Now that budget sequestration seems inevitable, the remaining question is, who gets hurt? The White House and Democrats seem supremely confident that the public will cast blame on congressional Republicans. To be sure, the GOP, in its weakened condition, is blamed for virtually everything short of the weather and the flu. This column a few weeks ago likened the party’s plight to a sports team that has virtually all of the officials’ calls going against it, deserved or not. In other words, this is not a fun time to be a Republican on Capitol Hill.
Having said that, assuming that sequestration kicks in, with $85 billion in mandatory budget cuts pretty much across the board—exempting only Social Security, Medicaid, and, to a lesser extent, Medicare, and disproportionately hitting defense—many Americans will begin to feel some inconvenience after a few days, and a few will feel real pain. It’s only when, or if, it persists for a week or more and affects more people that impatience and annoyance will turn into anger, then rage. At that point, it becomes difficult to know whether voters will still vent these emotions exclusively at Republicans. Democrats will likely get tarnished as well, with voters echoing Mercutio’s call for “a plague on both your houses.”
We live in a period when politicians tend to see the world in a binary fashion; everything is either a one or a zero, and there is a clear winner and a clear loser in every situation. But with the sequester, at least after the first few days, it’s possible that both sides could lose, that people won’t distinguish between Democrats or Republicans but will instead excoriate “those politicians in Washington” as a whole.
As a practical matter, thanks to the phenomenon that journalist Bill Bishop calls “the clustering of like-minded America” in his terrific book, The Big Sort, as well as to redistricting and the general power of incumbency, very few House members live in potentially competitive congressional districts. For that matter, the first and third factors apply to the Senate as well. According to The Cook Political Report, 208 of 234 House Republicans are from districts currently rated “Solid Republican” and were won by the GOP in November. Similarly, 166 of 201 House Democrats are in “Solid Democratic” districts won by their party last year. In other words, only 26 Republican and 35 Democratic House seats are currently competitive or even potentially competitive (with our “Toss-Up” and “Lean Democratic” or “Lean Republican” categories considered competitive, and “Likely Democratic” or “Likely Republican” considered just potentially competitive). And those numbers include members who either have already announced or will at some point announce retirements. Similarly, most senators come from what are effectively one-party states or those where candidates of one party have a distinct advantage.
But even districts and states that are normally neither competitive nor potentially competitive can get that way in the face of public anguish and rage. During these times, anger against Washington reaches a certain point and creates an environment in which an unusually large (relatively speaking) number of incumbents either lose or have surprisingly close primary contests. For those looking at running for the Senate, a governor’s mansion, or the White House, being tagged as a candidate running from Congress is no prize either. In short, this kind of debacle hurts all incumbents, regardless of whether they wear red or blue jerseys.
In the end, though, it’s not the politics that matters; it is the hardship for real people. It’s the nonelected who are the innocent collateral damage in such a partisan fight. They are the ones hurt by the standoff—people who had no say in the decisions not to reach a compromise before it is too late. And that is the group President Obama and Democrats, the 2012 election victors, should think about. How many of these people who voted for the president and his party, thinking they would be protected from gridlock, might now feel let down, concluding that maybe “all of those people in Washington are the problem”? That’s why the rather cavalier attitude that some Democratic operatives seem to have—relishing this fight, anxious to score yet another win over Republicans—could be risky. Hubris is never a good thing.
We all remember the scene in the cinematic masterpiece The Godfather when the mafia gangs are poised for war, threatening to “go to the mattresses.” There is a sense of dread, knowing there will be casualties. Politicians going into this fight should all know there will be casualties.
This article appears in the Feb. 26, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Collateral Damage.