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Opinion

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Fiscal trench warfare

As the clock ticks down on the sequester solution to the nation's budget mess, it's looking more and more like a descent into World War I trench warfare. The two partisan sides are dug in, declining to surrender inches of policy and ideological territory, while the political battlefield continues to be torn up around them.

Behind all the figures on proposed Republican cuts and Democratic demands for higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans, the same basic argument remains over which much of the 2012 presidential election was fought: What is the proper size and role of the federal government in fulfilling the purposes for which the nation was formed, as succinctly laid out in the preamble to the Constitution?

It described the general goals thus: to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence (and) promote the general Welfare." But those words seem increasingly to have come to mean different things to today's Democrats and Republicans.

To most Democrats, the words imply an activist federal government that not only maintains a strong military but also requires public programs to assure that the general welfare is brought within the reach of all Americans.

To many Republicans, the same words and the rest of the Constitution also signal the imperative of a strong national defense but do not dictate a federal government that arrogates to itself means to promote the general welfare that can be adequately or best be provided by private initiative or enterprise.

In the 2012 election, President Barack Obama energetically argued the first interpretation and Mitt Romney the second, and the voters decided in Mr. Obama's favor. In that outcome, Mr. Romney unintentionally helped his opponent's case by careless comments demeaning and alienating recipients of federal largess.

Now, not surprisingly, the victor has set out to capitalize on his re-election to argue for his solution to the country's fiscal crisis. He says activist government must maintain and defend its social programs and call on the richest Americans to contribute more to help pay for them.

But the Republican leaders in Congress insist just as strenuously that it was Mr. Obama who earlier proposed the so-called sequester -- automatic, across-the-board domestic and defense cuts as a device to force deductions less destructive to the economy and national well-being.

Both parties on Capitol Hill agreed to this political suicide pact. Many Republicans are now saying their campaign to force deficit reduction will be best served by letting the sequester take place, despite Democratic predictions that the GOP will shoulder the blame in the public's eyes.

Mr. Obama, in his latest political stagecraft, appeared earlier this week with a group of uniformed public safety workers and asked voters: "Are you willing to see a bunch of first responders lose their jobs because you want to protect some special interest tax loopholes? Are you willing to see teachers laid off, or kids not have access to Head Start, or deeper cuts in student loan programs?"

This is the sort of political hardball against the Republicans in Congress that this president was much less willing to play in his first term, when GOP obstructionism repeatedly stymied his campaign promise to bring about change in Washington through compromise. Now this hardball sits well with fellow liberal Democrats who waited impatiently for him during his first four years to push back.

The Republican leaders now apparently hope that if the automatic sequester goes into effect in a week, the pain to federal workers and to the economy will not be immediately or widely felt, and that some deal will be struck with Mr. Obama soon thereafter.

Meanwhile, the country may have to endure another round of class warfare -- with domestic tranquillity, the common defense and the general welfare all eventually jeopardized -- as the two dug-in parties fire accusations and recriminations from their partisan trenches.

Unfortunately for Mr. Obama, the House Republicans still have their own victories in the 2010 and 2012 congressional elections to sustain their firepower over the next two years. The president may have to hope that the GOP's continuing unwillingness to do business with him will bring him Democratic control of the House in the 2014 midterm balloting, for his final two years in the presidency.

Jules Witcover is a former longtimes writers for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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