Kabuki Dancing on the Edge of the Fiscal “Clurb” (Cliff or Curb)

Although President Obama is meeting with Congressional leaders this afternoon, it looks like no fiscal deal will get done before 2013.  If some stop gap measure is passed, it will suggest that both sides have been working more closely beneath the surface than it has  seemed.  It’s called a Kubuki dance.

Katsuo-uri((dance of)fish seller(kabuki dance))

Katsuo-uri((dance of)fish seller(kabuki dance)) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The nature of Kubuki political dances is there is more agreed upon than what meets the eye, posturing being a fundamental part of the dance.  The problem is that the posturing can run out of time, just as it did in the car chicken run to the cliff in the movie Rebel Without a Cause referred to in a previous post.   One of the drivers jumped but the other had his jacket caught on the door and could not jump.

John Boehner’s jacket seems caught on a Tea Party door.  And he can’t free himself.  He seems living a life of quiet desparation.  Why else would he come up with what he called a Plan B solution, of allowing only the tax rates of millionaires (literally) to go up while maintaining the cuts for others?

He could not even get his own caucus to support it.   Surely, he must have realized the Tea Party types would reject the proposal which ignored their mantra of “no new taxes”  and did not even have spending cuts attached.  So, Plan B went nowhere and only adds to  puzzlement at the process.   Most observers seem to think Boehner just made a clumsy move and tripped.  Could he have been more clever than that in a way yet to be revealed?  Did he want to show conclusively how his hands are tied?

On the administration side, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner sent a letter to Congress Wednesday that the federal debt ceiling would be reached this Monday.   As if they didn’t know.  This intensifies the scary image of a steep cliff only days away, which may be an Obama move to put more pressure on Republicans to make a deal on the debt ceiling now, so as to avoid making it another issue in two months.

That’s when the true debt ceiling will be reached after  Geithner has run out of a series of emergency steps – sort of like check kiting – to allow the government to keep paying its bills.   Obama wants a debt ceiling deal NOW, so he can’t be held hostage by Tea Party naysayers in another two months.

Boehner may have his jacket caught in the car door, forced to fall over the Clurb, but Obama seems willing to jump, believing the landing will be softer for the Democrats.   Polls indicate the Republicans are being blamed more for the impasse.  Also, after income tax rates  have gone up the Democrats can press to reduce them for most Americans forcing the Republicans to either go along with their proposals or finding themselves in the awkward position of resisting tax cuts.

A pre-2013 deal does not seem likely, but one  reached in two or three weeks seems more so, and it shouldn’t do too much harm as provisions can be made retroactive to January 1.   Helping that along will be  more nerves wracked  and louder citizen clammer aimed at Congress.  Consumer confidence is already down to the level of last August and who knows when the stock market will lose confidence that anything will get done?  Oh, and there is the world economy, by the way, in which we still remain the lead actor even when we aren’t playing our part well.

If a deal does get done in the next couple of days, my guess is it would…..oh, I don’t know.  I’ll just wait and see and hope that Obama and Boehner turn out to be great Kabuki dancers, that the stumbles and apparent head knocking were mostly just steps to increase the relief most of us will feel when they actually do come together publicly and take a bow.

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Can Barack and John Work Something Out?

Official photographic portrait of US President...

(Wikipedia)

In my previous post I gave  columnist David Brooks some credit for coming up with a vision (or fantasy) of the two parties actually working together to not only survive the fiscal bumpy slope, i. e. cliff,  but to actually begin to fix our entrenched fiscal problems.   For his efforts he has been made a pin cushion, mostly by critics on the left.

These critics, brimming with their belief in an Obama mandate, have shredded Brooks’ ideas for one reason or another.   Hey, it was only one column exploring the possibility of the Republicans coming to the table and saying something more than “no”.  Those on the left, retract your fangs, please!   When someone comes to you wishing to talk peace and carrying a white flag, you don’t shoot him.

Official portrait of United States House Speak...

(Wikipedia)

Generally speaking, the Republicans are in some disarray, trying to come to grips with their election losses,  while the Democrats feel they hold the high cards, so they are not inclined to give an inch to any Republican attempt to make peace.   Barack Obama has demonstrated that attitude knowing that if the Bush tax breaks expire, the Democrats will then be able to propose new legislation to bring back the tax cuts for those below $250,000 (or maybe a bit higher).  That would leave the Republicans in the awkward position of appearing to oppose tax cuts.  Also, polls suggest that Republicans will receive more of the blame for the consequences of not making some sort of deal.

