A traffic sign is seen near the US Capitol in Washington March 1, 2013. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
So: the “sequester.” That too-clever-by-half notion, born of last year’s debt ceiling negotiations out of the White House’s presumption that, when faced with the horror of heedless, profligate, across-the-board budget cuts to all manner of popular government programs, the Republicans’ “fever would break”—remember that?—and the Loyal Opposition would somehow come to agree to a reasonable, “balanced” deficit reduction package. It all seemed so cut and dried in those palmy days, just a few months ago: who could possibly imagine a major American political party could possibly let such madness actually go into effect?
Um, me? I wonder how many folks within the White House, gaming out whether Republicans might not just call the bluff, bothered to consider the fact that an embrace of heedless, profligate, across-the-board budget cuts to all manner of popular government programs is a key component of hardcore conservative ideology. That, when Barry Goldwater proclaimed in his 1960 manifesto Conscience of a Conservative, “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size …. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them …. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ ‘interests,’ I shall reply that I was informed that their main interest is liberty,” that Barry Goldwater—and the future millions for whom his sentiments became an ideological touchstone—meant what he said.
Did anyone in the White House notice how many conservatives, including ones in positions of governmental power, after Mitt Romney’s recorded back-room admission that he couldn’t get elected because 47 percent of the electorate is addicted to suckling on the federal teat, responded that what he said was absolutely correct? (Even if they admitted it was unfortunate a public unready to handle it had to hear it.) That conservatives, as an article of faith, see breaking the link between citizens and their government benefits as the only sure way to break the link between voters and the Democratic Party? And that severing that same link is also the best way way to restore the broken moral fabric of the nation? (Which is one explanation Republican governors use to defend their determination not to accept free federal money to qualify more of their poor citizens for Medicaid under Obamacare: They are saving their citizens from wicked dependency. Their other explanation is that Obama must necessarily be lying to them—but that will have to be the subject for another post).
And what could the White House have predicted conservatives would say to those who point out that pulling the rug out from under huge chunks of federal spending will spur a recession? They could have predicted that many would say exactly what they have said: that since it’s excessive federal spending that causes recessions, what’s wrong with cutting excessive federal spending?
Bottom line: didn’t anyone whose job it is to think about such things consider that at least some powerful Republicans—not all, it is true—would relish sequestration as a marvelous thing, a historic opportunity, a gift from Obama to help further the cause they’d been proclaiming as sacred for generations: to shrink the federal government small enough so they could someday drown it in Grover Norquist’s proverbial bathtub? “Once these cuts take effect, thousands of teachers and educators will be laid off and tens of thousands of parents will have to scramble to find childcare for their kids,” said Obama. Did he ever consider that to a lot of Republicans, that would sound like a wish list?
Here, note, was Rudolph Giuliani eleven days ago: “The federal government is highly inefficient. It could use a 5 or 10 percent cut.”
And that utterance, with its lust after cuts, jogged my weird historian’s memory.
When Ronald Reagan became governor of California in 1967, in part because of his vague but florid promise to cure the state’s budget deficit, his harried and incompetent budget director announced a magical solution: a budget that consisted of little more than last year’s document with the added notation for each deparment, “less 10 percent reduction.”
Saner heads pointed out that, well, this was not exactly how budgeting worked. That some spending was federally mandated, some other spending mandated by state statute; that administrative departments have fixed expenses and were not chunks of cheese that maintain their structural integrity if you carve a tenth of the bulk from any random portion, as if one corner being as important to the structural integrity of the whole as any other; and that—duh—some departments themselves are more integral to the health of a complex polity than others. Other observers made it clear to Reagan that his course would be a political disaster. (On one campus the governor was burned in effigy with placard reading “REDUCE REAGAN BY 10%.”) Indeed just such ineluctable facts of budgetary life were supposed to be sufficiently obvious to today’s Republican negotiators that they would never let the sequester’s slice-off-any-old-chunk-of-the-cheese madness take place. But why should we presume today’s Republicans show themselves any more sensible, any less susceptible to magic thinking, on such matters than their hero Ronald Wilson Reagan?
