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U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) (2nd L) speaks at a news conference about debt relief legislation with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) (L), Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) (2nd R) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (R) at the U.S.
The house that dumb built.
I'm not sure that there's much nuance to be parsed out about the sequester and why we seem to be headed for it despite it being plainly and obviously the worst possible thing to do. The problem is that the one actually sensible solution—to just dump the whole idea, as Congress can do at any point during this entire ridiculous, posturing debacle—isn't politically palatable to any of the involved groups. Sure, the sequester will foul up the economy, hurt a hell of a lot of people and botch up important government functions all around the nation, but as of right now both parties see "screw up the entire American economy, again" as being preferable to any of the achievable political alternatives.

The Republicans know the partial shutdown of services is going to hurt—a lot. They also know they're going to be blamed for it, no matter what little Twitter hashtags they deploy to the contrary, and that once people with government jobs or government contracts actually start getting furloughed, costing them a hefty chunk of their paychecks, people are quickly going to become irate. Every small town in America is going to be awash with the news of what's been cut, and how many local residents are being furloughed, and how that's going to affect the rest of the local economy, and they'll all be duly noting that there was abso-effing-lutely no reason for it other than this stupid "cut everything because governmenting is hard and stuff" plan.

The problem for Republicans, however, is that they've premised nearly all of their obsessive anti-Obama rhetoric around the notions that (1) the government can't create jobs, (2) all government is bad, and (3) the scary deficit monster is going to kill us all. They can't stomach voting to lift the sequester when that means acknowledging (1) that government does indeed employ lots of people, (2) it does indeed do stuff that their constituents like, and need, and (3) the deficit is in fact not currently as important as the more immediate task of not screwing up the tenuous national economy, because Basic Economics. You can hear them already in the early stages of talking-point disarray on the topic, but Republicans are supposed to be for harsh, painful cuts to government. That's their brand. (True, they want different cuts, but the different cuts are just as deep and egregious, they were just supposed to be in things that Republicans, well, hated more. When you're cutting this deep during this economy, though, you're going to hit bone no matter where you put the knife.)

So for Republicans, the only way to dodge the sequester is to fess up that their entire debt ceiling freakout, and all of their demands afterwards, and all of the loudest premises of their electoral existence in these last few campaigns were all mere bluff. The only escape hatch that the White House is providing is the original plan that would mitigate the nastiness of the cuts by coming up with new revenues, i.e. new taxes; again, this requires Republicans not just going against campaign promises, but abandoning their entire supposed economic philosophy on the subject, period. Forget ideological integrity in these things: You have to acknowledge that even if the Republicans wanted to ditch every austerian, anti-legitimacy-of-government, anti-revenue principle they've been working themselves into a froth over during these last years, they're at least going to need a little more time to come up with a creative explanation for it. A new Twitter hashtag isn't going to cover that one.

The Republicans have invested themselves so heavily in these two brands of economic extremism that they are now ingrained into everything the Republican Party stands for. Whether those previous assertions mesh with plain reality or with the political needs of the moment (or, God help them, a phalanx of furious donors and lobbyists whose industries are about to be hit with that same axe) is irrelevant now. They're screwed. The sequester represents government as they advocated for it to be run: sharp, painful cuts done with an axe instead of a scalpel. They stood up and demanded it outright, during the debt ceiling fight. Then they all signed onto a law to do just that. If they're complaining, it's only because they only now realized that their demanded fantasy plan is about to be put into action, and that the results might not be the glowing American utopia that they've been promising. Follow me below the fold for more of the stupid.

The White House, on the other hand, is heavily invested in Grand Bargainism. They seem equally averse to suggesting the obvious plan, proposing Congress simply nix the ridiculously premised sequester and move on to smaller, more focused budget efforts like sensible people. In part that may be because they know the first side to suggest substantively weakening the sequester will then be the "pro-deficit" and "big government" side in the other party's pissy talking points for the next decade; in larger part, it seems to be because the administration itself is (yet again) so enamored with striking a Big Budget Deal that they are (yet again) pushing for the Big Budget Deal even when it's not necessary or wise. This was the same dynamic that led the White House into previous catastrophic "negotiations" with Congress as to whether or not the nation would shut down or default on its debts, negotiations which legitimized those same Republican threats in a rather stumbling attempt by the White House to reach some supposed "larger" agreement that would, in their minds, neutralize further budget fights for a while. The entire premise that any sufficiently "large" agreement would result in the other side not asking for more afterwards seems to be the height of political gullibility; nonetheless, that's what happened, and that's what kept happening in subsequent, related posturing, and all indications suggest that we're about to repeat the exact same thing.

