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Sunday, December 4, 2016

WASHINGTON — The deficit that should concern us most right now has to do with time, not money. Money can be recouped. Time just disappears.

And time is what Washington is wasting now on an utterly artificial crisis driven not by economics but by ideology, partisan interest and an obsession over a word — “sequester” — that means nothing to most Americans.

Here is the most important thing about the battle raging in the capital over $85 billion in automatic spending cuts: Republicans are losing the argument but winning the time war.

The more time we spend on pointless disputes about budget cuts no one is expected to make soon, the less we spend trying to solve the problems that confront us right now — and, God forbid, thinking about the future.

Moreover, the 2012 election gave President Obama new authority and new energy. Republicans want to place as much distance between themselves and that election as they possibly can. From their perspective, the more months we fritter away on these dumb, fake emergencies, the better. As Obama’s clout slowly diminishes, so will his opportunities to press his own priorities.

If Washington can be kept in a state of partisan paralysis, Republicans stand to gain more. The voters hoped that by settling certain questions in 2012, they could push the politicians toward problem solving. Some Republicans in their heart of hearts even want this to happen. But if gridlock retains its icy grip on government, the president will ultimately suffer because it is members of his constituency who will be most demoralized by the failure of their votes to change anything.

The confrontation over the sequester should be seen for what it is: a hangover from a different period when a different political majority was temporarily ascendant. In 2011, Obama was fighting for his political life. Republicans had just seized the House and cut into the Democrats’ majority in the Senate.

The debt-ceiling clash was the product of that midterm election and of a victorious Tea Party that made slashing federal spending the one and only priority. The sequester was a temporary way out of the impasse that political moment created. Both sides agreed to a package of cuts in domestic and military spending assumed to be so unpalatable that eventually the contending parties would come to their senses and make a deal.