Frank Rich on the National Circus: The Fiscal Cliff Is the Y2K of 2012

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Photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

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 phony fiscal cliff countdown, Mike Bloomberg's chutzpah, and the Fox News doghouse.

The fiscal cliff talks are (surprise, surprise) at an impasse. President Obama has now rejected the GOP's latest uncompromising compromise and insisted that he won't make a deal unless tax rates on the top 2 percent rise. How do you see this standoff playing out?
The breathless and phony countdown to the fiscal cliff — What if they can’t agree? What if we fall off? Can America possibly survive? — is media hype, a desperate effort to drum up a drama to keep viewers and readers tuned in now that the election is over. It’s a Road Runner cartoon, Beltway-edition. And it’s going to end with a whimper like the similarly apocalyptic, now long-forgotten Y2K scare of the turn of the millennium. Everyone knows the Republicans are going to fold — the Republicans know they are going to fold — and the only question to be resolved is when and on what terms. They have zero leverage. It’s not only that they lost the election; they continue to decline in national polls, with the latest Pew survey showing that 53 percent of Americans will blame the GOP (and only 27 percent will blame President Obama) if there’s no deal by January. The party has no national leader still standing except John Boehner, who can’t even command the loyalty of his own caucus in the House. Let’s hope that Obama, who is showing the admirable take-no-prisoners toughness he lacked last time around, continues on his current firm path once the Republicans start to buckle. There is a lot more at stake in the negotiations beyond the upper-echelon tax rates that the GOP will soon have to retreat on.

Even Boehner's rejected proposal (which did not concede on raising the top marginal rates) was derided as unacceptable by tea-party hard-liners like Jim DeMint. Is the Party of No risking, as Politico has it, a civil war?
Civil war? No, that war has been won already by the radical right. Even conservative southern senators like Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss now fear primary challenges in 2014 from the radicals. That’s why Chambliss quickly smoothed things over with Grover Norquist after trying to back away from the anti-tax pledge a couple of weeks ago. The GOP belongs to DeMint and Rand Paul and Paul Ryan and Norquist. This party is so far right that even an appearance by Bob Dole in a wheelchair on the Senate floor this week to garner support for a humanitarian measure — the ratification of a U.N. treaty for people with disabilities — failed to persuade enough Republicans to join Democrats so that it might pass. Some of the few GOP senators who did vote for it were Olympia Snowe, Richard Lugar, and Scott Brown — all centrists who’ll be gone from the Senate next month.

The Times reported that Mike Bloomberg called Hillary Clinton a few months ago to encourage her to run for mayor of New York. Does Bloomberg's chutzpah surprise you? And what do you imagine Hillary thought?
Was it chutzpah or condescension? Why in the world would Hillary Clinton want to be mayor of New York City after having served as a highly regarded secretary of State, and with the solid prospect of a successful presidential run in her future? So she could be embarrassed in a snow emergency or a labor impasse or City Hall scandal and lose the political capital she accrued? This was Bloomberg’s truly impressive ego talking. He can’t be president, and perhaps he doesn’t want Hillary Clinton to be president either. And if she — a far bigger national figure than he is — were to follow him as mayor, it would be retroactively flattering to him. I can’t imagine what Hillary thought about this nonsense, but it would be certainly a riot to hear the thoughts of the city council president, Christine Quinn, Bloomberg’s previously presumed favorite as a successor. He treated her like the help.

The Washington Post yesterday published a somewhat similar tale of ample self-esteem and wishful thinking, with Bob Woodward reporting that Roger Ailes tried to enlist David Petraeus to run for president in 2012. Does Ailes’s choice of dream candidate tell us anything we didn't know about Fox News?
No. What I found more interesting was our colleague Gabriel Sherman’s report that in the aftermath of the Election Night embarrassment, Ailes has downsized the air time on Fox allotted to Karl Rove and Dick Morris, who between them called almost everything wrong it was possible to call wrong. The same had already happened to Sarah Palin. Fox clearly needs new stars to keep its disconsolate base on the reservation during Obama’s second term. I am hoping for Donald Trump and Herman Cain.

One person no one seems to want to run for office is Mitt Romney. He’s a pariah in both parties. This week, he followed up his lunch with President Obama by rejoining the Marriott board of directors. Is there anything left to say about Willard Mitt?
The last time I was at a Marriott, I thought the WiFi left a little to be desired, and the towels were thin. I hope he brings that Bain expertise to this challenge and gets on the case. Short of that, I think he’s done.