The so-called 'fiscal cliff' was never real. Congress and the President invented it during last year's negotiations, apparently to persuade voters that unpopular budget measures were needed to avoid a crisis. With the collapse of John Boehner's 'Plan B,' that gambit has failed. What now?
That's easy: The moving finger of Washington, having writ, can unwrite.
The 'fiscal cliff' was never real. It was virtual reality. Now it's time for our leaders to take off the goggles and get back to work.
Coalition of the Willing
Thanks to this self-created panic, many politicians in both parties were willing to impose Draconian cuts to Social Security - even though it doesn't contribute to the deficit - through the machinations of the "chained CPI" the President put on the table this week.
They were willing to use the same tool to impose a tax hike on middle class income - one that spared the wealthy by excluding the highest levels of earning.
They were willing to ask middle class Americans to sacrifice much more than defense contractors.
Now they've been given the opportunity for a reprieve. They should tell the President they want that reprieve. - and they need it, if only for their re-election prospects.
The artificial crisis limited the discourse , too. Newspapers talked of little else. They certainly didn't pay much attention to the more pressing economic problems we face: Case in point: Extended unemployment insurance is about to expire, while the nation's experiencing record levels of long-term unemployment.
A Google News search on ""fiscal cliff" yielded 69 million hits this morning. That's "about 69,300,000 hits," to be precise. How many hits did "long-term unemployment" get this morning?
Centrist/liberal Democratic commentary focused heavily on this sharply limited debate, too, producing a lot of variations on the "cliff vs. Obama compromise" theme like this piece from Ezra Klein. There's even an interactive "Choose your own fiscal cliff adventure!" feature on Ezra's Washington Post WonkBlog site.
(To be fair, the title's probably meant ironically, and the interactive part's pretty cool. I'm not objecting to coverage of the 'cliff,' either, but to coverage that excludes or de-emphasizes other, better choices. 69 million hits vs. 27,000 hits says that's a valid objection.)
When it came to reframing the argument, the fiscal cliff's architects can say "Mission Accomplished." But their plan failed anyway. The public still hates their proposals.
So cancel the "cliff." If politicians are determined to enter into another suicide pact - and to commit political harakari in the process - there's another "crisis" looming in the first quarter of 2013. That's when Congress has to approve the debt-ceiling limit. If they want another round of brinksmanship, they can engage in it then. (Not that we're recommending it, of course.)
Right now they need to kill the cliff, if only for their own selfish reasons. Boehner and his Congressional Republicans have painted themselves into a corner. The public's against them - and they know it.
That's why Boehner already offered to delay the "cliff," way back on November 16. (Seems like such a long time ago, doesn't it?)
The President should take him up on the offer. Now.
It's also a potentially face-saving moment for the President, one that allows him to walk away from his own badly-received proposal. If he's dyill so inclined, he can still say all the things he's said before in similar situations - "I was willing to go to great lengths to compromise," "I put my own party's 'sacred cows' on the table," etc. etc.
It doesn't matter very much at this point how he walks away. But he needs to walk away.
Time is on the President's side, since the public already favors him and the Democrats on budget issues, by resounding margins - and because it opposes some of the measures in his latest proposal, like his Social Security cuts (opposed by 56 percent of those polled) and his compromise on the $250,000-and-above tax increase (which was supported by 69 percent of voters).
The people who formed his winning coalition would appreciate it, too, and so would the organizations that represent them. Twenty-eight of them (including the Campaign For America's Future, where I am a Senior Fellow) came together to write an open letter and run an ad in the Washington Post the day after the election, reminding the President of the issues and priorities that built his winning campaign: keeping that $250,000 tax hike, avoiding Medicare and Social Security benefit cuts (included the chained CPI), extending unemployment insurance, protecting the most vulnerable among us -- and preventing the sequester.
With 'fiscal cliff' hysteria finally behind us, the President will be able to devote all his energy representing the people who elected him.
The Next 100 Days
100 days: That's roughly the time left before the debt-ceiling limit kicks in and another round of hostage negotiations begins.
The President can use that time to make the case for genuine economic fixes, the kind the public wants and expects him to propose: a genuine jobs program. Other strong stimulus proposals. An end to Bush tax cuts over $250,000.
(He should also support Rep. Jan Schakowsky's Fairness in Taxation Act, too,which asks millionaires and billionaires to contribute more to our national wealth - although it's not nearly as much as they paid under Republican Presidents like Eisenhower and Nixon.)
He can use the time to defend education funding, anti-poverty programs, Medicare ... and yes, Social Security. He can build his political muscle that way, too.
Does he want to do those things? I don't know. But in this political climate he may have no other choice.
A Real Debate
Democrats in the House and Senate can use that time wisely, too - by explaining to voters that we have real choices before us, not just the artificial ones imposed on us by the artificial crisis. Wonkblog can create an 'economic solutions adventure' with more better choices - like the Fairness in Taxation Act, the public option for healthcare (supported 45-to-22 percent by voters as a deficit reduction measure) c genuine controls on medical cost drivers, and a financial transaction tax.
And without the artificial panic of the 'cliff,' this debate about our economic future can take place where it always should have been: in public. These issues are too important to be settled through backroom deals.
That mean no more negotiating in the dark. Let the public hear this debate.
Who knows? Even the Republicans may surprise you. When the financial reform bill was debated in public, some Republicans crossed the aisle in surprising ways to back measures that Washington likes to call "leftist." In response, that bill's negotiations were hurriedly pushed back into the shadows.
Don't let that happen here. Let each side make its case so that the public can judge - now, and in the next election.
Show's over, people. Just keep moving.
This would be a good time to tell all your elected representatives that you want them to end this charade by canceling the 'cliff' and working seriously on the nation's problems when they return in January.
And by 'working seriously on our problems,' we mean all our problems: Unemployment. Under-employment. Wage stagnation. The high price of a college education. Poverty. Overcrowded schools. A crumbling infrastructure. Runaway health care costs. And yes, deficit reduction too - once these problems have been adequately addressed.
The fiscal cliff was a gambit that failed, a Broadway musical that flopped, a virtual-reality display that disintegrated into a million fragmented pixels right before our eyes.
The show's over. Get over it, Washington, and get to work.