Frank Rich on the National Circus: The Fiscal Cliff Was a Molehill

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement alongside U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden (L) in the White House Briefing Room following passage by the House of tax legislation on January 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. The House and Senate have now both passed the legislation, averting the so-called fiscal cliff.
Photo: Brendan Hoffman/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 end of the “Fiscal Cliff” crisis, Howard Schulz’s bipartisanship fetish, and John Roberts’s latest political play.

In 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.

Frank Rich: The Fiscal Cliff Was a Molehill