Kevin Drum thinks that “There is No Possible Sequester Deal to be Made” and goes through the various possibilities, showing that every permutation but one — kicking the can down the road — is worse than the status quo for one side or the other.

So for example, replacing the defense cuts with more domestic cuts is worse for Democrats than just letting the sequester take effect; replacing the defense cuts with new taxes is worse for Republicans than letting the sequester kick in.

I think, however, there is a possible deal that could be made that he’s missing: one in which Democrats win on substance, but Republicans get symbolic wins. What that would entail would be much smaller and better targeted real spending cuts, but no new revenues and most of the sequester replaced by phony cuts.

If it happened, it would presumably be for the late-March deadline which requires a new CR or else the government shuts down; as I’ve been saying (and Stan Collender has been saying) and as Greg Sargent reports today, it looks as if that’s the target for the real deal. After all, anything that gets cut on March 1 can always be restored in the must-pass bill that will either keep the government operating or, if they miss the deadline, re-open it.

For Democrats, a mostly-phony cuts deal would be better than nothing because it would protect both the programs Democrats support and, presumably, the economy (from taking an austerity hit). True, they would have to support another cuts-only deficit reduction package instead of a “balanced” approach, but if the size was right virtually everything in the package could be things that Democrats actually want to cut.

For Republicans, the main virtue of that kind of deal would be to put budget politics behind them for a while without having to accept any new revenues. Granted, they wouldn’t get the deficit reduction they say they want, but then again all signs are they don’t really care about that. Also, they wouldn’t get some of the real cuts they probably do want. That’s a cost, but then again most of those cuts are protected by the sequester, so they don’t get them with or without a deal.

I think as far as substance is concerned, that’s a win for both sides compared with the status quo. Actually striking the deal, and selling it to partisans, might be harder, but thanks to Washington Monument strategies it’s at least possible that a month from now constituents on both sides will be eager to accept anything that sounds good.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.