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Boehner tries Brezhnev gambit on fiscal cliff

last resort abc

Republicans would have to be crazy to let America go over the fiscal cliff. Which means that the big question in US politics right now is: Just how crazy is the GOP?

This might not be an accident. It could be a negotiating strategy, a bold piece of brinksmanship — the kind of tactic that renegade nuclear submarine captains tend to favour, if you’ve been watching ABC’s new geopolitical drama Last Resort.

This is Captain Marcus Chaplin rationalising his decision to threaten Washington DC with a nuke in the season premiere:

Ronald Reagan fires all the air traffic controllers. And his guys come to him and they say “Mr President, why did you go and do such a thing. Everyone’s going to think you’re crazy.” And Reagan… he points out the window of the Oval Office, towards Russia. And he says “That’s right. That is exactly what I need that bastard to think.”

House speaker John Boehner seemed to be channelling Reagan on Fox News Sunday, when he made it clear that he considers spending and the debt to be a bigger problem than the fiscal cliff.

John Boehner: Don't call me crazy...

Boehner: Do I look crazy?

WALLACE: And, again, you kind of didn’t answer it the first time, what are the chances we’re going to go over the cliff?

BOEHNER: There is clearly a chance. But I’m going to tell you, I might be an easy guy to get along with — affable, obviously, I’ve worked in a bipartisan way on a number of agreements.

But I’m going to tell you one thing, Chris — I’m determined to solve our debt problem. We have a serious spending problem and it’s going to be dealt with.

He said this three or four times: his only concern is dealing with the debt. Yet when asked about what spending cuts he actually wants, he pointed to Paul Ryan’s budget proposals. The same proposals that Mitt Romney ran on and lost last month.

He also trotted out the same debunked nonsense about saving hundreds of billions by capping deductions, without having the courage to say which deductions Republicans would like to cut. Mortgage support, charitable donations… no comment. There are a “dozen different ways” to get there, he reckoned.

This is Reagan’s Brezhnev gambit. Except that, instead of acting crazy to protect the country from commies, Boehner’s doing it to protect America from a nonexistent debt crisis — and to save the rich from paying a bit more tax.

Treasury secretary Tim Geithner was on the show earlier, presenting the Democrats’ suggestions, which included stimulus spending and tax hikes for top earners. Not much red meat for Republicans, but lots of details and specific plans.

Clearly, the Democrats have no intention of making it easy for Republicans by proposing spending cuts. Why should they? They just won the election by running in opposition to the Republican vision of austerity.

Hence the crazy card from Boehner. The alternative is a political impossibility: lay out a detailed plan of the actual cuts Republicans would like to make. Boehner knows he can’t win that argument, because he knows the Republican position is pure political theatre.

This is hardly comforting for Americans. Boehner cannot win from this position, but he can inflict a defeat on his enemy — even if it means blowing up himself and the rest of the country at the same time.

And without giving too much of the plot away, it’s worth pointing out that Captain Chaplin ends up firing one of his nukes at Washington for real. If you’re gonna act crazy, you’ve gotta make the other guy believe that you’re serious about it.

It worked. The politicians backed down and the missile sailed 200 miles past Washington and exploded harmlessly(?) into the Atlantic.

That may end up being prophetic — because some critics reckon the fiscal cliff is more of a damp squib than a nuke.

The Cato Institute, for example, argues that automatic cuts to the defence budget could actually be good for the economy in the long run, and some market monetarists agree — as long as the Fed counteracts any fiscal shocks with appropriate monetary policy.

Of course, if it’s true that fiscal policy is largely irrelevant, it makes the fiscal cliff debate even more absurd. Sit back and enjoy…

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