So to the White House, accepting a bevy of damaging austerity-premised cuts is still considered a good bargain, if they can either (1) pry out tax concessions from the Republicans, which is at this point a goal unto itself, or (2) if the end result is "big" enough that the White House feels they won't have to do this crap again for a year or two. Not inspiring stuff, but again: There's no particular incentive on their parts to avoid the sequester outright. Sure, it'll hurt the economy, but Republicans will be blamed, a deal will be struck sooner or later or even later than that, then boom, victory.

As for House and Senate Democrats? They don't seem to even enter into things. They hold veto power over whatever the administration and Republicans decide to do, but as advocates for any other outcome, they're nonexistent. Again, because "how about we not screw up the entire economy as political prank" is right out, from a party messaging standpoint, leaving us only to debate how badly we'll be screwing it up and who will get what portion of the blame afterwards.

It's the precise dynamic of the debt ceiling fight, except this time, if possible, it's even worse because both sides have now fully embraced the rather strange notion that the economy isn't as important as enforcing a little austerity right now and damn the consequences. The fight is between the far right and the Simpson-Bowles right: all good, reasonable villagers agree that we need to screw retirees and others on the economic fringes, we're just haggling over who and how much. (Centrist "victory" in these matters will consist of getting Republicans to raise tax revenue after Republicans spent an entire eight-year administration lowering that same tax revenue to plainly unsustainable levels, which sounds like just asking those Republicans to exercise some common sense, and in fact is exactly that so good luck with it.)


So that's why we're at where we're at. The Republicans can't blink without looking like they're backing down on every one of their most cherished and loudly shouted supposed fiscal principles, principles that made their appearance in the debt ceiling fight and which caused this whole wreck of a thing in the first place. That's assuming, mind you, they have enough party unity left to even make a decision either way, which itself is far from a given. The White House thinks that no matter how bad things may be at this point or may get, they've at least finally got a good hand, and that they'll be able to bring Republicans back to the bargaining table after the very real bite of the sequester starts making for some very, very angry constituents back in Republican hometowns, thus finally leading the two sides to a lovely bipartisan agreement on some unknown (and, in all probability, disproportionately small) new amount of new tax revenues.

Sequester, here we come.

There's always the possibility that either side will blink. Even though the sequester is allegedly a Republican dream (Cutting the entire discretionary federal budget by an arbitrary percentage for no good reason? Be still my Norquistian heart!), the Republicans are unambiguously in the weaker position for the simple reasons that (1) the sequester is economically untenable for any period longer than a few days or weeks, and (2) the public is going to blame the jackasses who have been loudly cheering for government cuts when those cuts happen and start to hurt, because duh. Nonetheless, Republicans can't not shoot that hostage, because they said they would.

The White House might also cave for considerably less than their purported targets. Good money might even bet on that outcome, in fact, given the past (cough) history involved. And while I'm not a fan of the White House premise of using this same hostage to again attempt "grand bargain" revenue concessions, given that their role in avoiding the sequester is at this point merely advisory, there's not particularly any other path for them to take. True, they could beg House Republicans to simply call the whole thing off, but that argument is an obvious non-starter, so it won't happen. In any event, Grand Bargaining is in the air, God help us all.

So that's that. A very, very large number of Americans are about to be hurt for no particular reason other the Republican (and Officially Serious Villager, we must not forget) demand that we cut government and the deficit right the hell now, full stop, end of discussion. A very large number of Americans will be losing pay, they'll be losing needed services—they'll be losing things as basic as local airports that stay open. The desired outcome of this plan for both parties is to then establish a set of smaller or different cuts, possibly including the dramatic inclusion of slightly more tax revenue, and the prime long-term question is whether this entire process will merely stall the current, tenuous economic recovery or will, in some areas, kill it outright.

Make sense? Of course it doesn't. As an ideological belief, the current sudden-onset deficit fetishism was never meant to make sense in the first place. As with most things stubbornly ideological, however, merely knowing before the fact that it is a horrible, stupid, and clearly damaging idea is insufficient reason to not do it.

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