The  amount of  money going in and out of Washington is not going to suddenly change  January 1, and the Obama team can soften the immediate effects of the so-called cliff, as mentioned in my previous post.   As such, the Democrats are feeling their oats, believing they can have their way with Republicans on this issue. The Obama team seems willing to head down a bumpy 2013 slope if the Republicans won’t deal.

Given the Tea Party’s ability in the past to throw a monkey wrench into most compromises between the parties, perhaps no deal can be made any time soon, but some interesting news broke yesterday in an article in the NY Times  “At House Speaker John A. Boehner’s request, Senate leaders and Representative Nancy Pelosi have been excluded from talks to avert a fiscal crisis, leaving it to Mr. Boehner and President Obama alone to find a deal, Congressional aides say.”

What’s that song?  Just the two of us….   Boehner’s request suggests to me that negotiating progress has been made behind the scenes AND that both gentlemen believe they have some negotiating room, i.e. that each can make some concessions and still sell the deal to their parties.   Supporting this line of thought was the appearance of numerous pundits of  liberal political opinion at the White House recently, such as many of the hosts at MSNBC.   I infer this to mean Obama was looking for support for some concessions.  Meanwhile  Tea Party types have complained that Boehner is asserting more control over them by removing some from key committee assignments, i. e. he has laid the groundwork for less interference by them.

Boehner hasn’t shown suicidal tendencies as far as I know, so in requesting this meeting, he must feel fairly confident they can come up with something he can live with, which means he can get passed in the House.

When the two meet, I’d love to be a fly on the wall.

Merry Christmas: A Fiscal Fantasy for You

Over the last few days both President Obama and House Speaker Boehner have made proposals for a compromise in the budget battle that made each other laugh.  And not in a good way.  The details aren’t worth mentioning because the proposals are not really serious, like first bids at an auction.

The two sides are so far a part that we seem inexorably headed over that fiscal cliff –  or fiscal curb and bumpy slope as envisioned in my previous post.  You can easily find cheerleader columnists from both sides urging their side to let it happen, that it will actually make the other side look worse if we dive or fall off that whatever.

Cover of "The Santa Clause (Widescreen Sp...

Cover via Amazon

In watching this “game” in upcoming weeks, a pivotal point to track is the stake in the ground stuck by the Obama team that any deal must include allowing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to expire while leaving in place those cuts for most of us.   Obama has stressed this point and seems set to stick with it backed by his base and commonly polled stat of 60% or so of Americans being in favor.

However, the Republican members of their controlled House are more concerned with their base back home who put them in office.  Not raising taxes has been the lynchpin of Republican identity, with the Grover Norquist pledge not to do so, signed by most of them, being the stick to keep them in line.  The carrot being we the Tea Party, won’t try to defeat you at your next primary (or viewed as a stick, they will).

It is hard to imagine how those two seemingly intractable positions can come to some kind of agreement, but in a New York Times column this morning David Brooks, a moderate conservative, creatively comes up with one.

Brooks describes why he believes that President Obama has his fellow Republicans over a barrel and they “have to realize that they are going to cave on tax rates. The only question is what they get in return.”

Brooks goes on to describe his vision of how the two parties might work together in 2013, with the Republicans getting a lot in return.   It is not as hard to believe in as Santa Clause, but pretty close to a Grinch like me.   Still,  in our present political climate when every win by one side means a loss by the other, it does hold out a prospect of both parties – and most importantly the country – benefiting from working together.

Undoubtedly critics on the left and right are or will be ripping apart this suggestion by Brooks.   And, yes, it sounds too good to be true.  But being the holiday season and all, and the “cliff-curb-slope” still a few weeks away, we can all still hope.

Here’s the link to the editorial.

What Does the 2012 Election Mean?

Don’t expect me to tell you in a post.  It is the kind of question that prompts books to be written and I’m sure many will be.  For starters, though, liberal columnist  E. J. Dione of the Washington Post touched upon most of the issues in his column yesterday, so I’m handing the ball off to him for those interested.

Here I want to focus on a couple of things the election does not mean and one or two which I hope it does.

English: President Barack Obama signs the Tax ...

See.  They can work together: President Barack Obama signs the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 at the White House. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No Mandate:   When about 121 million people vote and one side ends up with about 3 million more (about 2 or 3%), that’s just a victory not a mandate.   The electoral landslide distorts the picture, revealing mostly that the Democratic organization was more effective than the Republican one in swing states.

