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Rich writes: "Obama did stave off cuts to Social Security and Medicare and extended unemployment insurance for a year. But in truth, for all the news-media hysteria over the 'fiscal cliff,' the cliff may prove a molehill in the view of history anyway. It's just another skirmish in an ideological war that promises far bloodier battles ahead."

Columnist Frank Rich. (photo: NYT)
Columnist Frank Rich. (photo: NYT)

The Fiscal Cliff Was a Molehill

By Frank Rich, New York Magazine

03 January 13


Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with assistant editor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the end of the "Fiscal Cliff" crisis, Howard Schulz's bipartisanship fetish, and John Roberts's latest political play.

n the first hours of the new year, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a not-so-grand bargain to arrest our fall off the "fiscal cliff." The White House is hailing the deal as a big win. Many liberals, from the Iowa Senator Tom Harkin to our own Jonathan Chait, see it as Obama yet again snatching defeat (or at least partial defeat) from the jaws of victory. What's your take?

It is discouraging that Obama would retreat on what he had previously vowed to be a nonnegotiable line in the sand - refusing to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for income over $250,000 a year. (That line moved to $400,000 for individuals, $450,000 for couples.) He ran on this inviolate stand and won. It makes you wonder if he will hold to his other ostensibly firm position - refusing to let the nation's debt ceiling be held hostage in the coming battle over budget cuts, due in March. That said, Obama did stave off cuts to Social Security and Medicare and extended unemployment insurance for a year. But in truth, for all the news-media hysteria over the "fiscal cliff," the cliff may prove a molehill in the view of history anyway. It's just another skirmish in an ideological war that promises far bloodier battles ahead.

The House passed the Senate bill late last night after much public bellyaching from the GOP. Only 85 Republicans supported the bill and the party's leadership was divided, with John Boehner and Paul Ryan voting "yea" and Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy voting "nay." Is this a one-time split or are we witnessing the crack-up of the current GOP?

There's no split. Those 85 Republicans in the House who voted for the bill are the outliers; they were outnumbered nearly two-to-one by those Republicans who voted against it. This is still a party of Tea Party ideology, and it has no incentive to change. Thanks to the power of gerrymandering, nearly all GOP House members are in safe seats: Only 15 out of the 234 Republicans elected in 2012 won in districts that voted for Obama. And so they are far more fearful about primary challenges from the right than they are about potential Democratic opposition. And the hard right is already reinforcing discipline for the next round. Charles Krauthammer called the bill "a complete surrender" even though it realized the GOP dream of making most of the Bush tax cuts permanent. Pat Toomey, the Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, is now threatening a government shutdown over extending the debt ceiling. Even an ostensibly moderate conservative, David Brooks, wrote a column on the eve of the vote channeling Romney's disdain for the vast number of mooching Americans who (in his view) expect the welfare state to support them even at the price of destroying the country.

There was a hope among many Democrats that Obama's reelection would mean the defeat - or at least emasculation - of the Party of No. You've consistently said that the American Right isn't going down anytime soon. Are the next four years going to look any different from the last two?

For the reasons above, No. What's more, the right thinks long-term, and if you look at the long-term, the whole ugly "fiscal cliff" standoff was a win-win for conservatives, no matter what their passing defeats in this week's deal. The more Washington looks dysfunctional, the more it sows dissatisfaction with the very idea of a Federal government. Yes, Democrats and the White House can argue that polls show that the Republicans would be getting most of the blame if Congress couldn't reach agreement on the "fiscal cliff." But that's short-term liberal wishful thinking. Long-term, this intractable dispute has undermined Americans' faith in government, period, and the voters' plague-on-all-your-houses view of Washington is overall a resounding ideological win for a party that wants to dismantle government, the GOP. The conservative movement is no more dead after its 2012 defeat than it was after the Goldwater debacle of 1964.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz is back to his old bipartisanship boosterism, encouraging his employees to write "come together" on coffee cups as a way of promoting a "fiscal cliff" deal. As Paul Krugman noted, Schulz seems to be fundamentally confused about the fiscal cliff itself (he thinks it's about how to "fix the national debt"), but my sense is that his cult of bipartisanship still has plenty of adherents. Will our blind faith in bipartisanship ever end?

As I've been writing for months - along with Krugman and others - this kind of hollow bipartisanship is a marketing gimmick for self-regarding Beltway pundits, entrepreneurs hawking bogus, do-nothing organizations like Americans Elect and No Labels, and, of course, Starbucks Coffee. It's based on the false premise that both political parties are equally to blame for our current plight and ignores the fact that one of our two major political parties has fallen into radical hands. The bipartisan boosters seem to think the only issues at stake are collegiality and an ability to "come together" over budget cuts. These are the same people who would have reckoned that the Missouri Compromise was a lasting resolution of the slavery debate in the decades before the Civil War. It's particularly offensive that full-page newspaper ads pushing the Starbucks "come together" campaign offer as their sole text a quote from Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln died to sell lattes? Much as I loathe everything the Koch brothers stand for, at least they push an actual agenda rather than merely decaffeinated sanctimony.

