Fiscal Cliff: The 'Let It Burn' Lobby May Be on to Something

Playwright George S. Kaufman penned an oft-performed one-act play titled The Still Alarm that has some bearing on the current political situation in Washington relating to fiscal cliff negotiations.


Kaufman, who wrote for the Marx Brothers and collaborated with giants like Moss Hart and Irving Berlin on Broadway, gave very specific stage directions for the production of the play:

Vital Note: It is important that the entire play should be acted calmly and politely in the manner of an English drawing room comedy. No actor ever raises his voice; every line must be read as if it were an invitation to a cup of tea.

The play is about two upper-crust hotel guests who, after finishing a fine meal in their room, are interrupted by a bellhop who informs them the hotel is on fire. True to the stage directions, the lines are delivered politely with nary a hint of panic. Much hilarity ensues as the two gentlemen idly wonder what they should be wearing as they exit the hotel and discuss mundane matters relating to their businesses — all the while the bellhop makes repeated appearances bringing more calamitous news about the progress of the fire.

Finally, the firemen show up. Rather than do anything to put out the fire, one of them picks up a violin and begins to play “Keep the Home Fires Burning.”

One gets the sense that Kaufman was quite prescient about the future political culture in Washington as he wrote this little skit. As we approach the fiscal cliff, the sanguinity of the major players in the face of what truly are catastrophic budget cuts and tax increases is remarkable. Secretary Geithner’s response to whether the administration is prepared to go over the fiscal cliff is surreal:


During an interview with CNBC, Geithner was asked if the White House was willing to dive off the cliff if Republicans don’t accept a deal that raises tax rates for those making more than $250,000.

“Oh, absolutely,” he responded. “Again, there’s no prospect in an agreement that doesn’t involve the rates going up on the top 2 percent of the wealthiest.”

Delivered just as if it were “an invitation to a cup of tea” rather than threatening Armageddon for American business and the taxpayer.

Geithner isn’t the only one playing out Kaufman’s nightmare scenario. The president of the United States is fiddling while the economy is threatened with a conflagration:

“I think there is recognition that maybe they can accept some rate increases as long as it is combined with serious entitlement reform and additional spending cuts,” the president said. “And if we can get the leadership on the Republican side to take that framework, to acknowledge that reality, then the numbers actually aren’t that far apart.”

He added that “we can probably solve this in about a week — it’s not that tough.”

We can solve this in a week and please pass the crumpets. “Serious” entitlement reform in a week? “Reality”? Whatever Michele is feeding him — magic mushrooms perhaps — a little cold porridge and stale bread might bring the president back down to earth. To paraphrase the great statesman Han Solo: “Reforming entitlements ain’t like dustin’ crops, (boy). Without precise negotiations you could run afoul of the AARP or bounce too close to the third rail of American politics and that would end your hopes real quick, wouldn’t it?”


Perhaps the president is referring to a “biblical week” to finalize negotiations once the GOP leadership caves on tax rates — sort of like the young earthers who think that a biblical “day” could have been millions of years, except the media won’t call him an anti-science mountebank because…well, he’s not a Republican.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are busy tearing at each other, as John Boehner channels Uncle Joe Stalin by purging a couple of back-bench tea party House members while the conservative base is heating the tar, gathering the feathers, and picking up their pitchforks aiming to “depose” the speaker of the House. Perhaps this is the reason Geithner and the president are so calm about the situation. In effect, Boehner and the Republican leadership don’t have to negotiate with Obama. Their true adversaries are the growing number of conservatives who have joined the “Let It Burn” (LIB) lobby — the pyromaniac wing of the Republican party.

It is very possible that even if the GOP leadership can come to a deal with Obama and the Democrats on avoiding the fiscal cliff, the LIB lobby will put so much pressure on House Republicans that the deal would be voted down. This would include any increase in the debt ceiling as well, although that vote may come early next year.

The problem for Boehner is that despite the insane nature of such a position — actually supporting the idea of allowing 10% across-the-board cuts and a $95 billion tax increase — the pyromaniacs may be right.


Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal:

The only issue on the cliff negotiation table held true by every serious person is that the entitlement crisis is going to crush the country. But nothing is dearer to this president than higher taxes on people defined by him as the wealthiest. If the president’s DNA prevents him from a compromise that also includes a sequester-strength commitment to disarming the entitlement bombs, much less discretionary spending, take the sequester. Better the fiscal cliff than pitching the American people over the bottomless entitlement cliff.

Bottom line: Obama doesn’t want a “deal.” He wants victory. He wants the GOP’s head on a pike that he can parade around the capital while bragging to those liberal pundits whose approval he so desperately seeks that he has crushed the enemy, seen them driven before him, and heard the lamentations of their women.

With that in mind, the LIB lobby’s desire seems almost rational. Why negotiate with someone hell-bent on winning at all costs? Henninger points out:

The main reason there isn’t, and may never be, a solution on the fiscal cliff is that Barack Obama doesn’t know how to do a political compromise. Where in his career did Barack Obama ever learn the art of the political deal? Nowhere.

If a real deal with real spending cuts and real entitlement reform is unreachable for whatever reason, even the establishment would have to consider joining the pyromaniacs.


The more pragmatic establishment blanches at the thought of cliff diving, believing that the party would pay for this position in the 2014 midterm elections. There is some validity to that argument given recent polls. But the LIBs counter with the adage that it’s better to retain your soul and go down to defeat fighting for what you believe than cave on such a fundamental principle.

Would that political parties could afford such childlike purity. But despite its irrationality — a political party shouldn’t set out to deliberately create conditions for a crushing defeat — there is an overriding principle to consider as well: self-preservation. What would a full-monty cave-in on taxes do to the Republican Party, especially if it comes with no guaranteed cuts in entitlements? If Speaker Boehner believes he can herd his caucus to vote for precisely the issue for which he and other leaders have spent the last year saying they would never consider, he will have a revolt on his hands the likes of which have not been seen since the Goldwater rebellion of 1964. He may get the revolt anyway, given his milquetoast performance so far in these negotiations.

President Obama is going on vacation on December 17 and won’t return until January 6. Boehner should treat negotiations over the fiscal cliff with equal seriousness and adjourn on the 17th sine die until the new Congress is sworn in. Since the president has indicated that he will not respond to the GOP offer with one of his own, there appears little reason for the Republican leadership to stay in town and negotiate with someone incapable of reaching a deal.


While the art of compromise appears lost on the Let It Burn crowd, it is also apparently not in the president’s lexicon either. This leaves the firemen to enter the scene and bring down the curtain, playing “Light my Fire” by The Doors.

The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
Try now we can only lose
And our love become a funeral pyre

One lump or two?


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