Here we slow again.
Washington’s leaders are back to form, playing a petty, peevish and dangerous brand of politics. All that’s at stake is the fate of the economy.
Everyone in this town knows how it goes in a time of a standoff: Posture until the deadline, try to win over the public and work over the media, then cut a deal just before disaster strikes. The crises come and go; this one happens to be about the “fiscal cliff,” the looming set of tax hikes and blunt spending cuts set to start Jan. 1.
In Washington’s view, this is normal. It’s as if there is no cost to the brinkmanship as long as all sides come together in time to head off disaster.
But there is a big cost to the American people. The political slog erodes whatever trust and confidence are left in government. Patience gets taken for granted. The world watches warily.
“We’re not going to negotiate against ourselves,” said President Barack Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney.
“We can’t sit here and negotiate with ourselves,” said House Speaker John Boehner.
Consider that they both spoke on the same day, without either side answering when or whether they might, say, negotiate together.
Polling already shows more people than not think Obama and Congress will fail, even though failing would mean tax hikes for all and a punch to the gut of the economy. And even if the outcome ends up fine, every day squandered to squabbling is one that could be spent fixing so many other problems.
Remember the election? Just one month ago? When voters re-hired a Democratic president and a Republican-controlled House and ordered them to work together?
The spirit of bipartisanship and sense of urgency that seemed to emerge were pretty much gone by Thanksgiving. This week, Boehner dismissed Obama’s economic offer as “la-la land.” Carney called Boehner’s counter-offer “magic beans and fairy dust.”
In this town, such theater is just a regular part of the process. When the president and the speaker of the House had a phone conversation last Wednesday, it was considered a breakthrough.
“Unfortunately, polarization, gridlock and dysfunction are now the default settings for politics in Washington,” said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a co-founder of No Labels, a national organization whose mission is get the fractured American political system working again.
“These trends have been decades in the makings. They’re deeply embedded now in the cultural fabric of American national politics,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy to change. But we have to try, because the country is going to pay an increasingly heavy price if we don’t.”
The favorites of the Washington playbook are all back. Competing press conferences. Campaign-style efforts to build political pressure on the other guys. A gaming out of who will face more heat if everything collapses. A staring contest over which person has to move next. A courting of the media for influence. A simultaneous blaming of the media for focusing on the hidden process.
It is a season of slights and snubs. When Boehner came to a holiday party at the White House on Monday night, he avoided the photo line where members get to talk to the president. The White House, meanwhile, is still peeved that it got a copy of the House Republican offer at roughly the same time Capitol Hill reporters got briefed about it.
“Nothing is going on,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said last Wednesday of the state of talks. “Meanwhile, the people of this country are the ones that suffer.”
As they did in watching a divided government take the nation to the brink of default last summer over debt and spending.
Washington tends to act out of procrastination, desperation and political strategy. The final force for compromise is often not the deal itself, but the desire to be done with it.
“Yes, sometimes in this town, folks like to leave things to the last minute,” Obama told radio host Tom Joyner. “But when it starts getting close to their Christmas vacation, then things open up.”
That’s the Washington thinking: The powers that be will compromise, if they have to, in the end. The presumption is that they will again this time. Until then, there are news cycles to win, political leverage to maximize, families to include in photo opportunities.
“There’s a bit of inevitable, orchestrated drama in these things,” Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told CNBC.
So cue up the countdown clocks on cable TV and let it all play out until the leaders come together for the hard talks. That’s the only solution, Galston said.
“Press conferences and campaign-style events and dueling releases of documents can get you started,” he said. “But it runs into a wall pretty damn fast.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: AP White House Correspondent Ben Feller has covered the presidencies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush.