Many are asking how Congress managed to "screw up" so badly that we now face massive budget cuts under sequestration. The answer is simple: congressional Republicans weren’t playing the right game. They were playing traditional American politics, whereas President Obama was playing Go, a much more complicated game with much higher stakes and only one winner.
For those not familiar with the Chinese game of Go, it is a game with extremely simple rules, but incredibly complex strategies and tactics. A simple, seemingly harmless move in the beginning can be turned into a devastating play several moves later. The goal of the game is to protect yourself while surrounding your opponent, restricting their options to play, and, eventually, removing them from the board. This is exactly what President Obama is doing to House Republicans.
As part of the 2011 Debt Deal, President Obama didn’t propose sequestration just to get an agreement on raising the national debt limit last year in the age old game of American political horse trading. Instead, he was playing Go with congressional Republicans, and positioning himself to politically remove Republicans from the Washington game board.
Let’s look at the steps leading up to the sequestration crisis in terms of Go strategy and tactics.
1. Creating a favorable position with early moves and baiting the trap:
During the debt ceiling negotiations, congressional Republicans demanded that, in exchange for increasing the limit on the national debt, real reductions in spending must take place. President Obama and Senate Democrats appeared to agree in principle, but refused to nail down the specifics of how much and where such reductions would take place. When Republicans refused to accept nebulous promises of future spending cuts in exchange for real increases in the debt limit, President Obama offered a solution: sequestration, where onerous spending cuts would be written into law and implemented at some future time unless Congress found other forms of debt reduction at least as great. Sequestration, so the story went, was so bad that even members of Congress that couldn’t agree on anything else would be forced to find agreement on debt reduction in order to avoid the cuts mandated by the provision.
What House Republicans, particularly Speaker Boehner, failed to see was that President Obama wasn’t just after an increase in the national debt limit. Instead, he intended to use sequestration as a lever to impose significant tax increases across the economy, force congressional Republicans to betray the promises they made to their constituents and supporters, cut major portions of the defense budget, and shift the blame to House Republicans so they would lose control of the House of Representatives in the 2014 elections. In Go terms, President Obama left some territory undefended because he wanted his opponent to play into it while setting himself up to make strategic gains in territory.
2. Gaining advantage by protecting your territory and advancing your pieces into favorable positions:
President Obama was able to get the increase in the national debt limit he wanted: big enough so he could continue his spending programs through the 2012 election season, but not so big as to remove the issue from use in the 2014 elections. Like a pro Go player , the President played his pieces into areas that were safe for him, but laid a trap for his opponent.
3. Encircling the opponent:
By working with Senate Democrats through 2012 and early 2013, President Obama managed to kill all proposals that would have eliminated the sequestration threat. The House GOP proposed two different bills that would have eliminated sequestration, but Senate Democrats working with the President blocked them. The spending reduction recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Plan were likewise killed by congressional Democrats. In all cases, the failures were blamed on the unwillingness of congressional Republicans to include major tax increases with the spending cuts necessary to avoid the sequester. Strategically, in a Go game, this would be an encirclement or entrapment of your opponent, limiting their options for play, and forcing them to play into even more vulnerable positions.
4. Capturing isolated pieces the opponent left exposed:
As a side benefit, after the 2012 election, the president was able to use the Taxmaggedon Crisis to implement massive tax increases for 2013 via the expiration of some of the Bush tax cuts and the implementation of new taxes included in the Affordable Care Act. While not directly part of the sequestration Go, they added to the advances he was making in his long-term objective to position the GOP as traitors to their constituents on taxes. In Go terms, the Republicans weren’t watching the whole board; this allowed the president to capture isolated pieces, control more territory, and limit their future options for play.
5. Sacrificing pieces to gain advantage:
The President agreed to significant cuts in domestic spending in order to get Republicans to agree to the sequestration package. As in Go, individual pieces are sometimes sacrificed in order to entice the opponent into moving into the entrapment territory.
6. Closing the circle:
In Go, if an opponent is encircled and has no freedom to play, those pieces are lost and removed from the board. President Obama has blocked Republicans from getting out of his trap by killing their legislative proposals to end sequestration. With sequestration going forward, the President is now blaming Republicans for the cuts that are now being imposed. By preventing Republicans from stopping sequestration, and then blaming them for not stopping sequestration, President Obama is set to use public anger at the sequestration cuts to remove Republicans for the board in the 2014 elections.
7. Ending the game:
If successful, Obama will have accomplished his political objectives. He will have significantly increased taxes across the board, particularly on the very rich. In doing so, he will have discredited Republicans with their constituents and supporters by showing them powerless to stop tax increases, thus decreasing their support in the 2014 election. Through sequestration, President Obama will be able to impose crippling cuts to the defense budget that enfeebled Republicans will not be able to restore in future sessions of Congress.
Meanwhile, the domestic spending cuts under sequestration serve to inflame anger in Democratic-leaning constituencies. Democrat challengers facing Republican incumbents in the 2014 election will feed this anger by promising to restore the cuts made by their GOP opponents if the voters return control of the House of Representatives to Democrats.
Americans are facing the pain of sequestration cuts because congressional Republicans didn’t realize the White House had changed the rules. Horse trading and deal making are out. Go, with its complex strategies, brutal tactics, willingness to sacrifice pawns, and winner-take-all attitude is now the only game in town.