David Frum

02.25.13

What Are the GOP's Sequester Priorities?

Alex Wong/Getty Images ()

Ezra Klein is forgivably baffled by the GOP's strategy on the sequester. As he understands it, the GOP priorities are:

1) Cut the deficit.
2) Cut entitlement spending.
3) Protect defense spending, and possibly even increase it.
4) Simplify the tax code by cleaning out deductions and loopholes.
5) Lower tax rates

Klein is confused that Republicans would rebuff the White House's proposed compromise:

The White House is willing to cut a deal with Republicans that will accomplish 1, 2, 3 and 4. But Republicans don’t want that deal. They’d prefer the sequester to that deal. That means they will get less on 1, basically nothing 2, 4, and 5, and they will actively hurt themselves on 3. So, rather than accomplishing four of their five goals, they’re accomplishing part of one. Some trade.

In other words, Ezra is answering his own question, although I'm not sure he sees it as such. To understand why, it's helpful to restructure the priority list.

The primary GOP goal, really the only one, is to cut spending without raising taxes. That's the golden goose, and Klein misses it in his effort to be fair and comprehensive.

Now if this can be accomplished, the next step is to preserve defense spending. When the sequester passed in 2011, the assumption was that Republican defense hawks would balk at such cuts, forcing the GOP to find an alternate deal. However, the situation has changed. As is detailed by the New York Times, Congressional Republicans are now willing to let spending cuts go through, even if that means defense takes a hit.

And finally, way down at the bottom, the GOP might be interested in entitlemtent cuts, but probably not. At this point, the assumption is the President will demand tax increases in exchange for touching entitlements. I don't see how that happens, so we'd be best served to recognize the miniscule chances of entitlements being touched. (I'd put tax reform down here as well.)

Ezra wonders why the GOP would embrace what he deems "ratio-myopia." Why would Republicans so consistently refuse spending cuts in exchange for raising taxes?

The answer is brutally simple. First, very few people in DC actually care about deficits, so the goal isn't deficit-hawkery. It's a lack of public trust. Republicans see themselves as having been burned in past Grand Bargains, and have set the line that any tax increase - especially one ostensibly for deficit reduction - will inexorably lead to the growth of government.

Republicans want to cut spending, and the sequester isn't their first option. But if you think Defense Hawks outweigh Spending Hawks in 2013's GOP, I've got a nice bridge to sell you.