This past week found politicians playing with matches.
There is no other way to put it when the unemployment benefits of two million jobless Americans hang in the balance. Already, those on the mild comfort of knowing they can snap at least a few hundred cheddar a week for food and heat are getting notices of the benefit lapse, courtesy of Congress. Yet, we find this ancient, arrogant coterie of elitist "progressive"-posing old White guys who can afford to hold eight-hour filibusters like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and act as if they've got it as bad as the cats near homeless from loss of gig and fiscal meltdown. Not like they can't pay their house note. Not like they're barely able to make bus or subway fare for an interview that took over a year to get.
The lack of indignation from grassroots left on this point is a bit stupefying. Knuckleheaded partisans and ideological imbeciles are so hard pressed for vindication on the talking point that compassion for the disadvantaged is thrown out. How Democrats figure they will score big gains from locking up desperately needed checks for the poor is incredibly shortsighted in the least, strategically dopey at best. It's based on the near-sighted assumption that the left has somehow found a way to break through its notoriously saddled communications deficit. They are still fumbling around for last month's memo.
For the most part, Republicans have been remarkably quiet since deal between the White House and Senate Republicans was hammered out. There's a reason for that, especially when they get to sit back and watch.
In the end, folks on last leg could care less about the political debate over tax cuts. The nuance of deficit spending is the last thing on the minds of those in need; many, unfortunately, just don't know the details of the president's tax cut deal. Of course, they should. But, they're bogged down by more pressing concerns. They just keep hearing about impending doom in the dead of winter and shake their heads in disbelief at how Washington would even consider going that route. They don't get the last stands on political principle. They just see their kids getting hungrier and the thermostat cutting off. And forget about gifts under the holiday tree. Forget about the tree for that matter.
It's a match Democrats seem willing to light at the moment. It's blood they must want on their hands because, otherwise, they wouldn't even fathom letting human beings go without food and heat ... in the dead of winter before Christmas. The deal is there, but they want to go the distance ... in the dead of winter and at the expense of people who can' afford the luxury of political standoffs. Republicans seemed smart enough to know this much, eager to deal even if it meant infuriating their fiscal hawk brethren. They threw the box of matches at Democrats, who crazily snatched it like overly curious pyromaniac pre-teens wanting to experience a burning house.
"Do you really think the Republicans are going to go home for Christmas having just taken families and devastated them?" Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) rhetorically farted this past Thursday. "I think they're bluffing on unemployment, and if they want to do that, I want to have that fight and so do a lot of other Democrats. They want to cut off people who want jobs and can't find them? They want to cut off their unemployment insurance just before Christmas? Have at it, Mr. Grinch."
This quote was read aloud during conversations with a few average, hard-working, but out-of-luck and stuck metro Washingtonians bracing for the last benefit check before Christmas. They laughed at the pure arrogance of it and poked fun at a clueless DeFazio.
"This [expletive] must not see a lot of unemployment way out there in Oregon," growled one who sighed heavily moments later when his cell phone broke into ring tone spasms from a 'private number.'
The problem with DeFazio's statement is that he's convinced the two million about to get their holiday season shafted actually understand the legislative process. While he and others play games of chicken in the bubble that is Beltway, the reality on the street is that any little bit helps. He assumes most folks are keeping score like that.
But, ultimately, politics is all about perception. And right now, the headlines are blazing with scenes of revolting, mutinous Democrats willing to sacrifice the unemployed - and their kids - during the cold of a dead winter. They'll end up getting the Grinch face with each passing, cold day the future seems uncertain for those jobless.
In this particular debate, both sides of the partisan fence are wrong, with the president looking very much like the pragmatic mediator calling for cooler heads. Congress is a car full of drunken teens swerving through a congested expressway, intent on driving itself and the country into a multi-vehicle crash. Both parties seemed obsessed with pleasing bases rather than avoiding certain destruction for millions of jobless Americans. Republicans dug their heels in over a fanatical and narrow-minded attachment to tax cuts; Democrats appear comfortable with rolling the dice and possibly sacrificing the unemployed in an effort to make a political point.
The general public also shares blame for arriving at this point. There is no sense of urgency or any mission of now. It seems easier to gather on the National Mall for talk show hosts and cable TV marketing gimmicks than to bum rush Capitol Hill on behalf of hungry families and homeless kids.
"People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people," the President argued during an impromptu press conference. "And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are, and in the meantime, the American people are still seeing themselves not ... being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out."
"That can't be the measure of how we think about our public service.
The calculation was simple: did Obama want to be the President blamed for countless families unable to pay food, heat and electricity bills in the dead of a cold, windy winter? He definitely didn't want to oversee the sudden spike in taxes on Jan. 1, with paychecks considerably smaller, the nasty kick-the-can legacy of the previous president.
Politically, the equation is devastating. In terms of human scale, the outcome would be near apocalyptic. How the heat of partisan battle, only weeks before we celebrate a collective and compassionate Christmas season, could have dominated common sense in this instance will be one of our greater political lessons.
But, let's keep it real, family. Of course, we don't want the sob stories of the jobless - stuck at an official 10% unemployed - raining down on our mass consumerism parade before the holidays. Hence, Congress is helping us all walk past the helpless like nervous pedestrians who act as if the homeless person on the sidewalk doesn't exist.
So it's much easier to deprive others of the fake Christmas show we stage each year, from secret Santas to under-the-mistletoe shenanigans, than to engage in a little sacrifice. We say we care, but - seriously, fam: we don't. Glad it's not me, you say. Mind you, the 1-year $56 billion price tag of an extension has far less impact on the deficit than the 1-year $210 billion price tag of tax cuts - and, go figure: just so happens that CBO finds unemployment benefits inject nearly $2 into the economy for every federal dollar spent.
But, let some others tell it, and it's the jobless not wanting to find a job despite the fact there is only 1 job for every 5 people. And, didn't these folks, before being thrown into devastating circumstances beyond their control, actually pay for that "insurance" (in case we forgot what that term means) through their paychecks when they had a gig? It's not like they weren't forced to pay into that fund like everyone else, right?
We could get into the irony of some other things: like, for example, how lawmakers still get nearly $400 billion in earmarks for their lobbyist golfing buddies and corporate contributors. But the jobless can't get their measly $310/wk check. Oh - that's right: the jobless are the new "welfare queens" of the 21st century. Your new "Great Recession" faces literally painted Black.
It's the untold story: how the mutilated mug of race injects itself into the debate, from Southern conservatives still harboring old-school prejudices to detached, paternalistic Northeastern "liberals" who harbor the same at their kitchen table. You see Black and Latino unemployment rates nearly double that of the national average and you want nothing to do with it. Let 'em hang, you say. Countless news photos of Black and Brown faces unemployed trigger little compassion because you didn't care in the first place.
Classism is just as prevalent. "Focus on the middle class like a laser," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) snapped back during a November CBS interview in describing his winning formula for lost-in-the-wilderness Democrats in search of hope. But, what about the working class and poor"? It's Schumer's Bullworth moment, an implicit acknowledgement that pols only care about those they believe can afford a contribution or who aren't too destitute to reach a polling booth.
Here's an idea: put out more photos of helpless, unemployed White "hockey moms" and their hungry suburban kids in foreclosed homes and you'll see both Democrats and Republicans tripping through both chambers to make that extension happen as quick as instant oatmeal.