Human Events Blog

Plan X: Obama gets nervous about sequestration

I had some fun comparing House Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B” fiscal cliff proposal to the epic movie disaster “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”  But what are we to make of “Plan X?”  That’s Washington Examiner senior editorialist Philip Klein’s term for what he sees as the Republicans’ post-fiscal-cliff strategy, and he thinks today’s announcement that President Obama is “looking for an off ramp” from the automatic sequestration spending cuts might be evidence that Plan X is paying off:

Ever since the election, Republicans have been frustrated by their lack of leverage against Obama. Taxes would have gone up by $4.5 trillion on Jan. 1 if nothing was done, so Republicans were forced to agree to limit the damage. If there were no increase in the debt limit, any economic chaos that followed would have allowed Obama to blame Republicans and distract attention from the problems posed by the nation’s mounting debt, so they agreed to suspend it — a strategy I had described as Maneuver X.

Now Republicans have turned the tables on Obama. If nothing happens by March 1, about $1 trillion worth of spending cuts will go into effect automatically. Ideally, Republicans don’t want the military spending cuts, and they have voted in the House to replace them with other cuts. But they can live with them if nothing happens. Coming off the fourth quarter in which the economy contracted by 0.1 percent and was hurt by defense cuts, Obama doesn’t want to have headlines of defense contractor layoffs eroding his political capital in the short window he has to advance his second term agenda.

His suggestion that Republicans agree to raise taxes again to delay the sequester is laughable — they have zero reason to do it. Either he agrees to spending cuts of an equal amount, or the sequester will kick in.

Okay, he calls it Maneuver X, but I’m going with “Plan” for consistency.  Because I think there is a consistent theme running through these strategies, and I’m somewhat less certain than Klein that Plan X will carry the day.

Plan B, you’ll recall, was Boehner’s attempt to call Obama’s soak-the-rich bluff by offering higher taxes on actual millionaires – in other words, the people Democrats always say they want to raise taxes on, when they really mean “small business owners who make $200k per year, or $250k if they’re married.”  In return, the dreaded middle-class tax hikes of the “fiscal cliff” would be called off.

Boehner made this proposal because he thought Obama would look irresponsible and dishonest by refusing it.  “See!” the GOP would cry.  “He always says he wants to tax millionaires who won’t miss a little of their pocket change, but he’s obviously lying!”  But Obama, acting through legislative hatchet man Harry Reid, snorted derisively that Plan B was DOA… and Boehner couldn’t even round up enough Republican votes to push the issue.

One of the reasons Republicans in the House wouldn’t climb aboard Plan B was that they sensed it wouldn’t work.  Obama obviously wasn’t going to take the deal – he wanted to use the leverage of the fiscal cliff to extract much more out of the American people, and deal far more political damage to Republicans.  Whatever tiny discomfort Obama might feel from refusing the deal was nothing compared to the anger Republicans would feel from their base, by discarding the party’s low-tax principles, and making the implicit concession that the fiscal crisis was “caused” by greedy rich people having a big tax cut party at everyone else’s expense.  Obama was actually making that point in speeches; he arguably got more political mileage out of Plan B than Boehner did.

Ironically, Plan B is pretty much what actually did happen… just on terms less favorable to Republicans.  The “fiscal cliff” was averted with tax hikes; all thought of spending restraint was abandoned.  No one thinks any of this was good for the GOP.  The best that can be said for the deal is that they might have done worse.

Now it’s time for Plan X, in which Republicans will provide minimal resistance to Obama’s demands for more debt, but they’ll hold the line against further tax increases, while pushing responsible budget proposals and spending cuts.  The idea is that giving ground on the debt ceiling defuses Obama’s hysteria about government shutdowns and defaulting on the national debt.  The GOP then makes him look like a blinkered obstructionist, by giving him wave after wave of smart legislation he’ll refuse to sign.

Part of the problem with this strategy is that Obama doesn’t have to get his hands dirty killing most of these good ideas; he’ll subcontract the hits to Reid, a laughably repulsive figure without any national stature, who doesn’t have to worry about growing unpopular with the American people.  The media will tastefully avert its eyes while Reid strangles these bills.  That’s what they’ve been doing while the GOP covered Reid’s desk with bills for the past two years… and was nevertheless caricatured as a gang of obstructionists, devoid of constructive ideas.

As for sequestration, Obama has already been amazingly successful at removing his fingerprints from it; the media generally portrays it as a Republican idea.  Obama will float his absurd demand for even more taxes to stave off spending cuts… and when the Republicans refuse, he’ll claim they’re playing games with national security and defense spending cuts to protect their rich fat-cat allies.  Remember, he thinks his re-election validated tax-and-spend liberalism (or, more precisely, spend-and-spend-and-spend-then-tax liberalism.)  He’ll be very sad that the miserly GOP expects Americans to choose between their food stamps and their brave military protectors.

It’s a mistake to expect intellectual consistency or honesty from the class warfare machine… and it takes skillful political effort to make class warriors pay for their lack of consistency with the public.  The people who re-elected Obama are not automatically going to turn on him because he’s already demanding more revenue.  They’re not going to get excited about bills quietly dropped into Harry Reid’s inbox, which empties automatically into a paper shredder.  They have to be given a full and comprehensive vision of the fiscal and moral dead end of Obamanomics, and the better future we may reach through pro-growth, pro-liberty alternatives.

Use Obama’s own words, especially the balloon juice left over from his last few efforts to pretend he was a deficit hawk, against him.  For good measure, let’s remember some of the arguments deployed by Ronald Reagan, the president who scored the modern era’s great victory for economic liberty over socialism.  He made some very memorable statements on the subject.  Republicans who know those statements by heart might be surprised by how many young voters do not.

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