The fiscal cliff debacle, while phony in many respects, does reveal some deeper truths about out politics. I say phony because I side with those who say that the debt issue, while serious, is not our main economic problem. Economic growth is; the national debt, despite panic cries to the contrary, is not a short-term impediment to a rising GDP. In fact, I am intrigued by some of the arguments holding that the fiscal cliff is another example of financial elites (and their Republican protectors) inventing a crisis to pursue one of their main objectives: dismantling the social safety net. This article by Michael Hudson represents a point of view on the current economic discussion that deserves a wider audience.
Now, back to what the fiscal cliff reveals about the state of our politics. First, Tea Party Republicans, which are part of a pincer movement, along with social extremists, that is destroying their party, will never compromise. Compromise, to paraphrase Chris Cillizza, equals death in a primary. So Democrats can compromise all they want — as they appear to be doing today — and it won't matter.
Second, Barack Obama remains stuck in campaign mode, and hasn't transitioned into leading a national consensus. Yesterday on Meet the Press, the president was, as usual, articulate and convincing about a wide-ranging national agenda. But the sum of his political points did not add up to a clear sense of national mission; rather they felt oddly disconnected. Immigration reform, some action on the national debt, some renewed focus on economic growth; and oh, after being prompted, gun control, too.
My final point on the deeper political meaning of the fiscal cliff is related to the previous one: Our elections create no momentum or consensus for governing. Obama continues to campaign because winning targeted arguments is easier than moving an entire nation forward. The president was asked yesterday if the fiscal cliff was a "Lincoln moment" for him, meaning a time when he could rally the nation to do something big, difficult and right. He wisely demurred. But the country could use a Lincoln right now, not a Ford. What is standing at the cliff and has been for some years is not some phony deadline, but the promise of America: the reasonable chance of greater opportunity from one generation to the next. That is what is about to come crashing down.