Here's your sugar-coated Satan sandwich!

Emanuel Cleaver was right. Why did anyone ever think Republicans would undo the sequester deal?

By Joan Walsh

Published February 27, 2013 6:57PM (EST)

     (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

Bob Woodward is officially shaming himself trying to prove that the sequester standoff is President Obama’s fault. First he blamed Obama for the failed debt ceiling deal of July 2011, proclaiming in his incredibly biased book: “[P]residents work their will—or should work their will—on the important matters of national business. Obama has not.” How the president could have worked his will on the crackpot Tea Party GOP caucus, he doesn’t say.

Then last week he kvetched that Obama was “moving the goalposts” by demanding that a deal to avert the $85 billion in budget cuts include some revenue. That’s baloney: The horrific sequester deal was always intended to force a more balanced approach to deficit-cutting.

Now he’s claiming the president alone has the power to avert disaster by ignoring the sequester, particularly its steep defense cuts, and doing … I don’t know what. But here’s what he said on Wednesday’s "Morning Joe":

Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting there and saying 'Oh, by the way, I can't do this because of some budget document?' Or George W. Bush saying, 'You know, I'm not going to invade Iraq because I can't get the aircraft carriers I need' or even Bill Clinton saying, 'You know, I'm not going to attack Saddam Hussein's intelligence headquarters,' as he did when Clinton was president because of some budget document?

Under the Constitution, the president is commander-in-chief and employs the force. And so we now have the president going out because of this piece of paper and this agreement, I can't do what I need to do to protect the country. That's a kind of madness that I haven't seen in a long time.

There is madness afoot here, but it’s Woodward’s.

Let’s be crystal clear: If the budget cuts baked into the ugly sequester deal take effect Friday, the culprits will be Republicans, who decided, in the words of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, that the debt ceiling was “a hostage worth ransoming.” But for the sake of getting history correct, we can’t let Democrats entirely off the hook.

Obama and the Democrats are absolutely right to say that the sequester, with its meat-cleaver hacks to important social programs and defense, was intentionally designed to force compromise. The defense cuts especially were so horrific, it was argued, that the GOP would have to make a deal to avert them.

But not everyone believed that. Most memorably, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver called the debt-ceiling deal “a sugar-coated Satan sandwich.” (I didn’t even have to Google the precise term; it’s imprinted in my brain.) "This debt deal is antithetical to everything the great religions of the world teach, which is take care of the poor, aged, vulnerable," the Congressional Black Caucus chair complained.

Wags on Twitter mocked Cleaver, but he wasn’t alone. Paul Krugman howled:

Republicans will supposedly have an incentive to make concessions the next time around, because defense spending will be among the areas cut.  But the G.O.P. has just demonstrated its willingness to risk financial collapse unless it gets everything its most extreme members want. Why expect it to be more reasonable in the next round?

Cleaver wasn’t alone in Congress, either. House Democrats split down the middle on the deal 95-95, with most progressives voting against it, including 27 of 41 members of the CBC. In the Senate, five liberal Democrats (plus Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with them) voted no: New York’s Kristen Gillibrand, Iowa’s Tom Harkin, New Jersey’s Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez and Oregon’s Jeff Merkley; outgoing Blue Dog Dem Ben Nelson of Nebraska also opposed the deal, because it didn’t cut enough.

Unless there’s a last minute pact to avert the sequester, however, time will have proven Cleaver and those anti-deal Democrats correct.

The only good thing about the debt-ceiling deal was that it finally crushed the spirit of Bipartisan Barack Obama, who had risen to power convinced of his unique ability to heal the nation’s ugly partisan divide. Fighting Barack Obama rose from the ashes, and almost immediately began crusading for a jobs bill and talking a little bit less about the deficit. That’s the Obama who got reelected in November.

Still, it’s worth remembering that according to Noam Scheiber and others, Obama himself opened the door to hostage-taking Republicans by agreeing to negotiate over a debt-ceiling hike, which had until that point been a pro-forma ritual: partisans from the out of power party, like Sen. Barack Obama, might cast a symbolic vote against it, but it always went up. In his excellent book “The Escape Artists,” Scheiber reveals that some administration officials knew that would change under the new Tea Party-led House GOP elected in 2010, and they pushed to include a debt-ceiling hike in the December 2010 deal Obama made to extend the Bush tax cuts. But when Republicans (predictably) balked, it was dropped.

The White House was already looking for a way to craft a big deficit-reduction plan, thanks to the warnings of deficit hawk Peter Orszag, with political advisers like David Plouffe insisting it would make good politics in 2012 after the “shellacking” of 2010.  As one administration official told Scheiber, about a crucial deficit-cutting meeting: “Plouffe specifically said, ‘We’re going to need a period of ugliness’ — he meant with the left — ‘so that people in the center understand that we’re not wasting their tax dollars.” (Funny, Plouffe said the same thing publicly right after Obama's 2012 victory.)

When ratings agency Standard and Poor told Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner that it doubted the administration could reach a deficit deal with newly elected House Republicans, back in April 2011, Geithner scoffed. “We said, ‘This is the way it worked in the nineties,’” a former administration official related. “‘After a big election, when you have divided government, you fight a bit, then find a middle ground.’”

They didn’t – and still haven’t.

To be fair, no one knows whether a tough line with Republicans in 2010 would have prevented the 2011 standoff or the coming 2013 disaster. There is a plausible case to be made that Obama’s precise combination of populist fight with deficit-cutting prudence led to his reelection; tough talk alone might not have proven to voters that the modern GOP has lost its marbles.

Still, the only thing Democrats haven’t tried, in dealing with an increasingly extremist GOP, is standing up to them, and sticking to it. I worry that some people in the White House, as well as some centrist Democrats, still believe there’s a “grand bargain” to be made, which is not only bad policy, but bad politics. Any big deal would require both cuts to Medicare and Social Security – and big margins from Democrats in the House and Senate to do both. Why should anyone be pushing for a big deal that would require Democrats to break campaign promises – and then almost certainly be punished by conscience-free Republicans who’d blame them for doing so in 2014? The president seems to have learned that negotiating with political terrorists emboldens them; I hope that lesson sticks.

I only know one thing for sure: As we stand on the edge of the sequester cliff looking out at the looming storm, suggesting that no one could have predicted that Republicans would be crazy enough to let the cuts take effect is like George W. Bush insisting “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees” in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, despite plenty of warnings to the contrary.

People did predict it. And so far, they were right.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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