This is not to say that the Obama win was not significant in various ways, just that “we the people” are too divided about too many things to really back any one thing, except perhaps higher taxes on the rich.  That is not reflected in the vote as much as in exit polls, and the pre-election polls as well which have consistently listed a 60% plus approval rating. (*1)

Adding to the difficulty of interpreting this election are two things:   Obama was strapped with the image of a do-too-little president given our still weak economy and high jobless rate, which would make the win seem even more significant except for this fact.   He beat a candidate that even Republicans had trouble embracing, but could agree on no one better who was willing to run.   This was the most curious election of my lifetime.

But Not A Split Decision:   Trying to bolster their position, the Republicans argue that their winning more seats in the House indicates a basic “split decision” by the voters.  What they neglect to point out is that this is more a matter of Gerrymandered districts they created when taking over a number of state legislatures in the 2010 elections.

Overall the Democrats received more votes for their congressional candidates this year.   For example, in Pennsylvania, “although citizens cast almost 100,000 more votes for Democratic than Republican candidates for the House, partisan gerrymandering enabled Republicans to 12  of the 18 seats in the House of Representatives.”   So, those increased House seats are not a true measure of support for Republicans.  Just as the Electoral College overstates the strength of the Obama win, the House elections provide a misleading picture of Republican voter support.   Read more here.

A Small Victory for Truth:   I have often bemoaned the  “post truth politics” of our time, but we haven’t seemed to reach “no-truth-matters” just yet.  The Romney camp went with one lie too many and held on to it until the bitter end in Ohio.  The Obama win there might have been clinched by the Romney team not only lying in a TV ad about Chrysler  shipping Jeep production jobs to China, but maintaining that lie in radio commercials even after several newspapers and the head of Chrysler called it a falsehood.

As I pointed out in an August post when the Romney campaign was criticized for a  total lack of truth in an ad, a Romney pollster responded:  “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”  As I indicated then, this was a final blow for truth in politics.  Distortions and lies have always been part of the political game, but this was the first time I had ever seen a campaign say we don’t care if others call our “facts” lies.   In Ohio this position was taken to its end conclusion and seems to have backfired.     I like to think of it as poetic justice:  A campaign that lived by the lie, died by the lie.  (And yes, the Democrats spun, distorted and lied, too, but not as persistently and consistently and never did they insist that external fact checks don’t count.)

The Hope for a Better Republican Party.   I believe the Republican Party lost its identity during the G. W. Bush years because he ignored issues of overspending while fighting two wars, creating big tax breaks and creating a drug support program that, like the wars, was unfunded.   That, and the Republican refusal to work with the president, rather than Obama ineptitude, is why we continue to run trillion dollar budget deficits.

The Republicans have complained about “tax and spend liberals” for decades, but G. W. came up with something novel.  He was a no-tax and spend Republican, you might say the best of both worlds until one has to pay the piper, which is what we are doing now. (*2)

As many others have pointed out, this post-Bush party has developed its identity as the party of  “no”.    The Democrats are considered the big tent party, but the Republicans have developed a pretty big tent themselves.   Anyone who dislikes Obama, big government and more taxes is welcome, including all the Tea Party folks who are the biggest naysayers of all.  Some extreme examples earned primary victories over more moderate sorts who likely would have won Senate seats for the Republicans.    It is  generally believed that the Republican candidates defeated in the primary would likely have won enough seats to give Mitch McConnell the gavel in the Senate.

This is but one issue that has already begun to prompt soul searching in the Grand Old Party.  Immigration is another.    I do not know what that party will look like in upcoming months, but I think they will not be as easily labelled the party of “no.”   That hasn’t worked for them.

Perhaps they’ll become the party of “maybe” and then maybe they can work with Democrats and actually accomplish something significant vis-a-vis our economic problems.

This, of course, if the Democrats don’t get too full of themselves and think they have a bigger mandate than they actually have.

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(*1)  President Obama insists he will not give ground on allowing the Bush tax cuts to end for the richest Americans, which I think is symbolically important more than anything else.   Allowing their Bush era tax breaks to expire will only raise a fraction of the money needed to deal with our deficit problems.   The key here is to break the hold of the pledge most Republican politicians have made to not raise taxes.   Raising the bar for measuring yearly income for “the rich” to $500,000 or even a million would provide something for both sides and perhaps open the door for various other negotiations dealing with our financial issues.

(*2)  Isn’t it curious how George Bush Jr. could not be found in the election  landscape?  He’s a political version of “Where’s Waldo”.  Both he and his fellow Republicans obviously wanted it that way, acting as if he never existed.  That being the case, it made it easier to blame Obama for everything and forget about Bush.