Opinion

The Great Debate

Fiscal cliff: D.C.’s Mayan apocalypse

We are careening toward Dec. 21, 2012, the date of the Mayan apocalypse, when the world is supposed to come to an end through a series of cataclysmic upheavals, according to assorted astrologers and mystics ‑ though not the Mayans themselves, who said it was merely the end of their calendar. We are also hurtling toward the Jan. 1 “fiscal cliff,” when the American economy could re-enter a devastating recession ‑ a man-made mini-apocalypse.

What has motivated people, across so many civilizations and centuries, to devise and believe in an apocalypse? Understanding this might help us address the ideological gridlock now propelling Republicans and Democrats toward this fiscal “end of days.”

There have always been groups who believe in a coming apocalypse, suggesting this is inherent in human nature. People who experience life as traumatic, devastating or chaotic are prone to project such nihilistic visions onto the world at large. Anxiety about one’s own death can also evoke a catastrophic apprehension about the end of the entire world.

Yet virtually every story of the apocalypse contains a belief in a rebirth or renewal just before or after the end of days. The apocalypse destroys all that is bad in life, wiping the slate clean for a second chance ‑ like the Second Coming of the Messiah.

This is particularly true in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Book of Revelations, the apocalypse is a battle between good and evil, in which the earthly world is destroyed and replaced by an otherworldly paradise. In the New Testament, the horrific pain of existence is replaced by the second chance of being resurrected and joining Jesus, God the Father and the angels in an eternal heaven.

How Obama seized the narrative

Barack Obama may finally be defining himself as president. The question is: What took him so long to seize the narrative and find his character as “leader.”

Obama now has strong public support in the fiscal crisis faceoff. Even as the House Republicans scramble to find a way into the argument, the president has a tight grip on the storyline.

This is a big change from the fierce healthcare reform fight and the 2011 debt limit crisis. The chattering class then continually asserted that Obama had “lost control of the narrative.”

Can Congress pull back from the brink?

Americans want to see Congress and the president make a deal on the “fiscal cliff,” that noxious mix of expiring tax cuts and mandatory spending slashing due at year’s end. They just don’t think it will happen without a lot of pain, according to recent polls.

But if Washington leaders don’t reach an agreement, which looks more than possible, it will be for a good reason: Incentives are strongest for policymakers to act only after the cliff has come and gone ‑ and wreaked a great deal of havoc in the process.

So far, the fiscal cliff looks like the Y2K of 2012. It’s an eventuality that requires a great deal of preparation and occupies politicians and the chattering classes but which has yet to produce the visible scars of crushed 401(k) statements, widespread layoffs or television graphics about a plunging Dow.

Policy debates in the Internet Age

Technology is changing how power struggles are waged between the White House and Congress. For the last few years, negotiations between Democratic and Republican leaders have too often led to stalemate. The battle over how to avert the “fiscal cliff” is the latest example.

Since President Barack Obama’s reelection, he has begun to shift strategies — taking his case directly to the American people as a way to pressure Congress. After all, members of Congress ignore their president without penalty, but ignoring the opinions of their constituents can cost them their jobs.

Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both effectively used television to address the nation when facing off against a House of Representatives controlled by the opposing party. While TV will remain important, going directly to the American people continue to morph in the era of the Internet. Political messages can be customized and narrowly targeted.

Why Congress can’t deliberate

The new Congress next year will likely inherit high-stakes standoffs over many complicated issues, from financial credibility to immigration. Our elected leaders must be able to make difficult trade-offs and craft policies that reflect the best expert knowledge.

In its current dysfunctional state, however, Congress cannot have nuanced deliberations or make knowledgeable judgments. One big reason is that it no longer has the capacity to produce unbiased public-interest information.

In the mid-1990s the mechanisms that produced the information and statistics that Congress had relied on to produce bills were virtually disassembled. Under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, many support panels that supplied information and analysis to Congress members were disbanded or curtailed.

Fighting the filibuster

President Barack Obama recently said Congress should “seize the moment” and summon a majority to push immigration reform. There is only one problem – Congress already did that.

Majorities in the House and Senate backed the DREAM Act, a bill creating a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children, during Obama’s first term. The bill died, however, when a minority of Republicans filibustered it. So even if a new immigration majority materializes next year, Republicans can just filibuster again. Unless Erika Andiola gets her way.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is due to hear arguments  Dec. 10 in Andiola’s case – an ambitious and erudite lawsuit from Common Cause – which argues that a small band of senators have turned the filibuster into an unconstitutional assault on our democratic government.

When talk was of investing in public good

Washington negotiations to avert the “fiscal cliff” now include the role that tax increases could play in addressing the federal budget deficit. Serious cracks are appearing in the Republican lawmakers’ anti-tax firewall, as fewer new GOP legislators are signing Grover Norquist’s pledge and some high-profile signatories are questioning it.

Norquist is urging policymakers to look to the states for inspiration in crafting federal budget reform. But his claim that states want to eliminate key sources of revenue is out of step with reality — and with the broader history of tax reform at the state level.

Throughout American history, in fact, popular support for higher revenues to fund key public services has been more common than today’s anti-tax advocates realize. State legislators and governors have long relied on new revenue to fund crucial public services.

GOP: Blame message not the messenger

Here’s what’s supposed to be happening:  After losing two presidential elections, Republicans are supposed to be re-evaluating what their party stands for.  Are they out of line with mainstream America?  Does the party need to change?

The answer is yes.  So the party moves to the center and searches for candidates with broader appeal.  Republicans don’t need another spectacle like the 2012 primaries, where the contenders ran the gamut from a panderer to the right (Mitt Romney) to the far right (former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum) to the extreme right (Representative Michele Bachmann, Texas Governor Rick Perry) to the lunatic fringe (Herman Cain, Representative Ron Paul).

There was one moderate in 2012 — Jon Huntsman.  Huntsman didn’t make it past New Hampshire, where he came in first among the tiny number of Democrats who voted in the Republican primary.

A mandate to help the middle class

The focus in Washington has now shifted to the fiscal cliff, with the White House and Congress, particularly the House Republicans, staking out negotiating positions on the expiring Bush tax cuts and the looming budget sequester.

The White House’s firm opening salvo—and House Speaker John Boehner’s grudging admission that he is “open” to a budget deal that contains new revenue—have been much discussed. With six in 10 Americans expressing support for higher taxes in exit polls on Nov. 6, President Barack Obama’s position is a strong one.

It’s important to remember, however, that the public came out on Election Day in support of more than Obama’s tax stance. Exit polls and public-opinion surveys show that the president’s mandate goes far beyond taxes and the fiscal cliff.

As Republicans court Latinos, they can learn from LBJ’s Great Society

Hoping to win the affections of Hispanic voters who scorned their presidential nominee in record numbers on November 6, some Republicans have embraced comprehensive immigration reform. But will the passing of one piece of legislation, however comprehensive, be enough to persuade significant numbers of Hispanics to begin voting Republican in 2014 and 2016?

History and recent opinion polls suggest not.

To understand why, look back to the 1950s and early 1960s, when both major parties were locked in intense struggles for black votes. That saga might offer some insight into the enormous challenges confronting Republicans.

For generations after the Civil War, most blacks considered themselves Republicans and were, until the 1930s, loyal to the party of Lincoln. But Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s upset that equation.

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