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The GOP’s astonishingly bad message on sequester cuts

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Byron York

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner describes the upcoming sequester as a policy “that threatens U.S. national security, thousands of jobs and more.”

Which leads to the question: 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.

Wednesday morning, when Boehner’s op-ed appeared, I sent questions along these lines to Boehner’s office.  Spokesman Michael Steel replied, “We support replacing the indiscriminate cuts in the sequester with smarter cuts and reforms (of an equal amount).  That’s what we did with the sequester replacement bills written by Chairman Ryan that we passed last year.”  Another spokesman, Brendan Buck, added that “it is not the amount of the cuts…it’s where they fall — disproportionately on accounts important to our national security.”

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.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner