E.J. Dionne Jr. / Haunted by the Tea Party: We're having the same useless debate all over again

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The deficit that should concern us most right now has to do with time, not money. Money can be recouped. Time just disappears. And time is what Washington is wasting now on an utterly artificial crisis driven not by economics but by ideology, partisan interest and a word -- "sequester" -- that means nothing to most Americans.

Here is the most important thing about the battle raging in the capital over $85 billion in automatic spending cuts: Republicans are losing the argument but winning the war. The more time we spend on pointless disputes about budget cuts no one is expected to make anytime soon, the less we spend trying to solve the problems that confront us right now -- and, God forbid, thinking about the future.

Moreover, the 2012 election gave President Barack Obama new authority and energy. Republicans want to place as much distance between themselves and that election as they can. From their perspective, the more months we fritter away on dumb, fake emergencies, the better. As Mr. Obama's clout slowly diminishes, so will his ability to press his own priorities.

Voters hoped that by settling certain questions in 2012, they could push the politicians toward problem-solving. Some Republicans even want this to happen. But if gridlock retains its icy grip on government, the president ultimately will suffer because members of his constituency will be the most demoralized by the failure of their votes to change anything.

The confrontation over the sequester should be seen for what it is: a hangover from a time when a different political majority was temporarily ascendant.

In 2011, Mr. Obama was fighting for his political life. Republicans had just seized the House and cut into the Democrats' majority in the Senate. The debt-ceiling clash was the product of a victorious Tea Party that made slashing federal spending the only priority. The sequester was a temporary way out of the impasse that political moment created. Both sides agreed to a package of cuts in domestic and military spending assumed to be so unpalatable that eventually the parties would come to their senses and make a deal.

As a short-term measure, it was brilliant, particularly for the president. He got the debt-ceiling issue behind him and was free to wage a campaign in which he directly took on the Tea Party and defeated it. His party gained Senate seats, and Republicans held the House only by virtue of skewed congressional districts.

Now, the sequester is allowing the Tea Party's ghost to haunt Washington. It is as if the election never happened. We are back to the same deficit conversations we were having in 2010 and 2011. We are not pondering ways of helping the economy grow faster, or how we might reduce joblessness, or how we can usefully invest in the future. We are not discussing what to do about deepening economic inequality.

No, it's as if 2012 never happened. The return of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles to Washington's public stage this week was a reminder that we are trapped in the same old play with the same characters and the same themes.

President Obama has public opinion in his corner. His proposal to avoid the economic drag of the sequester with a reasonable amount of deficit reduction built on spending cuts and revenue-raising tax reform occupies the broad middle ground. The GOP could take a deal of this sort and declare victory, given all the cuts that have already passed.

But that is not the victory the Republicans seek. The sequester game is a contest in which their side wins simply by running out the clock, no matter what the score is. Thus, Mr. Obama can't just score points. He needs to figure out how to end the game so he can play the one he promised when he said his re-election could "break the fever" in Washington. Alas, it has not broken yet.


E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post (ejdionne@washpost.com).


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