Inside the Beltway, everybody's talking about sequestration — and not only about whether it will happen (various supposed "high-level" sources say they are not optimistic that it will be avoided) and what it will mean, but also — it being the Beltway — which side of the aisle will pay the price.
The president is running a campaign to convince people that the results will be dire, that they should be avoided in favor of a sensible mix of spending cuts and revenue increases, and that the Republicans' insistence that all of the savings come from cuts will lead to fiscal havoc, if not take us over a cliff. Republicans are saying that because Democrats control the Senate, they and the president should put a specific plan on the table.
The White House obviously believes that upping the temperature on the issue will increase support for their position — and solidify blame of the Republicans. So that's what they are trying to do.
There's some reason to think that will work from the polls, which find that the more carefully people pay attention to the debate the more likely they are to want Congress to do something to avoid sequestration. On the other hand, nearly four out of 10 people polled tell Gallup they aren't paying much attention, and 40 percent tell Pew Research/USA Today pollsters that if there's no deal, the cuts should go into effect. Two in 10 have no opinion at all about the cuts and whether they're for them or for a deal, much less what kind of deal.
Almost everyone is drawing an analogy to the way House Republicans were blamed for closing down the government during the Clinton years, although the reality of that — the government is closed, you can't call Social Security, you can't get your passport — was easier to grasp. If I went to the corner where my office is located and stopped people on the street, I'm not sure that most of them could actually define "sequestration," much less identify specific program cuts. And I have a lot of respect for the people in the neighborhood.
In fundamental ways, this does seem like a Washington game. At some point, sooner or later, some kind of deal will be made that some of the politicians and talking heads will praise and others will condemn. But that will only happen after the various elected and appointed officials involved play the usual blame games, up the ante with the old-fashioned "chicken" face-off and wait for the other side to blink. One side will claim some kind of victory, while others will denounce the "deserters" and condemn the results, and we'll move to the next fiscal cliff. There will be polls that show us divided, as we usually are.
I can't predict who will "win," but I can tell you who will lose: anybody who really cares about respect for government, for Congress and the presidency, and for the value of politics.
Years ago, political theoreticians clustered around the idea that pluralism was the means by which democracy operated best, that the public interest was served when different groups with different interests interacted in the process of deciding who got what, when, where and how — the classic definition of politics. But those were the days when the opposing sides acted like people who disagree rather than like people on opposite sides of a war, when everybody still had a drink after work, when forging compromise was an act of strength and not a sign of weakness.
None of that is the case anymore, which is why we seem to lurch from crisis to crisis and why many folks who dreamed of serving in Congress are disappointed with how it's turned out. It's why running for office doesn't even appear on the list of what my talented students want to do.
One way or another, we'll survive the sequestration debate, the way we did the fiscal cliff — or perhaps more likely, we'll find a way to put it off to another time. The harder calculation is of the cost to a healthy democracy. This much is clear: It is not insignificant.