Both parties continue to trip over the low bar Americans have set for them, and we can look forward to more of the same for the next four years.
The super committee fell below even my own low expectations. I knew they would not come up with anything resembling an actual deal, but I thought they would at least agree on something, even if that something combined a minimum of anything real and the maximum of fakery. But no, they failed to agree on anything. However, the capacity of this sorry Congress to never fail to miss a chance to miss a chance should not be a surprise. So what are the consequences?
The consequences of sequestration itself — the automatic cuts that were supposed to be the doomsday scenario forcing some deal — will be mostly zilch. The actual cuts do not go into effect until 2013. The domestic cuts will make government a little bit worse, but not a lot, and the defense cuts will all be reversed. President Obama has said he will veto any effort to reverse the defense cuts, but they won’t come to him as a single, separate package and that’s an empty threat anyway. The defense sequestrations will be bundled in the defense appropriation for next year, and I’m willing to accept bets that the president will not veto a defense appropriations bill in the midst of a reelection campaign. In any case, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is on record opposing these cuts, and Leon is not someone with whom the White House wants to have a public debate.
The consequences of the inevitable blame game now going on will be a lower level of trust and confidence for everyone involved — Democrats and Republicans, the Congress and the president. No one comes out a winner here, although my guess is that on the margin President Obama is hurt the worst. Why? People know who he is and they know this thing failed. People have no idea who the congressional members of the super committee were. The entire leadership of Congress stayed as far away from this as possible, and if you believe that was an accident then you were probably also visited by the tooth fairy last night.
There are record levels of political dark arts currently being performed as the Republicans try to blame President Obama for this failure. They argue that he should have intervened to save the super committee process, but both sides set it up to fail. Its only purpose was to rescue them all from the debt limit debacle, not to accomplish anything. I’ve been clear that I think President Obama missed an enormous strategic opportunity by not endorsing Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin a year ago, but as far as I can tell, the congressional leadership on both sides like where they are and have zero interest in doing anything.
The consequences for the presidential campaign we are about to have inflicted upon us are both straightforward and bleak. This campaign, which will take up the next full year, has nowhere to go but negative. No ideas will be debated and no one will try to establish a mandate. Both sides are locked into positions that have become caricatures of real issues.
President Obama should be worried about this. My own current guess is that he will win reelection — Americans may have declining confidence in him, but the Republican clown-a-week show is terrifying them. But other than a resume enhancer, what will reelection be for? What will he do with it? The Republicans will probably retain the House and win the Senate, and the presidential campaign will not establish any direction or mandate. The next four years could get ugly.
But sequestrations, blame games, and political campaigns are all ephemeral Washington stuff. The real principal consequence of the failure of the super committee is its opportunity cost. Absent another economic crisis, we will now wait at least a year before we even begin to grapple with the several genuine economic problems our nation faces. We will have no debt reduction, no tax reform, no infrastructure initiative, no serious effort to reduce unemployment either in the short or long run, no economic stimulus, no entitlement reform, no energy policy, and no climate policy. Instead, we’re going to have a campaign about socialism versus selfish billionaires.
When I’m feeling apocalyptic, I think of historian Niall Ferguson’s question: “What if collapse does not arrive over a number of centuries
but comes suddenly, like a thief in the night?” But that’s not really where we are. We can wait a year; things will just continue on their current mediocre deadlocked course. Trust in government will continue to decline along with the capacity of government to do anything, and trust in the current political parties will decline further and faster. The opening for the radical center is getting bigger and bigger.
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic presidents.
The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.