Back in February, a Pew Research Center poll showed that while Americans like the abstract idea of "spending cuts," they don't support reducing actual spending on, well, anything. Foreign aid very nearly (but not quite) achieved a majority in support of cuts, but for every other government activity – including education, entitlements, environmental protection and infrastructure – Americans are loathe to reduce the level of investment.
The GOP recently seems to have taken the public's position to heart. Exhibit A is Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who took to the House floor last week to decry the so-called "sequester" because it "breaks everyone's heart" to see services such as Head Start and Meals on Wheels cut. "There are numerous Republicans that voted against the sequestration because we knew all of these calamities were in the future," Bachmann said. "Didn't you know this was going to happen? We knew it. That's why we voted against this bill."
As the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler ably details, Bachmann is significantly rewriting history by claiming that she was against the sequester because it cuts too much from key services. At the time, she very publicly explained that she was against it – and other far more severe budget plans – because it did not cut enough.
But this trend goes far beyond Bachmann. Take, for instance, the GOP's latest debt ceiling gambit. Come the fall, the federal debt limit will have to be raised again, and Republicans are already making noise about which policy concession they hope to wring out of the White House this time.
Unlike previous episodes, though, it seems that the GOP won't demand entitlement cuts, but has instead decided that a revenue-neutral rewrite of the tax code (which would do nothing to reduce the deficit) will be the price of avoiding a self-induced economic calamity.
The reason for this shift is Republicans fear that embracing entitlement cuts such as those included in the president's most recent budget "would be political suicide." As New York magazine's Jonathan Chait puts it, "Oh! So you threaten to melt down the world economy unless Obama agrees to cut spending on retirement programs, and then he offers to do that, and then you decide it's too unpopular?"
The only GOP goal at the moment seems to be making governing as miserable as possible for the Obama administration. That leads to a lot of heated rhetoric about the threat of the deficit and the imminence of a debt crisis, scaremongering about the U.S. turning into Greece and creating the impression that there are gobs of taxpayer dollars being flushed down some bureaucrat's toilet somewhere, thus playing off the public's fear of a budget deficit that it doesn't understand but knows it doesn't like.
But when push comes to shove – and people are actually living with the effects of government spending cuts as they, for instance, try to travel by air – the GOP's true colors show. So we wind up with a cockamamie budget discourse in which one party doesn't really want to cut spending but offers to do so anyway, while the other demands spending reductions but then turns them down when the president agrees. (Unless, of course, those cuts affect discretionary spending on the poor, in which case, the GOP does nothing to stop them, but, ala Bachmann, wants none of the credit.) And all the while, the economy sputters along without the support it so desperately needs.