Bill Whalen

Going Over The Fiscal Cliff: Mules — And A Need To Retool

For all the talk of an impasse between President Obama and congressional Republicans and the specter of the federal government soon going over a “fiscal cliff” of higher taxes and draconian spending cuts, there’s a better metaphor for Washington’s present struggles:

A mule-ride down the Grand Canyon.

If you’ve ever made the trek, it’s a memory not soon forgotten – in large part, for how the mules make the descent. The beasts of burden choose to walk as close as they can to the edge of the canyon’s rim. Sure, the view’s breathtaking. Perhaps more pulse-racing is the thought of the mule, sick and tired of making the same passage, choosing your ride as the time to take the plunge into the abyss.

Such is the drama in Washington: we don’t know what’s on the mule’s mind (please forgive the mixed metaphor of Republicans as mules). Some say keep marching down the path to compromise. Others advise: take the plunge – or at least, test the President’s willingness to do so.

There may be a way out of Washington’s mess – a distinctly California solution to the impasse. It’s what Hollywood would do in this kind of bind: halt production, retool the storyline, recast the players, and then re-launch the show.

Or so it would seem, based on what’s readily apparent to observers of this political cliffhanger:

1)  The President Can’t Lead. Given his chance to channel LBJ and court/cajole/pressure lawmakers into a deal, Barack Obama chose instead to channel . . . Barack Obama. That’s meant sending emissaries to do the talking, making laughably bad offers, and reverting to a campaign-style road show in lieu of backroom negotiating. The President may get a deal in the end. For now, though, he hasn’t looked very presidential.

2)   Republicans Can’t Leverage. Ask yourself: what did congressional Republicans get out of the 2011 showdown over the raising the debt ceiling? Answer: not as much as conservatives would have liked. We’ll see if history repeats itself by month’s end. Then again, Republicans have leverage they may not realize in that: (a) the White House wants to avoid gong over the cliff; (b) more so than congressional Republicans who, regardless of the outcome, will have a hard time of avoiding getting stuck with the blame (Americans usually preferring individuals (the president) to institutions (Congress). Instead of dwelling on what Republicans want to offer in the way of compromise, the more salient question is: what do they expect in return?

How, then, to break the impasse? Here are three suggested cast changes :

Stepping in for President Obama: Halle Berry.

Once upon a time in America, there was a post-racial president who was charming, telegenic and honored with his industry’s highest award (the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize). But since that award, an iffy body of work in terms of dealing with strife and warring factions (just ask John Boehner, Mitch McConnell . . .. or the folks in Benghazi, Cairo, Damascus and Jerusalem).

Enter Halle Barry. Like Obama, she’s post-racial (both the offspring a white mother and African-American father), charming, telegenic and honored with her industry’s highest honor (the 2002 Oscar for Actress in a Leading Role). And, since that award, not much in the way of Oscar buzz.

But one thing we know about Ms. Berry: she can navigate her way out of a bind. After a brutal Thanksgiving brawl between her fiancé and the father of her child, Berry quietly and amicably ended a nasty custody with her ex and apparently convinced her fiancé to drop assault charges.

If Berry can pull off this kind of international diplomacy (the two warring males being Frenchmen), surely she can master less complicated domestic policy.

Stepping in for the Republicans: Les Miles.

Miles is the head football coach of the LSU Tigers. He’s also a man who knows how to work angles.

In January 2011, Miles met with University of Michigan officials to discuss that school’s coaching vacancy – the second time in four years that Miles’ alma mater had come a-courtin’. Despite telling reporters that he was “extremely happy” with his day job, Miles nonetheless took the meeting – a gesture that didn’t go unnoticed or unrewarded by his bosses back in Baton Rouge. Miles stayed at LSU, but it cost the school raises for his assistant coaches and a restructured contract.

Miles played the same leverage game this past month, flirting with the University of Arkansas. Again, he got his bosses’ attention: a new seven-year contract and a pay raise.

Simply put, Miles is a man who three times in the past five years has walked away from a “cliff” of his own making (staying at or leaving LSU) with something good in return (better pay, job security). Such is the challenge for congressional Republicans: deciding what is the end-game in this game of chicken with the Obama White House – entitlement reform; tax reform – then going about getting it.

Stepping in High-Minded Members of Congress: Jeff Zucker.

At some point soon, a small cadre of congressional Democrats and Republicans will attempt to jump-start the cliff negotiations (“the gang of . . . [insert a number]”). That means finding a Republican who’s comfortable with higher taxes and a Democrat who can live with slashed spending – a tall order for most members who want to stay in office beyond 2014.

In others words: a job for someone with a death wish. My candidate for gang-leader: Jeff Zucker, the new president of CNN.

Zucker’s reputation is tarnished, to put it politely (under his watch, NBC’s ratings hit the skids). Then again, so too has CNN fallen from a lofty perch (the cable network thrives during international crises, but otherwise limps along with a limp primetime lineup).

If Zucker’s to succeed at CNN, he has to expand the network’s brand beyond war and politics. And it won’t be easy, given the in-house resistance to following the Fox News and MSNBC versions of more opinionated programming.

Zucker could succeed in turning around the network’s fortunes, or fail spectacularly. Sounds like the right guy to try to convince members of Congress that the current model isn’t working.

A job for someone as stubborn as . . . a mule.

Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter @hooverwhalen

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