Chief Justice John Roberts administered a small scolding to Congress and the White House in his year-end report on the federal judiciary, writing "No one seriously doubts that the country's fiscal ledger has gone awry. The public properly looks to its elected officials to craft a solution." Roberts is as savvy a political player as there is in Washington, what's he up to here?

John Roberts is as political a Chief Justice as I've seen - political in the sense of wanting to be well-regarded by mainstream public opinion and posterity. He's no Scalia-Thomas-Bork right-wing bull in the china shop. Much as I welcomed his upholding of Obamacare, his logic was so tortured that I shared the view of conservative critics that he was holding a finger to the wind and cynically trying to be on the right side of history. His remarks about the nation's fiscal impasse are content-free and gratuitous - and irrelevant to his constitutional role - but they do reflect his own desire to maintain a noble public image. It was, one might say, a Howard Schulz PR move. If nothing else, this Chief Justice's continued obsession with his own profile may bode well for the future of same-sex marriage: Hard to imagine that Roberts will thwart a civil rights breakthrough now enthusiastically supported by an overwhelming majority of the young and even not-so-young Americans who will write the history of the Roberts Court. your social media marketing partner


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-6 # Depressionborn 2013-01-03 10:33
the money government spends has to come from somewhere.
0 # HowardMH 2013-01-03 11:12
If the Caver-In-Chief had some back bone and real leadership qualities it wouldn’t make any difference that he was Black. He is a total Wimp and wimps get walked all over by those with the guts to hold out for their convictions. When McConnell realized Reid was not going to cave in for what the Publicans wanted so they would not be blamed for the Total Disaster this country is now in, he called for Biden. Let’s see here – Biden works for the Caver-In-Chief, or if you prefer Obama the Wimp, who can’t negotiate his way out of a wet paper bag, so McConnell gets to save face. If you think this was a bad deal for the Dumb Dum’s wait about three months. The Dumb Dum’s have already played their ace and lost! The Bushie tax cuts that should have never, never, never been allowed to happen are now for all practical purposes permanent, and the Publicans got 98.5% of everything they wanted.
Just in case you need an example in math – hope this is comprehendible enough for the millions that do not even understand what a Trillion is. Boy walks into Ice Cream store, and orders a 3 scoop ice cream cone. Caver-In-Chief gives him the cone and says that will be $1.60 and the boy says no way I will pay 80 cents, so Caver-In-Chief says okkkkkkkkk 60 cents it is. Now Caver-In-Chief needs to get at least $1.10 for that ice cream cone to just pay the bills and that is why the US is going to be just like Greece in a very short time.
-2 # Vern Radul 2013-01-03 17:42
There is a myth. A faerie tale. A fictional story of a functional two party system in which the the two brands legitimately oppose each other and present legitimate choice to voters.

In that framing Obama is "caving" to republicans.

In reality however, Obama does NOT cave.

When someone consistently and repeatedly goes along on everything with someone else whom he claims to be opposing it's not "caving".

It's the plan. The intentional plan to sucker the voters. Again.
0 # HowardMH 2013-01-03 11:13
How is that Hopei, Changie working out for you now?
It is all just smoke and mirrors. Until there are two hundred thousand really, really pissed off people on Capital Hill (all at the same time – with base ball bats, or 2 x 2s) raising some serious hell against the Lunatics, absolutely nothing is ever, ever going to happen to these totally bought and paid for by the richest 50 people in the world that are becoming more and more powerful with each passing rigged election thanks to the stupid people.
How much success have you had with the TOTALLY NON VIOLENT protests over the last few years?
I’m no fan of Sarah’s but this comment is just so appropriate. So how is that Hopei, Changie working out for you now?
+3 # ericlipps 2013-01-03 16:45
[quote name="HowardMH" ]How is that Hopei, Changie working out for you now?
It is all just smoke and mirrors. Until there are two hundred thousand really, really pissed off people on Capital Hill (all at the same time – with base ball bats, or 2 x 2s) raising some serious hell against the Lunatics, absolutely nothing is ever, ever going to happen to these totally bought and paid for by the richest 50 people in the world that are becoming more and more powerful with each passing rigged election thanks to the stupid people.

And if you do get those 200,000 "really, really pissed off people" out there armed with baseball bats and 2X4's, they'll be met by thousands of crack troops with machine guns and RPG's.
-1 # Vern Radul 2013-01-03 18:00
...they'll be met by thousands of crack troops with machine guns and RPG's

Exactly, And that's the best reason to NOT roll over like whipped dogs.

