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Column: Tea Party’s Ghost Is Haunting Washington

The deficit that should concern us most right now has to do with time, not money. Money can be recouped. Time just disappears.

And time is what Washington is wasting now on an utterly artificial crisis driven not by economics but by ideology, partisan interest and an obsession over a word — “sequester” — that means nothing to most Americans.

Here is the most important thing about the battle raging in the capital over $85 billion in automatic spending cuts: Republicans are losing the argument but winning the time war.

The more time we spend on pointless disputes about budget cuts no one is expected to make soon, the less we spend trying to solve the problems that confront us right now — and, God forbid, thinking about the future.

Moreover, the 2012 election gave President Obama new authority and new energy. Republicans want to place as much distance between themselves and that election as they possibly can. From their perspective, the more months we fritter away on these dumb, fake emergencies, the better. As Obama’s clout slowly diminishes, so will his opportunities to press his own priorities.

If Washington can be kept in a state of partisan paralysis, Republicans stand to gain more. The voters hoped that by settling certain questions in 2012, they could push the politicians toward problem-solving. Some Republicans in their heart of hearts even want this to happen. But if gridlock retains its icy grip on government, the president will ultimately suffer because it is members of his constituency who will be most demoralized by the failure of their votes to change anything.

The confrontation over the sequester should be seen for what it is: a hangover from a different period when a different political majority was temporarily ascendant. In 2011, Obama was fighting for his political life. Republicans had just seized the House and cut into the Democrats’ majority in the Senate.

The debt-ceiling clash was the product of that midterm election and of a victorious Tea Party that made slashing federal spending the one and only priority. The sequester was a temporary way out of the impasse that political moment created. Both sides agreed to a package of cuts in domestic and military spending assumed to be so unpalatable that eventually the contending parties would come to their senses and make a deal.

As a short-term measure, it was brilliant, particularly for the president. He got the debt-ceiling issue behind him and was free to wage a campaign in which he took on the Tea Party’s view frontally and defeated it. His party also gained Senate seats, and Republicans held the House (we should always remember this) only by virtue of skewed congressional districts and the concentration of Democratic votes in large metropolitan areas.

But now, the sequester is allowing the Tea Party’s ghost to haunt Washington. It is as if the election never happened. We are back to exactly the same deficit conversations we were having in 2010 and 2011.

We are not pondering ways of helping the economy to grow faster, or how we might reduce joblessness, or how we can usefully invest in the future. We are not discussing what to do about deepening economic inequality.

No, the earlier story line is extended as if 2012 never happened. The return of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles to Washington’s public stage was a reminder that we are trapped in the same old play with the same characters and the same themes.

On the merits, Obama has public opinion in his corner. His proposal to avoid the economic drag of the sequester with a reasonable amount of deficit reduction built on a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases through tax reform occupies the debate’s broad middle ground. If the GOP wanted, based on its past positions, it could take a deal of this sort and declare victory, given all the cuts that have already passed.

But that is not the victory the Republicans seek. The sequester game is a contest in which their side wins simply by running out the clock, no matter what the score is. Thus, Obama can’t just score points. He needs to figure out how to end this game so he can play the one he promised us when he said his re-election could “break the fever” in Washington.

Alas, it has not broken yet.

E.J. Dionne Jr.’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com.