During the last debt ceiling fight, in the summer of 2011, Republicans and Democrats were near a “grand bargain” on the long-term budget when President Barack Obama, seeing Republican poll numbers fall, made a last-minute demand for $400 billion in more revenues. Those revenues could only have come from higher taxes, which the GOP could not accept. Even the president’s staff were in shock at what he had done.
Today, with Republicans on the ropes, the Democrats are making the same mistake. Instead of accepting Republican offers to re-open the government and raise the debt ceiling for several weeks, they are demanding that the “sequester”–the automatic cuts in government spending under the Budget Control Act–be reversed. In doing so, they hope to capitalize on the Tea Party’s vulnerability to unfavorable polls and bad press.
Yet as George Will–hardly a Tea Party stalwart–suggested on Fox News Sunday, if there is one demand that can unite the Republican Party after a disastrous week, it is Democrats’ insistence on reversing the sequester. Though the sequester hurt the GOP by cutting spending on defense, one of its foremost priorities, it represents the only truly successful effort to contain the growth of government spending in the past fifteen years.
Though the sequester was originally proposed by the White House, President Obama has railed against it all year long, first warning of the dire consequences (that failed to materialize) and then insisting that it be rolled back in budget talks. What Democrats now hope is that Republicans will be so scared of being blamed for leading the country into default that they will meekly accept an 11th-hour demand to reverse the sequester.
Democrats could be right. But they could also be gravely wrong. For Republicans, the only thing worse than being blamed for shutting down the government and pushing the country past the debt ceiling deadline is doing so without winning any concessions on spending and Obamacare. In congressional districts throughout the nation, their biggest fear is not Democratic opposition but primary challenges from conservative candidates.
Ironically, then, Democrats’ aggressive new move–which the media will steadfastly refuse to call “hostage-taking” or “terrorism,” as they do when Republicans are thought to be courting default–will increase Republicans’ leverage. The GOP can now demand a one-year delay for Obamacare’s individual mandate in return for sequester changes. If Democrats won’t budge, the country may be headed for default. This time, for real.