If the Congressional Supercommittee Fails, Who Wins?

A supercommittee deadlock could be good news for whichever party spins the failure right.

Assuming the supercommittee doesn’t reach a deal, what political impact would it have on the 2012 race? A failure hands both sides useful political ammunition (yet another reason that failure has always been likely.) There are some risks for both sides, as well. Who “wins” the failure will be a function of which party tells a more plausible story about why it happened. As usual, the Republican story is a lie. And, as usual, the Democratic story is more complex, raising questions about whether they’ll be willing and able to communicate it.

Let’s look at the GOP first. I think the biggest political hammer they get if there’s no deal is this business about defense cuts. They’ll spend 2012 trying to scare the public into believing that the Democrats basically want al Qaeda to attack us again, and if the mandatory Pentagon cuts take effect, that is all but inevitable. It nearly goes without saying that this is nonsense. The Pentagon’s budget in the last 10 years has gone from roughly $340 billion to more than $500 billion, and more than $700 billion if you count the wars, which rational people would do, but which the Bush administration famously did not. So the Pentagon budget has more than doubled. And there are weapons and procurement projects by the dozen that are debatable, the different versions of the F-35 being one big example.

But facts don’t matter much. I doubt more than 2 percent of the American people know that their defense bill has doubled, and that the largest chunk of their taxes, larger even than Social Security, goes to the Pentagon. So when Republicans scream “These defense cuts will cripple our ability to defend this nation, and that’s what the Democrats want,” they’ll get some takers. They will also introduce bills to protect the Pentagon from any cuts, an indefensible position from any logical point of view, but one with likely emotional salience in an election year—and especially helpful to the nominee who has to run against the president who iced Osama bin Laden.

The biggest liability for the GOP stemming from a nondeal? It’s the same thing, basically, as the biggest potential gain for the Democrats. No deal, blocked essentially by Republicans’ refusal to play ball on taxes on the well-off, hands Barack Obama a great opportunity to accuse them of blocking anything that would go against the interests of the top 1 percent. Obama and the Democrats can kill the GOP on this for the whole year, if they do it the right way and don’t back down when the Washington establishment scolds them, as has been their lamentable habit. If the Democrats keep the Republicans on the defensive about protecting the wealthy for the coming year—if neighbors discussing the election next Nov. 5 are saying to each other, “I just think the Republicans are too concerned about the rich; Obama has messed up this and that, but at least he’s trying to help the middle class”—then Obama wins, and the Democrats hold the Senate and maybe even take back the House.

The entitlements question also plays to the Democrats’ advantage. Unwillingness to do anything about entitlements (not an entirely factual charge against Democrats anyway, but as noted above, facts don’t matter) is a heavy verdict that has a lot of resonance inside the Beltway. But in America, most people don’t care. The party that defends entitlements generally helps its cause, which the unbelievably cynical GOP was clever enough to recognize in 2010, when attacking the health-care-reform act’s Medicare cuts were a big element of the party's win. This time, the roles will revert to normal, with the Democrats defending these programs.

The biggest risk for the Democrats, aside from having to defend Pentagon cuts, is going to be the GOP charge that the Democrats wouldn’t deal because they want to keep spending money we don’t have. This charge will resonate with independents, I expect. And this is where the Democrats need to do something they’re usually afraid to do. They need to make the case that we did not simply spend our way into this crisis. This is what the Republicans always say. It’s what conservative commenters on these threads say. It’s total propaganda, but it’s effective propaganda.

We didn’t “just” spend our way into this crisis. Spending is part of it—under the Bush administration too, by the way, which increased discretionary outlays by a staggering 48.6 percent, we de-taxed our way into it. Bruce Bartlett, citing the Congressional Budget Office, pegs the cost of the cuts at about $2.8 trillion from 2001 to 2010. And of course we deregulated our way into the financial crisis as well, letting banks bet against their own mortgage holdings, with no one watching, with Republicans (and yes, some Democrats, but not a majority) standing there cheering.

Whatever built-in advantages and disadvantages exist for each side, when the supercommittee fails, the winner will be the party that has more successfully sold its explanation of the failure. The GOP’s story is simpler: too much spending. But it’s a lie, and a stupid and cynical and insulting lie at that (but why should it be anything else?) The Democrats’ best story—some excess spending, but also excessive tax cuts, and no one minding the henhouse when the foxes were taking the eggs up through September 2008—is actually true. They just have to be willing to tell it, while also tying the top 1 percent around the GOP’s neck. In the current proto-populist climate, complicated could actually win for a change.