3 Lessons From the Sequestration Fight

President Obama and the GOP need a long-term plan to reduce the deficit in a targeted, prioritized way.

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There's an old opening we speechwriters like to use, and it goes like this: So I'm sitting on a plane, and the pilot says over the intercom: "I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that we are terribly lost. I have no idea where we are. The good news is we have a strong tailwind. In other words, we don't know where we are going, but we're getting there awfully fast."

The sequester fight was similar—heading nowhere fast. Let's take a look at three things that did become clear by the end of that long, difficult ordeal:

"Firemen first" doesn't work anymore. For years, when big government supporters faced the possibility of spending cuts, they'd close down the firehouse first in an attempt to stop all spending cuts. Laying off teachers will come next, they'd say, and then cutting aid to disabled kids, instead of prioritizing important programs and eliminating unnecessary ones. This time, the president painted the looming sequester—just a 2.4 percent reduction in federal spending—in the most dire terms possible, saying streets would be unsafe, borders would be lax, and our national security was at risk … and then he left town instead of negotiating.

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"There was a lot of crying wolf," Jeb Bush said on NBC's Today. "The president kind of led the charge to say widows and orphans are going to be out on the street, so when it didn't happen, he actually himself had to step back on Friday and say it wasn't going to happen that way," he added. One reason the president had to step back: His Gallup approval ratings were sliding downward (from 52 to 46 percent since the inaugural), and his disapprovals were up (from 43 to 46 percent immediately after the sequester). People weren't buying it. In fact, they saw right through the president's hyperbole.

The left may not be ready for spending "cuts," but taxpayers are. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that polls show Americans are opposed to spending cuts, especially when the cuts affect them personally. Yet as pollster Scott Rasmussen points out, a careful read of the latest Pew Research Center poll shows majorities of Americans actually favor decreasing or holding spending at the present levels. Because current federal budgets include an automatic increase from year to year, saying you're in favor of holding spending at this year's levels is, in Washington-speak, a "massive cut"—because it doesn't allow for these billions in automatic spending increases. But to most Americans, holding spending at the present levels isn't a cut at all—it's common sense, given how high our deficits are. Pew shows pluralities of voters want to hold spending at current levels without the automatic increase. Only in D.C. is that considered a "cut."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Pew also found that a whopping 70 percent of Americans think it is "essential for the president and Congress to pass major legislation to reduce the federal budget deficit this year." That survey, conducted with USA Today, found that more Americans want deficit reduction plans to give greater emphasis to spending reductions than tax increases.

Unlike the politicians in Washington, families understand that we can't spend more than we take in, and that holding the growth of spending isn't as extreme as some make it out to be. That's why "firemen first" doesn't work anymore.

Enough with the brinksmanship. Despite all the breathless media commentary about which side would be willing to "shoot the hostage" first, the sequester fight showed us that both Republicans and Democrats have backed away from the brinksmanship we saw a few months ago. In December, Republicans were willing to give Obama $620 billion in higher taxes over the next 10 years during the fiscal cliff negotiations; Obama talked a big show during the sequester fight, but in the end, he gave Republicans $1.2 trillion in across-the-board spending cuts. (By the way, the nearly $3.6 trillion in spending cuts and tax increases enacted since 2011 is close to the $4 trillion called for in the 2010 Simpson-Bowles recommendations.) The New York Times reported that both the president and House Republicans have agreed that they will not continue to fight over financing the government—averting a shutdown in late March—something the Times calls a "fiscal peace through political exhaustion." Both sides have realized that keeping the fight going was going nowhere.