The GOP Is Going to Be Badly Outsmarted on the Next Budget Showdown

The so-called sequester is designed to be highly unattractive to both sides of the aisle. But it is structured in a way that makes it significantly more unattractive to the Republicans. The problem is the cuts to the Defense Department. The Republicans who serve on the Armed Services committees aredesperate to avoid those cuts and they are willing to cut a deal favorable to the president to avoid them. The progressives don't like the across the board cuts to the discretionary budget, which will take a bite out of nearly everything, but they prefer them to making a deal that makes significant cuts to Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid.

What this means is that the Democrats will probably hold together and let sequestration take effect rather than agree to a deal that the House Republicans can accept. However, the Republicans will split apart, with defense hawks clamoring for concessions.

The upshot is that Speaker Boehner is in a real bind. He knows his party will lose the support of business leaders if they dick around with the debt ceiling, so his threats there are all bluff. But he'd like to think that he can force concessions on the sequester. He can get a little bit, but not as much as he probably needs to sell it to his caucus.

Making life even more excruciating for the Speaker, the Democrats in Congress and the White House refuse to offer him any concessions and insist that they will only respond to concrete proposals. But the kinds of cuts that Boehner's caucus wants (big cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) are deeply unpopular. Every time Washington thinks about tinkering with these third rails of politics, they propose a commission so that both sides can share the blame. But Boehner is being put in the position of making the Republican Party own ALL the blame. And, worse, he's in the position of insisting on these cuts or else the Pentagon's budget is cut beyond what the Defense Secretary thinks is safe for the country. And don't think that the American people won't be concerned about many of the other cuts in the sequester, either.

To put this in plain terms, the GOP is painted into a corner where whatever they do will be incredibly unpopular with the electorate unless they totally capitulate, which would splinter their party to the winds.

You can call this 11-dimensional chess or just a very nice flanking maneuver, but the Republicans are in a real bind of the president's making.

We'll probably still be debating the president's negotiating skills 20 years from now, but I want to make a point about the Republicans' negotiating skills. Their greatest weakness is their ideological inflexibility. It makes then so predictable that the administration is able to plot things out months and years in advance without much fear that they'll be surprised. It's a huge weakness to let your opponent know that you can't take yes for an answer if there is one penny of tax increases. It allows your enemy to offer you anything, no matter how generous or concerning to their own troops, secure in the knowledge that you'll never take them up on the concession. They look reasonable. They look like they are negotiating in good faith. But it's your own bad faith that allows them to make good faith offers in bad faith. You enable it. Because all you have to do is surprise them by saying yes when they thought you'd say no, and you've put a wedge between them and their base.

The Republicans were set up by their own predictability. And their predictability is founded on their ideological rigidity. They are getting played like a fiddle.

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