Despotic regimes in the end collapse internally. Once the foot soldiers who are ordered to carry out acts of repression, such as the clearing of parks or arresting or even shooting demonstrators, no longer obey orders, the old regime swiftly crumbles. When the aging East German dictator Erich Honecker was unable to get paratroopers to fire on protesting crowds in Leipzig, the regime was finished. The same refusal to employ violence doomed the communist governments in Prague and Bucharest. I watched in December 1989 as the army general that the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had depended on to crush protests condemned him to death on Christmas Day. Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak lost power once they could no longer count on the security forces to fire into crowds.

The process of defection among the ruling class and security forces is slow and often imperceptible. These defections are advanced through a rigid adherence to nonviolence, a refusal to respond to police provocation and a verbal respect for the blue-uniformed police, no matter how awful they can be while wading into a crowd and using batons as battering rams against human bodies.

+21 # barkingcarpet 2013-01-03 11:33
Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah.

End the F'#$$$ endless wars, and jail the legitimate rapist bankers.

Most everything else is B.S.

Create a livable future with every waking $ folks. Time is passine, and Nature IS tanking.

+7 # Vern Radul 2013-01-03 12:07
Yeah but Frank - you have to admit it was a pretty damn good scam, right? It had millions of people still falling for the two party shell game and believing that fake corporate controlled and run WWF match-like con jobs called "elections" are real.
+6 # susienoodle 2013-01-03 12:36
I'm too disillusioned and skeptical to believe it, but sure hope Frank Rich is right about John Roberts. As obnoxious and depressing as our government seems right now, maybe we just know more about sausage making with 24 hour news coverage and endless commentary on line. I encourage everyone who has Showtime to check out Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States to see that it has always been disappointing, that we've been taught history where objectivity was not a concern. I do believe those who don't pay attention are happier since knowing how dysfunctional we are is....fill in the blank.
+1 # BradFromSalem 2013-01-03 13:52
I suspect that Frank Rich is correct about John Roberts. But all that means is that Justice Roberts will direct the court to stay out of the way of progress; he will still do everything is his power to make certain that the American power structure remains intact. That will assure Roberts' place in history.

Your observation about the 24 hour "news" cycle is very astute. What I think it all means is that in reality many people have outsourced thinking about their politics. So, a Liberal will tune into MSNBC and get their sausage ready made for them. Independents and Conservatives that like to believe they are deciding watch Fox. The rest either don't watch any of the talking heads and glom on to the easiest explanation for them to understand, which is usually Fox or CNN. These are the folks that will tell you how horrible it is that both sides are equally to blame.
This mess is the part of the Revolution that is not being televised. There are two stories from 2012 election that are not being told. The first is how money can not buy an election; the second is about how money can frame the election debate. We won the first story and lost the second badly. The second story is where Progressives have to pick which side they are on, and that will be what the upcoming Debt Ceiling will be about and the 2014 elections.
+2 # Laurence Glavin 2013-01-03 13:09
Lawrence O'Donnell, on MSNBC Wednesday night (01/02/2013...j ust practicing writing 2013) demonstrated that IF the Bill Clinton tax rates had stayed put and there had been NO Bush tax cuts, inflation alone would have boosted the tax rate of 39.6% to a cutoff of $400,000 single/$450,000 joint return level anyway. Nothing was really given up.
+2 # dick 2013-01-03 14:34
Obama probably wanted $900,000 cutoff, but Senate Dems wouldn't let him.
+2 # peterjmck1 2013-01-03 15:19
Howard Schultz and his "decaffeinated sanctimony". Another of Frank's many memorable turns of phase - and a real pleasure to read. Depressing as it is - this piece is in line with his previous analysis of the roots of the right in this country and their continuing war against the New Deal and it's successors. It's a sobering reminder of the trench warfare that has been thrust upon us as we "conservatives" try to retain the safety net for ourselves and our children. Keep up the good work, Frank...
Peter McKimmin, San Diego CA
+7 # Kathymoi 2013-01-03 15:34
The "fiscal cliff" emergency, I believe,
is a tactic, not an emergency. It's a creation of the media and not a real emergency. The so-called solutions are obviously not solutions to the country's deficit in spending compared to income. It's a red herring and a propaganda tactic, to draw attention away from terrible things that are being made federal law and to give many people the idea that the issues and solutions about the "fiscal cliff" are what is really important and necessary immediately, when they aren't.
+3 # JSRaleigh 2013-01-03 23:49
Has Obama ever declared a "nonnegotiable line in the sand" that he didn't preemptively compromise before the negotiations even began?

"compromise" - expose or make liable to danger, suspicion, or disrepute.

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