While most eyes were trained on the State of the Union address (or a burning cabin in California), PBS last Tuesday aired a documentary on the ongoing fiscal deadlock in Washington titled, "Cliffhanger." In it, the House Speaker John Boehner is portrayed as hopelessly trapped between an equivocating and untrustworthy President Obama who "poisoned the well" and an immovable Tea Party caucus manipulated by the hyper-ambitious Eric Cantor. But the usually excellent Frontline series didn't merely get lost in the weeds of DC politics. When it comes to the unprecedented Republican debt ceiling hostage-taking that precipitated Washington's "cliffhanger," PBS missed the forest for the trees altogether.
What is the Fiscal Cliff? One of the most striking omissions from a film titled "Cliffhanger" is any definition of the so-called "fiscal cliff." That triple witching hour on January 1, 2013 when the Bush tax cuts and the two-year payroll tax reduction set to expire just as the $1.2 trillion, ten-year sequester was to begin is never fully explained. (The sequester drop-dead date was shifted to March 1.) And the risk in that manufactured crisis was not that the United States would suddenly increase its national debt, but instead reduce too quickly and thus trigger a steep (and unnecessary) recession.
Glossing Over the Original Sin. In "Cliffhanger", Frontline's sins are myriad. But none is more crucial than skirting past the original sin itself. That is, the Republican threat beginning in 2011 to trigger a default on the full faith and credit of the United States isn't just without parallel in modern American history. It is the GOP's extortion over the debt ceiling (which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called "a hostage that's worth ransoming" and a "new template") which is responsible for the sequester and "fiscal cliff" showdowns which followed.