In 1967, it happened, inconvenient political reality spiked his administration’s hope to decimate (literally!) the entire state budget. He did, however, decimate where he could. For instance, in the the state’s Department of Mental Hygiene, which seemed a practical notion at the time because, as Lou Cannon noted in his book on Reagan’s governorship, “the population of the mental hospitals was declining, thanks to tranquilizing drugs and new medical procedures.” Although, oops: “the numbers were deceptive. The patients leaving the hospitals were the ones who responded best to tranquilizers; those who remained were more apt to need intensive care. And the state’s mental hospitals had never been adequately staffed.”
The indiscriminate—sequester-style, you might say—layoffs went forth nonetheless; and, in 1972, they were intensified. The results are infamous. The psychiatrist and novelist Irvin Yalom has written about what it was like to witness that calamity from within: “Reagan with one bold, brilliant stroke abolished mental illness in California,” he recalled. “As a result hospital staffs were forced, day after day, to go through the charade of treating patients and discharging them back into the same noxious setting that had necessitated their hospitalization. It was like suturing up wounded soldiers and sending them back into the fray. Imagine breaking your ass taking care of patients—initial workup interviews, daily rounds, presentations to the attending psychiatrists, staff planning sessions, medical student workers, writing orders in the hospital charts, daily therapy sessions—knowing all the while that in a couple of days there would be no option but to return them to the same malignant environment that had disgorged them. Back to angry spouses who had long ago run out of love and patience. Back to rag-filled grocery carts. Back to sleeping in moldering cars. Back to the community of cocaine-friends and pitiless dealers awaiting them outside the hospital gates.”
Heartbreaking. Reagan, meanwhile, denied the problem existed. In 1967, when a visiting expert from Sweden called a ward in Sonoma County the worst he had seen in several countries, the governor accused the staff there of having “rigged” the poor conditions to sabotage his cutback program. Another time Reagan just said, “We lead the nation in the quality of our mental patient care, and we will keep that lead.” In 1973 he called his “new approach to the treatment of the mentally ill that has reduced the number of patients sentenced to a hopeless life in our asylums from 16,500 to 7,000” a “model for the rest of the nation.”
What modern day horror stories will attend our own unanticipated chunk-of-cheese approach to federal budgetary decimation? That’s been a subject of much debate. One thing, however, is certain. The conservatives who’ve spent the last few weeks labeling Obama “President Panic” just for making the obvious argument that indiscriminate cutting has consequences will also figure out some species of magic thinking to deny their recklessness has had any negative effects at all—in fact, Reagan-like, they’ll surely devise cherry-picked and distorted nonsense in order to maintain that sequestration has yielded up loaves-and-fishes policy miracles.
Another prediction: sequestration will cause greater budget deficits down the road—because of the simple fact that there are certain things government has to do, and making it harder to do those things at any given moment makes it more inefficient and expensive for government to make up the ground down the road. This conservative retreat from a simple understanding of government spending as investment that pays off down the road is one of the reasons—there are others—Republican administrations end up creating bigger deficits than Democratic ones. Reagan’s gubernatorial administrations, for example: inheriting a $4.6 billion state budget in 1967, he left behind a one in 1975 that cost $10.2 billion. The average individual Californian’s tax burden when he took office was $426. When he left it was almost double that, at $728.
But there is a difference, this time. Back then, Democrats instinctively and successfully fought what Reagan was up to. This season’s budget decimation, on the other hand, has been underwritten by Democrats—by Democratic naïveté. By a simple refusal to absorb and accept the lesson of history: that some conservative Republicans will always be constitutionally incapable of acknowledging that a cut in government capacity can ever be a bad thing. The fact that they now can claim, even if disingenuously, that the cuts were Barack Obama’s idea in the first place may make their triumph politically only the sweeter.
Voting is not a right, but a privilege in this country, Rick Perlstein discovers.