There is at least one thing to like about the tax-raising, can-kicking deal that avoided the fiscal cliff: It gave the U.S. military a 60-day reprieve from the consequences of sequestration.
Considering that House Republicans don’t have the votes to force the Senate or the White House to get serious on entitlement reform, that’s a decent consolation prize – even better than reducing the tax bill from $800 billion or more to $600 billion. Somewhere, Ronald Reagan is smiling. The military he bought – which is still the one that’s out there fighting in Afghanistan and otherwise patrolling the perimeters of the Free World – will be able to carry on for a bit longer.
And those who style themselves Reaganites might remember this when the debt ceiling showdown rolls around. The president is determined to raise taxes and the Senate Democrats are determined to fully fund every entitlement – they won’t even entertain a more realistic inflation mechanism. And they just won the fiscal cliff fight with $43 dollars in new taxes for every $1 is spending cuts, as well as a bunch of “stimulative” pork and tax loopholes. Even if that’s supposed to be a high watermark for them, it’s a pretty high watermark.
Yes, Obama needs debt ceiling relief more than he needed to avoid going over the cliff. But though entitlement reform can’t happen too soon, it can’t happen soon enough to prevent the catastrophic collapse of American military power that was already underway. In sum, Republicans need to reorder their near-term priorities and to try to segregate national security needs from the larger program of fiscal reform. They certainly can’t expect to get serious action on entitlements while the Democrats hold both the Senate and the White House.
They might, however, be able to save a range of core of military capabilities that America is likely – indeed, certain – to need in the future. It would also be a critical first step toward reestablishing peace-through-strength conservatism as a core principle of the Republican Party.
It’s also an achievable political outcome, even for a congressional minority, as the Fiscal Cliff dance shows: Fear of defense sequestration was not enough, in the end, to force through substantial fiscal and entitlement reforms, but the McConnell-Biden scrum that produced the final deal did protect the Pentagon. With continued control of the House in one hand and the Constitution in the other, Republicans do have what it takes to defend defense until they can attack the entitlement state.