I realize that watching the fiscal cliff negotiations in Washington has been likened to stylized Kabuki theater more than once by pundits far and wide, but I'm going to push this metaphor for all it is worth today. You might even say I'm going to push it right over a cliff, but that would be a horrendous metaphor mixture indeed.
We, the audience, sit here watching the last bits of Act III of The Great Fiscal Cliff Tragicomedy. We'll start with a quick recap of the action you may have missed (because you were standing in line at the bar, or perhaps parking your car).
In Act I, or "The Laughably Short Memory of the Media," the Media Chorus announces loudly and with great alarum that the nation is on the very brink of the Fiscal Cliff. Garments are rent, on air, and bewailings abound. Ignored in all of this thunderous noise is the fact that the Media Chorus has been completely and utterly ignoring this issue all year long during the presidential campaign. Not one peep was heard before Election Day about Fiscal Cliffery, but now it is the most important and dire issue the universe has ever thrown at our fair country. What will happen to our upstanding citizens? Will we go "over the cliff" or not? Will a global economic depression begin one minute after midnight on New Year's? One question, in the midst of all the apocalyptic rhetoric, is never asked: If this is such a honking big deal, then why did the media not discuss it once during the election?
Act II is titled "Laughable Offers," and opens with the White House putting their plan on the table. The GOP laughs long and hard at it. They scoff, they sneer, they deride, and they ridicule the president's offer. When this aria is complete, the Media Chorus wakes up from its long winter's nap and points out that the GOP has no offer of their own on the table. The Emperor of the GOP realizes he is stark naked, and hastily puts together the Republican laughable offer. The White House ridicules, derides, sneers, and scoffs, on cue. Both the Emperor and the President go off in a theatrical huff, and begin preaching to their own choirs, the Left Base and the Right Base. Act II ends in sound and fury, signifying (as the Bard pointed out) absolutely nothing.
Act III, or "Trial Balloons and Flagpoles," is currently on the stage. It begins with Unnamed Administration Source walking to stage left, where there is a flagpole. This aide (it is impossible even to tell the gender of this dark character) begins running colorful banners up and down the flagpole. The Left Base watches, and either salutes or loudly grimaces when each flag is raised. The Media Chorus takes notes.
While all this is going on, over on stage right, Unattributed Republican Source walks to a pile of deflated balloons and a noisy machine which manufactures hot air. He proceeds to inflate balloons one by one, and float them above the Right Base audience. The Right Base shoots most of these trial balloons down immediately, using the weapons of their choice. The Media Chorus nods sagely, observing (and, at times, participating, in what can only be called a foxy manner).
The action taking place right now onstage is twofold. On stage left, Unnamed Administration Source runs up a flag labeled "CPI Unchained," to howls of disapproval from the Left Base. A second flag is quickly run up, bordered all around by a fat red line and labeled "Extend Unemployment," which quiets down the Left Base considerably.
Over on stage right, the action centers on Unattributed Republican Source inflating a balloon labeled "Plan B" (Republicans have no sense of irony, as evidenced by naming their current plan after a medical pill they fought like wolverines against). Confused activity is seen within the Right Base, as Lord Norquist himself stands up and applauds the Plan B balloon, stating: "Politicians don't make a pledge to me, of course, but to their constituents -- but I am still the one who decides who has kept such pledges and who has not, since I am, forsooth, the Lord of the Anti-Taxers. I deem yon Plan B sufficiently tax-cuttey, even though it dost indeed raise taxes. Let no man disagree with my Lordly decree." The Right Base nods in unison, even though this makes no sense whatsoever. The Left Base erupts in laughter, unable to even point out how ludicrous Sir Grover sounds, as they merrily roll about the floor.
The Media Chorus completely ignores the fact that Plan B is actually a Democratic plan from a previous Kabuki performance entitled "Republicans Will Never Raise Taxes No Matter Who Is Targeted." They also ignore the fact that this is the first time in 22 years that Republicans have come out in favor of higher tax rates, and they also completely miss the conclusion that the Republicans are caving much faster than anyone could ever have imagined a short time ago.
We are almost at the end of Act III, as the calendar pages fly off faster and faster. Act III will conclude with Christmas morphing into A Very Unmerry Cliffmas for one and all on Capitol Hill.
Act IV will be the most emotional and hysterical, of course, as evidenced by the title: "The Deal Falls Apart." This is the stage in these traditional Kabuki plays where a loud explosion is mimicked center-stage, and everything and everyone collapses for a short time. Both the Republican Emperor and the President will sadly make their case to the Media Chorus of how wondrous their Grand Bargain could have been. After which, both will retreat to their corners once again and don holy robes as they preach to their own choirs about how hard they fought for the best possible deal, only to be outdone by the dastardly machinations of The Other Side. The bases cheer loudly. On center stage, several knife-fights are staged for the enjoyment of the Media Chorus, in the traditional "Blame Game" portion of the program. Blame is flung about with abandon, muddying all it touches. The Media Chorus lays side bets on who will win the Blame Game, and then they use the money collected to pay off the Referee, who turns out to be a member of the Media Chorus from way back. Lamentations are heard across the stage, and there is much gnashing of teeth, as the curtain falls.
Act V opens on a cold and frozen plateau, as expected from the title: "Midnight Midwinter." Deserted by the Left Base and Right Base, and hounded by the Media Chorus, the Emperor and the President have retreated to a small shack in the woods. With only the bare essentials to sustain them (prepared by the White House Chef, who remains in attendance), the two create a Final Deal, with hammers. Stray scraps of legislation and proposals are somehow melded together using old chewing gum, duct tape, bailing wire, and the occasional Band-Aid. This is an ugly, ugly deal, folks. In fact, its entry fee for the Grand Bargain Beauty Pageant is returned to it with a note of sorrow.
The Emperor and the President slink back into Washington in the dead of night, and force Congress (at the darkest hour) to pass their hobbled-together compromise deal. All join hands and simultaneously kick a huge can labeled "Everything Else" down the road. Temporary fixes abound, and short-term avoidance of calamity becomes the only focusing factor. Congress attempts to fade back to their home districts for the last of their 112 vacation periods for the year.
The Left Base and the Right Base wake up in the morning, come tippy-toeing down the stairs, rubbing their eyes... only to see the ugly, ugly Final Deal sitting unadorned on the carpet. In an astounding display of unity, Left and Right also join hands, as they kick the Holy Hell out of the Final Plan, and stomp the tiny, tiny pieces into the carpet with enthusiasm. Fade to black. Curtain.
Which only signals the Kabuki writers to begin cranking out another of these plays, as a sequel labeled either (take your pick) "Obama's Second Honeymoon: The Public Approves Of The Deal," or, perhaps, "Debt Ceiling Scrape, or Fiscal Cliff Part Two."
I realize that I am making light of some very serious issues here, but in Washington, such Kabuki theater is really the only entertainment available, so you use the tools provided (so to speak).
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant