Why The Sequester Really Happened (Hint It Has Nothing To Do With The Deficit)

Stan Collender

How did the sequester happen? How is it possible that what supposedly was the worst possible way to cut the deficit somehow became what actually happened?

Over the weekend Ezra Klein, in a much retweeted blog post that was the talk of large parts of the political blogosphere, said that the GOP was never going to make a deal to avoid the sequester if it included a tax increase. Nothing…not the prospect of reductions in military spending, not the projected reduction in GDP, not the estimated increase in unemployment, not the lost possibility of a bigger deal to reduce the deficit and not the overwhelming likelihood that Republicans would get blamed for all of this…made any difference.

The GOP’s position seems to defy all economic and political commonsense until you realize how much GOP politics have changed in recent years.

The big fear among Republicans — especially those in the House — isn’t that a Democrat will beat them in the 2014 election. The big GOP concern these days is about being “primaried,” the new verb that tells you all you need to know about what’s happening in Washington. The redrawing of congressional districts following the 2010 census made sure that there are few multi-party competitive races. If there’s a big fight for a House seat, it’s far more likely to be in a primary. Once the nomination is over, the seat effectively is won and, except in waves when there is a larger-than-usual change, the general election is more of a formality.

That makes it especially important for someone running for a House seat to pay intense attention to those who vote in her or his primary.Their votes are more important in the almost always lower-turnout primary than in the higher turnout general election. And, most significantly, they are not necessarily (I’m being kind here) representative of the district as a whole.

This is particularly important to House Republicans because they are in the majority and desperately want to keep it. In fact, since the 2012 election, I’ve been told repeatedly by a number of incumbent GOP representatives that maintaining control of the House rather than winning the White House or gaining a majority in the Senate is their top priority.

That gives enormous power to those who vote in GOP primaries. The issue that’s almost singularly important to them is taxes.

That means that anything that even hints at let alone actually includes a tax increase an absolute political mistake for Republicans. This is true even if it prevents a bigger deficit reduction deal from happening, does overall harm to the U.S. economy, cuts the Pentagon or prevents a Republican takeover of the Senate in 2014.

One of the most interesting aspects of this situation is that the Democratic political strategy is just the opposite. The only way for the Dems to win control of the House is to broaden their appeal to the wider audience that votes in the general election and get them to turnout on election day. That means  that, rather than doing anything and everything possible to avoid it, letting the sequester happen and then making sure  Republicans are blamed for the pain and disgust is the better way to go.

And that explains all you need to know about why there was no deal to prevent the sequester last Friday. It was never about cutting spending or reducing the deficit; the fight always was about keeping or winning control of the House of Representatives in the next election. It wasn’t about dueling economic philosophies and it definitely wasn’t about the deficit.

Instead, Republicans and Democrats were playing to completely different audiences. That made a deal to avoid a sequester far less likely than most of us ever wanted to admit.

Originally posted at Capital Gains and Games.

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