama and Democrats agree to replacement cuts, of an equal amount, that target entitlement spending. If that doesn’t happen — and it seems entirely unlikely — the sequester goes into effect, with the GOP’s blessing.

In addition, Boehner calls the cuts “deep,” when most conservatives emphasize that for the next year they amount to about $85 billion out of a $3,600 billion budget.  Which leads to another question: Why would Boehner adopt the Democratic description of the cuts as “deep” when they would touch such a relatively small part of federal spending?

The effect of Boehner’s argument is to make Obama seem reasonable in comparison. After all, the president certainly agrees with Boehner that the sequester cuts threaten national security and jobs.  The difference is that Obama wants to avoid them.  At the same time, Boehner is contributing to Republican confusion on the question of whether the cuts are in fact “deep” or whether they are relatively minor.

Could the GOP message on the sequester be any more self-defeating?  Boehner could argue that the sequester cuts are necessary as a first — and somewhat modest — step toward controlling the deficits that threaten the economy.  Instead, he describes them as a threat to national security and jobs that he nevertheless supports.  It’s not an argument that is likely to persuade millions of Americans.

And then York really gets to the meat of the issue…

None of which addresses the Republican problem on the sequester.  If the problem is one of substance — that is, if GOP leaders truly believe the cuts threaten national security but are nevertheless supporting them — then Republicans have put themselves into an untenable situation.  If, as is more likely, the problem is one of message — that is, if Republicans believe the cuts are not only manageable without threatening national security but are also desirable as a first step toward controlling spending — then the Boehner article is sending all the wrong signals.

Look, the fact is that the sequester is a joke of a budget cut. It’s nothing. York is right that for Republicans to act as though Obama is correct in calling it some sort of cataclysmic budgetary apocalypse is to give away the store.

Instead, what Boehner should be saying is that an $85 billion budget cut, which essentially means the total federal outlays will go back to what they were in 2011, or that the discretionary spending will go back to what it was in 2007, is NOTHING. And that Obama’s performance on Tuesday, in which he decried the millions of federal workers who would be put out on the street and the cops who would no longer be able to do their jobs, was one of the most asinine bits of demagoguery in the history of the Republic.

Boehner could say that if the budget is to be balanced, which is what the economy and the nation’s future requires if we expect to remain a great power, then the sequester needs to be multiplied fivefold. He could say that’s how far gone we are and how much trouble we’re in. And he could say that if we expect to solve our budget problems the kind of pain Obama is talking about is absolutely minimal.

If he’s so desperate to blame Obama for the sequester, which again is not so much wrong as it is beside the point because the media will refuse to hammer him on this point as he deserves to be hammered, then what Boehner needs to say is that not only was the sequester Obama’s idea but that despite his bluster and buffoonery yesterday the sequester is precisely what he wants. Because with a shifty political actor and demagogue like Obama is, never pay attention to what he says but rather what he does – and in the case of the sequester Obama has for 18 months stood pat while waiting for it to happen when he’s had multiple chances to act to avoid it. Those actions indicate Obama is fine with the sequester, regardless of his clownish histrionics.

But he could then do two things.

First, Boehner should be recommending that everybody in America read Amity Shlaes’ new biography of Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge presided over one of the most robust economic recoveries in American history coming out of an economic depression every bit as debilitating as the one we’re in. And he engaged in a six-year process of slashing both the budget and tax rates, so much so that he left office with a smaller – not as a percentage of GDP, but in real, actual dollars – federal budget than he inherited. And in the process, Coolidge paid down America’s debt from some $28 billion to less than $18 billion in six years. He paid down better than a third of the nation’s federal debt in six years.

How did Coolidge do it? Sound economics and fiscal discipline.

