Before we get started with the column proper, let’s take a moment to explore the very term itself — “fiscal cliff.”
The euphemistic neologism had bounced around in various forms in the past few years — almost always in connection with the tax cuts enacted by President George W. Bush — but the phrase took on its current usage in February. On a cold winter day, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke (originally a Bush appointee) told a House committee that America would tumble off “a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases” if Congress didn’t cancel the package.
The phrase was, of course, immediately adopted by the left. Think of the horror! America careens off a “fiscal cliff” — like Thelma and Louise flying into the canyon — if Congress (gasp!) lets taxes rise and (heaven forbid!) allows spending cuts to take effect. Imagine, they said, if the United States were suddenly forced to make an effort to balance its budget — if suddenly the country couldn’t spend $3.6 trillion when it takes in only $2.5 trillion?! The horror!
Not surprisingly, the blunderbusses in the Republican Party simply started parroting the phrase. House leaders use it; so do top GOP senators. And so does Fox News, for that matter. Although the package of spending cuts and the (long-planned) expiration of the Bush tax cuts also includes setting the Alternative Minimum Tax threshold back to levels in the year 2000 and ending ever-growing federal unemployment benefits, the GOP adopted the identical language of Democrats — it’s a cliff, and America must slam on the brakes, quickly.
No wonder they’re stuck on the street looking longingly into the windows of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
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Weeks and weeks have passed with no real headway on the matter. The Senate has busied itself with other important matters, like a bill “to authorize the extension of nondiscriminatory treatment to products of the Russian Federation and Moldova” and a bill “to protect and enhance opportunities for recreational hunting, fishing, and shooting.” Must be a terrifying cliff.
The standoff has reached absurd levels; President Obama motorcaded out to apartments in Northern Virginia for photo ops with a Hispanic couple; Vice President Joseph R. Biden hit a diner to chat going off the “cliff” (where he said, seriously, “The upside is even bigger than the downside”); and Senate Majority Leader Harry “Glass Jaw” Reid got into a pitched metaphor battle with GOP counterpart Sen. Mitch “Weak Chin” McConnell.
Taking the floor of the Senate, Mr. Reid said: “It’s not one of my favorite teams, but it’s really fun to watch, and that’s the New York Jets. New York Jets, yes. New York Jets,” the Vegas senator stammered. “Coach [Rex] Ryan, he’s got a problem. He has three quarterbacks. [Mark] Sanchez. He’s got Tim Tebow. He’s got a guy named [Greg] McElroy. He can’t decide who their quarterback is going to be. That’s the same problem the Republicans have.”
Mr. McConnell snapped (the ball). “The quarterback on the Democratic side is the president of the United States,” he said. “And, unfortunately, he keeps throwing interceptions. And we’re moving backward and backward and backward toward the goal line.”
Uh, if he’s throwing interceptions (or even, say, just one), he’s turned the ball over — to Republicans. These guys can’t even do sports metaphors right, so what chance is there that they’ll solve the “fiscal cliff?”
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Throughout the “fiscal cliff” ordeal, one thing has become clear: The president is a terrible negotiator. Truly awful. He hasn’t sat down with the leading lawmakers on the other side in months, but instead travels the country — bad-mouthing Congress.
Let’s say Google wanted to acquire Netflix. Would top Googlers take to the airwaves to complain about streaming problems with the Internet movie company, call its business model stupid, criticize its top executives as buffoons? No. They’d sit down and negotiate, behind closed doors. Neither side would go public until the deal was hashed out.
But Mr. Obama, the temporary custodian of the biggest bully pulpit in the world, does just the opposite. Before negotiations even began, he drew a line in the sand: This won’t go anywhere unless I get this. That’s exactly the opposite of how real men negotiate. He pays lip service to the notion of compromise — while declaring that on the most contentious issues, he will never compromise.
His first proposal out of the gate was a joke. Mr. McConnell literally laughed in Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner’s face when he laid out the president’s plan (and who sends a boy to do a man’s job?). Mr. Obama doubled his demand on tax hikes, from $800 billion to $1.6 trillion. He called for another $50 billion “stimulus,” and then added a deal-killer: The president seeks a new, unilateral — and permanent — power to raise debt limit. No longer will Congress hold the purse strings: Oh, forget about the Constitution, the president said, gimme the power, forever.
The ham-handed negotiation technique brings to mind Steve Martin’s demands to free some imaginary hostages, whom he’ll blow up “unless, of course, I get my three demands — a hundred thousand in cash, a getaway car and I want the letter ‘M’ stricken from the English language. See, you have to make one crazy demand, that way, if you get caught, you can plead insanity. Ha. Getaway car.”
So far, all Mr. Obama has done is demand the letter “M” be stricken from the language. And his getaway car is nowhere in sight.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.