For weeks now, our government has been mired in a bizarre drama the likes of which we’ve rarely seen, and for weeks I’ve struggled for a metaphor to fully convey the surreal, theatrical attributes of this manufactured crisis. I finally settled on kabuki, the time-honored Japanese genre of dramatic play. If you’re at all familiar with kabuki, you’ll have to agree it’s an apt metaphor, encompassing the elaborate staging, overt symbolism, and stylized extravagance of the Debt Ceiling Drama, not to mention the fact that—as with true kabuki—the characters’ interpersonal and political struggles have completely overshadowed the plot. Sure, this particular surreal drama could potentially tip us into a global depression, but it’s the political struggles that seem to have captured the attention of the audience—for now.
In his attempts to appear centrist and conciliatory, Obama has let Republicans drag the center so far to the right that he always looks like a raging liberal by comparison, even though most self-avowed progressives (me, for instance) think he’s far too conservative. That is the plot, the whole plot, and nothing but the plot, and has been since Obama’s election. The rest is all stage tricks and makeup, and this Debt Ceiling kabuki is simply a fourth-act battle that never had to happen.
Consider that the debt ceiling has been raised 43 times since Reagan first opened the floodgates (Source: Office of Management and Budget, table 7.3), often with a bit of theatrical flourish and plenty of political gamesmanship. Never, though, has a President allowed a vocal minority to hold the entire nation hostage to their rigid, ill-considered ideological obduracy. For someone with the nickname “No Drama,” it’s hard to imagine why he didn’t calmly and repeatedly demand a “clean up-or-down vote” on raising the debt ceiling months ago. It’s hard to imagine why he allowed himself to become ensnared in the hopeless task of snap-balancing the budget while simultaneously ruling out a 14th Amendment emergency remedy, juggling multiple competing plans and occasionally making muffled plaintive appeals for Keynesian stimulus. In short, it’s hard not agree with Matt Taibbi’s assessment that Obama doesn’t want a progressive deficit deal. It seems the drama is strictly for political posturing and perhaps entertainment value.
Just when I was satisfied with my kabuki metaphor, the two-headed Republican/Tea Party again reared its ugly heads and turned the elaborate drama into a scene from Blazing Saddles, or perhaps a startlingly idiotic “performance” by Jersey Shore anti-heroine Snooki. In fact, the so-called “reality television” aspect is also quite an apt metaphor for modern politics, since both manufacture excitement with impassioned but ponderously dull-witted utterances, and of course neither have anything to do with reality. Indeed, Rep. Paul Broun is locked in a life-or-death struggle with reality itself, as evidenced by his jaw-droppingly stupid and politically tone-deaf remarks Wednesday:
“When someone is overextended and broke they don’t continue paying for expensive automobiles, they sell the expensive automobiles and buy a cheaper one. They don’t continue paying for country club dues, they drop out of the country club.”
Thanks for the budget tip, Congressman Snooki!
In truth, the feeding frenzy over Broun’s awkward remarks probably amount to little more than another sideshow. But Broun is not merely refusing to raise the debt ceiling. He wants it lowered. That’s right. Lowered. Even John Boehner has the sense to realize that this is an impossibility, that pushing for lowering the debt ceiling would cross the line from reckless to suicidal, but Tea Partiers celebrate such tedious ignorance with balloons and funny hats. And as Daily Beast columnist Michael Tomasky (and others) have observed, the stupid-but-clever Tea Partiers appear to have successfully lured Boehner into a trap by denying him the majority he needs to move any compromise forward in the House.
As the saying goes, “not to worry, folks, it’s all just part of the show.”
It truly is just part of the show. Make no mistake, Tea Partiers are just as trapped as Obama and Boehner, and offstage, everyone concerned is looking for a face-saving escape. Without gobs and gobs of corporate funding, the Tea Party would simply cease to exist, and we can be certain that even Koch Industries is not amused by the Snooki Kabuki playing out in Washington because it’s already spilling out onto Wall Street. The increasingly jittery stock market is falling in anticipation of a downgrade in U.S. debt, and the economic fallout from an actual default could wipe out trillions in corporate wealth. The Tea Partiers with the funny hats might not be impressed, but the true power brokers will never allow such a thing to happen.
Off-camera, the real plot is this: Obama, Boehner, and the Tea Party engineer some horrific compromise that narrowly (and dramatically) averts catastrophe, while allowing the Tea Party to put the blame on lily-livered RINOs. Boehner will blame Obama, and Obama will in turn lash out passionately against a nameless, faceless “dysfunctional Washington culture.” Tea Party standard bearers will then return to their town halls bowed but unbroken, with thrilling war stories and battle scars to impress the ladies. The Progressive Caucus Budget will fade into memory, corporate money will continue to pour into political campaigns, and everyone will live happily ever after…
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