Washington's preferred legislative tool, the manufactured crisis, is based on the idea that when Democrats and Republicans are forced to choose between catastrophe and compromise, they'll choose the latter. While the sequester, the $85 billion in spending cuts set to take effect Friday, doesn't seem as catastrophic as the "fiscal cliff" threatened to be—perhaps it requires a more ominous name, like "sequestageddon"—it's expected to damage the economy, threaten national security, and curtail important government services. But it's not catastrophic enough, apparently, to rile the public and pressure our politicians. Put more bluntly: Republicans aren't caving because the American people don't care.
Democrats thought they had a good enough hand to convince Republicans to compromise, and with good reason: A majority of Americans supports their position, the sequester is likely to get less popular as its consequences are felt, and popular GOP governors and neoconservatives have spoken out against the sequester's deep cuts to defense spending. But if Republicans are unwilling to embrace the president's "balanced approach"—which calls for a mix of cuts and revenue—they might be able to weather the storm of public opinion. A compromise might not come without a government shutdown.
The last few years have taught us that Hill Republicans have an exceptionally high tolerance for pain. Those in the House, representing safe districts and fearful of conservative primary challenges, routinely advocate positions opposed by a majority of Americans. Despite multiple manufactured crises and a House speaker who seems disposed to a so-called grand bargain, Republicans haven't agreed to any revenue increases that weren't already mandated by law. And even when they got the opportunity to vote for a tax cut after the "fiscal cliff," a majority of them voted "no."
President Barack Obama might have thought that this time would be different, but Republicans apparently believe that the political costs of the sequester pale in comparison to a potentially fatal agreement to raise taxes. It's not hard to see how they've reached that conclusion, at least for now. The White House is right that public opinion is on their side, but the polls don't yet show public outrage, and certainly not enough to force Republicans to cave to Obama's demands. A recent Pew Research/USA Today survey shows that only 27 percent of adults have heard a lot about the sequester, while today's Pew Research/Washington Post survey shows only 25 percent are paying very close attention. Before the debt ceiling, nearly twice as many Americans were paying close attention; as many as 40 percent were paying very close attention to the fiscal cliff.
Those numbers are not surprising. Republicans and Republican-leaners, after all, tend to like spending cuts. As a result, recent Bloomberg and USA Today/Pew Research polls found that 40 percent were willing to stomach deep cuts, while only 54 and 49 percent preferred to delay the sequester if a compromise isn't reached. Before the debt ceiling debacle, Pew Research found that 68 percent of Americans wanted a compromise on the debt ceiling, compared to just 27 percent who wanted the government to default.
The White House is counting on the sequester becoming more unpopular once the cuts take effect. That almost certainly will happen, since the same Pew Research poll that showed 40 percent preferring to allow the sequester showed Americans opposed to most types of spending cuts. The sequester is already having visible effects, like today's mass release of detainees from immigration detention centers. But although the sequester is bound to trouble voters, it's unclear whether it will be disastrous enough to stoke public outrage and force Republicans to budge. Some are comparing the sequester to the 1995-1996 government shutdown, but the loss of government services after the sequester might not compare, and tax increases are tougher for Republicans to stomach than relenting on spending cuts. The fact is, we won't know yet whether voters will react with mere frustration or outrage.
Even if voters do react with outrage, Republicans could elect to weather the storm. Senator Ron Johnson might be wrong to suggest that Boehner would lose the speakership if he compromises on the sequester, but the very mention of this confirms the high cost of compromise for the Republican leadership. So long as Republicans remain unified—and they might—Boehner won't have the cover necessary to pursue a deal with the president. Meanwhile, Hill Republicans are drafting a politically compelling counter-proposal to give the Obama administration flexibility in implementing the $85 billion in cuts. This would help inoculate the Republicans against public criticism, especially since congressional Democrats oppose it for an unmarketable reason: It makes the sequester more palatable, reducing their leverage to demand additional revenue.
It's possible that Republicans will crack in the face of public pressure, and that there will be dissent within the ranks. But if not, Democrats and Obama might have one opportunity to break the impasse: the upcoming showdown over the continuing resolution, which needs to be extended by March 27 to avoid a government shutdown. If the sequester is as unpopular as the White House hopes, Democrats could oppose a continuing resolution that locks in spending at sequester levels and demand the "balanced approach" to the deficit. In this scenario, the unpopularity of the sequester isn't its immediate undoing, but a precondition for forcing Republicans to choose between a government shutdown and compromise—and a shutdown would probably force Republicans to compromise, especially since it would allow GOP leaders to claim they did everything they could to avoid tax hikes.
So if Democrats aren't just content with a public relations victory, and instead want to raise more revenue and disarm the sequester, then a government shutdown might be exactly what they're looking for—assuming, that is, the public finally pays attention.