Know When To Fold ‘Em–Or Call For a Fresh Deck

I’m typically fearful of over-reacting to individual political events and making them seem epochal (an occupational hazard for bloggers). But it’s hard to argue with this assessment from Ezra Klein this afternoon:

The Democrats have lost on sequestration.

That’s the simple reality of Friday’s vote to ease the pain for the Federal Aviation Administration. By assenting to it, Democrats have agreed to sequestration for the foreseeable future.

[I]n any case where the political pain caused by sequestration becomes unbearable, they will agree to cancel that particular piece of the bill while leaving the rest of the law untouched. The result is that sequestration is no longer particularly politically threatening, but it’s even more unbalanced: Cuts to programs used by the politically powerful will be addressed, but cuts to programs that affects the politically powerless will persist. It’s worth saying this clearly: The pain of sequestration will be concentrated on those who lack political power.

Thus, a strategic retreat is indicated:

At this point, it probably makes sense for the White House to push for and accept an expanded version of the Inhofe-Toomey bill giving them some discretion over how the cuts are distributed. So far, they’ve resisted bills giving them the ability to choose, within sequestration’s broad parameters, how to allocate the cuts. But that refusal was based on the theory that making sequestration less painful would make it more permanent. If sequestration is permanent, however, they might as well make it a bit less painful.

The alternative approach is one that Ezra mentions but assumes has been discarded because it wasn’t used in the current case:

Democrats had other choices, of course. As Politico’s Glenn Thrush pointed out on MSNBC Friday, President Obama could’ve vetoed the FAA bill while standing at a Head Start that’s about to throw needy children out of the program. He could’ve vetoed it from the home of an jobless worker who just saw her benefits cut. Democrats could simply have insisted that the powerful can’t get out of sequestration unless the powerless can, too. But they didn’t — and they show no signs that they’ll start.

This last dismissive phrase is accurate, but doesn’t describe an inherently irreversible position. I’m not about to defend how the White House or congressional Democrats have dealt with sequestration (the last thing they did completely right was ensuring that Medicare benefits and Medicaid entirely stayed out of the process). But it’s not as though there’s some reliable guidebook on the subject, and you have to figure this week’s painful experience might provide some lessons for the future, if not on the sequestration fight, then on the next stage of the bigger fiscal struggle.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.