Coolidge pushed for ever-lower taxes as a means of stimulating commerce, and he cut taxes from the top of the scale. He and his Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon wanted rich people’s money to be circulating in the economy, not flowing to Washington – or, more to the point, he wanted that money to circulate naturally, rather than to be squirreled away in places it was hoped Uncle Sam couldn’t reach it. And so they cut the top tax rate all the way down to 25 percent, and saw a massive growth in federal revenues. In the 1920’s it was understood THROUGH ACTUAL EXPERIENCE that the lower the tax rate the more you’d get economic growth and the higher your federal revenues would be.

They called it Scientific Taxation back then. It’s called Supply-Side Economics now. The Democrats say it’s old and tired and disproven, but they can’t offer any evidence to back up that assertion – particularly given that despite their howling about how the Bush Tax Cuts put the country into deficit, the all-time record for gross federal revenues was set in 2007, after four years of growth emanating from those tax cuts.

History indicates that a lower, flatter, simpler tax code grows the economy and begets higher federal revenues. Boehner could use that history. He could do so without flying at 100,000 feet, boring the public, coming off as a policy wonk or sounding like he’s full of it. It’s easy; show what tax cuts in the 1920’s, 1960’s, 1980’s and 2000’s did for federal revenue. Boehner didn’t even mention that this morning, and he’s never really made that case. When all Obama wants to do is talking about raising taxes as part of a “balanced” plan to bring down the deficit, you have an open invitation to scream this case from the rooftops and demand that Obama shut his fat mouth about raising tax rates or eliminating exemptions.

But more to the point, Coolidge squeezed the federal government at every turn. He was so tight that he left office with a smaller federal budget than he inherited when Warren Harding died in office.

And Coolidge left office as a quite popular president. He was popular even though he constantly said no when people wanted spending. Veterans who wanted bonuses. American Indians who wanted federal swag for the reservations. Flood victims who wanted federal relief dollars. You name them, Coolidge denied them.

He denied them, and yet he was popular. Why? Because he was intellectually consistent. People understood that Coolidge saw managing the nation’s finances as his primary mission as the president, and he was serious in his commitment to running a tight economic ship. They respected that, and they also respected his results. American commerce flowered while he was president, and so did technological innovation, the standard of living, employment – virtually everyone who wanted a job in the 1920’s could find one, even the culture.

Coolidge showed that a president who was willing to do the work his job required could be highly successful without chasing pie-in-the-sky rainbow initiatives like green energy or social justice at every turn. Boehner needs to offer that example up and show that Obama, who is gifted with far more resources than was Coolidge – he’s a more inspiring speaker, he has a friendly media, he sits atop a far larger and more powerful administration – is so far a failed president because he’s not focused on doing the basics of his job like Coolidge was.

And next, Boehner needs to get specific.

Don’t just blame Obama for failing to act on the GOP’s bills replacing the sequester with more responsible cuts. Say what those cuts are.

Boehner ought to show Obama up on the sequester. He ought to come up with a list of things and say “OK, if the president thinks the $85 billion we’re cutting out of a $3.6 trillion budget will be the death of the Republic, then let him pick from this menu of items we think should be cut to replace it. All he has to do is say which of these things he wants to cut, and we’ll pass them the next day and send them to the Senate.

“Done. Easy. No laid-off cops, no starving kids. You just tell us what’s your preference, Mr. President.”

Make Obama say that none of the things the House will agree to cut are acceptable. Make him say that, and publicly. But make sure that in saying that, you go back to your Coolidge – namely, that it’s neither the end of the world if the sequester should happen, nor is the sequester the last of the budget cuts. Until the budget is balanced, the cuts – and the fight for them – will continue. Because that’s what the public demands, and it’s what the nation desperately needs.

That’s how you win on the sequester. You don’t win on the sequester by giving into the president’s narrative and then lamely saying it’s all his fault.

UPDATE: Contrast the muddled, inarticulate messaging in Boehner’s op-ed with this…

You can perhaps disagree with Rand Paul on the sequester. But you certainly can’t pretend you don’t understand him. This is as clear a case in response to Obama’s sequester speech as you can make. And it’s why Rand Paul has fans and Boehner does not.

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