Monday, Feb. 25, 2013 | 2:01 a.m.
On July 26, 2011, Jack Lew, then the White House budget director, went to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office for a budget strategy session. According to Bob Woodward’s book, “The Price of Politics,” Lew told Reid that they had come up with a trigger idea to force a budget deal.
“What’s the idea?” Reid asked.
“Sequestration,” Lew responded.
Reid folded himself over with his head between his knees, as if he were going to throw up. Then he came upright and gaped at the ceiling.
“A couple of weeks ago,” he exclaimed, “my staff said to me there is one more possible” enforcement method: sequestration.
Reid said he had told his staff at the time: “Get the hell out of here. That’s insane. The White House surely will come up with a plan that will save the day. And you come to me with sequestration?”
Sequestration may have seemed insane back then. But politicians in both parties are secretly discovering that they love sequestration now. It allows them to do the dance moves they enjoy the most.
Democrats get to do the P.C. Shimmy. Traditional presidents go through a normal set of motions: They identify a problem. They come up with a proposal to address the problem. They try to convince the country that their proposal is the best approach.
Under the Permanent Campaign Shimmy, the president identifies a problem. Then he declines to come up with a proposal to address the problem. Then he comes up with a vague-but-politically-convenient concept that doesn’t address the problem (let’s raise taxes on the rich). Then he goes around the country blasting the opposition for not having as politically popular a concept. Then he returns to Washington and congratulates himself for being the only serious and substantive person in town.
Sequestration allows the White House to do this all over again. The president hasn’t actually come up with a proposal to avert sequestration, let alone one that is politically plausible.
He does have a vague and politically convenient concept. (Tax increases on the rich!) He does have a chance to lead the country into a budget showdown with furloughed workers and general mayhem, for which people will primarily blame Republicans. And he does have the chance to achieve the same thing he has achieved so frequently over the past two years: political success and legislative mediocrity.
Republicans also secretly love it. It allows them to do their favorite dance move, the Suicide Stage Dive. It was pioneered by Newt Gingrich in 1995 and has been repeated constantly since.
In this dance, the Republicans mount the stage and roar that they are about to courageously cut spending. In this anthem, they carefully emphasize cuts to programs the country sympathizes with, such as special education, while sparing programs that actually created the debt problem, such as Medicare.
Then, when they have worked themselves up into a frenzy of self-admiration, they sprint across the stage and leap into what they imagine is the loving arms of their adoring fans. When they are 4 feet off the ground, they realize the voters have left the building in disgust and they land with a thud on the floor.
Sequestration allows the Republicans to do the Suicide Stage Dive to perfection. Voters disdain the GOP because they think Republicans are mindless anti-government fanatics who can’t distinguish good government programs from bad ones. Sequestration is a fanatically mindless piece of legislation that can’t distinguish good government programs from bad ones. Sequestration carefully spares programs such as Medicare and Social Security that actually contribute to the debt problem. Sequestration will cause maximum political disgust for a trivial amount of budget savings.
So, of course, the conservative press is filling up with essays with titles such as “Learning to Love Sequestration.” Of course, Republican legislators are screwing up their courage to embrace it. Of course, after the cuts hit and the furor rises, they are going to come crawling back with concessions as they do after every Suicide Stage Dive.
These two dance moves, the P.C. Shimmy and the Suicide Stage Dive, when combined, are beautifully guaranteed to cause maximum damage to the country. What’s America’s biggest problem right now? It is that businesspeople think government is so dysfunctional that they are afraid to invest and spur growth. So what are the parties going to do? They are going to prove that government is so dysfunctional that you’d be crazy to invest and spur growth.
In a normal country, the politicians would try some new moves. For example, if they agreed to further means-test Medicare, they could save a lot of money. Democrats would be hitting the rich. Republicans would be reforming entitlements.
But no. Both parties love their current moves. It’s enough to make Harry Reid put his head between his legs and throw up.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.