Let’s face it: President Obama has performed a masterful jiu-jitsu move on the Republican Party, turning the Tea Party’s smaller-government energy of 2010 into a force that’s served to both expand and more deeply entrench entitlement programs while achieving a reduction in long-term defense investment that will substantially shrink the size of the US military and suggest – to friend and foe alike – that America is retreating from its post-World War II role in the world.
One can admire Obama’s maneuvering, lament Republican ineptitude, or both. But to celebrate the compounding catastrophe of the Budget Control Act (BCA) and its evil “sequestration” spawn, as pundits and politicians now seem determined to do, reveals the inner conservative untermensch. Defeat is victory. Please, sir, may I have another!
Two things have distinguished the debate over government spending that sprung from the Tea Party triumph of 2010. First, it’s revealed that younger Republicans care much, much more about the amount of government than they do about the nature of government; there is a vanishing distinction between the urge to reduce the size of government and the need to limit the role of government. Second, and related, conservatives now have a hard time seeing defense spending as a value proposition. They no longer ask whether the Pentagon returns good value for money; they simply want to cut the cost.
These two trends have been pretty clear at least since April 2011, when President Obama – who had been a cautious commander-in-chief through his first two years in office – stole a march on the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives and floated the idea that, given the spiraling deficits and debt, it might be good to cut $400 billion more from defense spending. In creating the BCA, the Republicans more than agreed, increasing the Pentagon cuts to $489 billion and making defense the principal target of sequestration. The deal also appealed to Democrats because it left entitlements essentially untouched.
There’s no need to rehearse every sorry step between then and now, but as the sequestration deadline looms on Friday, the frenzied dash to slather lipstick on the BCA pig is bringing these conservative fault lines into ever-sharper relief. To begin with, there’s the effort to frame sequestration as either a good thing or no big deal, as George Will put it, just “half of one percent of GDP.” In a way, this is true; the BCA and sequestration are no deal at all when it comes to controlling the costs of entitlements. The effect of the BCA, it must be said, has been to tilt the government another notch farther from the limited-government vision of the Founders and toward the social democratic aims of President Obama and his party.
And the run-up to sequestration has underscored again the increasing conservative hostility to the Pentagon. Last weekend, Washington Examiner columnist Byron York – having studied the Congressional Budget Office’s periodic “Economic Outlook” review – wrote a breathless piece revealing that – even with sequestration! – defense spending would slightly increase in the future. The column neglected to mention that non-defense discretionary spending would also rise, and rise at the same rate as defense, or that mandatory spending would rise at a rate four times faster. In other words, since Obama budgets provide the baseline for the provisions of the BCA, and don’t touch entitlements at all, the longer this goes on the more it favors Democratic budget priorities.
The Budget Control Act may not be, in Newt Gingrich’s words, the “tax collector for the welfare state,” but it surely has become an enabler for the expanding welfare state and an arms control treaty of unprecedented effect. An achievement conservatives and Republicans can be proud of.