The next two or three weeks should be interesting. Barring some sort of last minute compromise, the sequester will come into effect. Given the size of the federal budget, the actual effects of cutting a few billion -- not from the budget as it existed in 2012 but from its projected increase -- should be trivial. But it is in the power of the President to make it painful; and, if this President is true to form, he will make it as painful as possible.
Everyone has seen this before at the state level. The legislature trims the projected budget, and the Governor, intent on expanding patronage, responds by declaring an emergency and by cutting access to state parks, library hours . . . you name it. The point is to rally the public against the legislature by cutting popular items while carefully protecting the pork that sustains the Governor's political party.
This sort of irresponsibility is, I suspect, what we will soon see at the federal level. The difference is that Obama will be more brazen and audacious than any Governor has ever been. I will be flying to New York on Friday to give a talk at the annual meeting of the National Association of Scholars. I would not at all be surprised if there is a shortage of TSA personnel managing the security lines and if the Air Traffic Controllers are in such short supply that things grind almost to a stop. If my guess is right, it will be Obama's calculation that he can soon bring John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and the Republicans in Congress to their knees. If he makes the attempt and they cave, you can kiss even the most modest attempt at fiscal responsibility goodbye. The name of the game for our President is to force a crisis that will eventuate in massive tax increases -- first on high earners and then on the middle class more generally.
The Republicans are at a disadvantage. Obama commands the bully pulpit and our partisan press will make sure that he is heard loud and clear. The Republicans do not have a standard-bearer. There is no one authorized to speak for them, and their leadership in Congress, while canny, is anything but eloquent. Senator McConnell, whom I greatly admire, is the master of mumbling, and John Boehner, whom I also admire, is quiet and plain-spoken.
That is one problem. There is another. CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, and MSNBC are not going to give the Republicans a platform. They will broadcast Obama's remarks over and over again. They will shut out our representatives.
What this means is that it will take courage for the Republicans to stand their ground. They and everyone who supports their stand must speak up or much will be lost. The common thread should be simple: "The sequester cuts nothing from last year's budget. It cuts very little from the projected budget for 2013. The President has it in his power to keep things running smoothly, and the misery being inflicted on our fellow citizens is entirely his doing."
If the Republicans can weather the crisis that Barack Obama has manufactured, if they can stand their ground, Barack Obama's second term will be like most Presidents' second terms -- dreary. Step by step, the malfeasance of his first term will become visible, and he will twist slowly, slowly in the wind.
If, on the other hand, the Republicans cave, conservatives may well lose heart and sit on their hands or vote Libertarian in November 2014; and our side may even lose the House of Representatives. A party that stands for nothing, a party that becomes synonymous with weakness, will not attract support. A great deal is at stake in this little tempest in a teapot. In the next few weeks, the Republicans can lay the foundation for a resurgence. Or they can demonstrate their fecklessness and their worthlessness.