Skip to main content

Cliff deal hollow victory for American people

By David Rothkopf, Special to CNN
updated 10:16 AM EST, Wed January 2, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Rothkopf: Fiscal cliff deal resolves little, shows how broken political system is
  • Rothkopf: CBO says deal adds $4 trillion to deficits; it only postpones sequestration cuts
  • He says debate on cuts will come just as Congress debates debt ceiling
  • Rothkopf: Two-party system no longer able to unite around objectives

Editor's note: David Rothkopf is CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy magazine and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

(CNN) -- The last political drama of 2012 and the first one of 2013 suggest that if you love America, you might want to consider making your New Year's resolution quitting whatever political party you belong to.

The "fiscal cliff" debate and the last-minute deal it produced have so far resolved nothing except to show that our system is profoundly broken and that radical changes are needed to fix it.

While many in Washington are breathing a sigh of relief and some are trying to spin the outcome as a win for the president, those who characterize this bill as a genuine victory for anyone at all have clearly lost perspective. The deal brokered by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell does make good on President Obama's promise to bring a little more equity to the tax code by raising rates on wealthier Americans, and it temporarily averts the most draconian "sequestration" cuts. But the list of what it does not do, and what it does wrong, is long.

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

By midday Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office had concluded that the Biden-McConnell package would add nearly $4 trillion to federal deficits over the next 10 years. This was largely because it actually extends and makes permanent more than 80% of the Bush tax cuts. So much for the idea that this whole struggle was supposed to help America get its financial house in order.

Just as bad, or perhaps worse in terms of the day-to-day lives of average people, the bill only postpones the forced cuts of sequestration by two months, to precisely the moment the country will be engaged in another ruinous debate about lifting our national debt ceiling to ensure the country can pay its bills. It thus creates a new, even more dangerous fiscal cliff. Next time around, the markets will not be so blasé about congressional brinkmanship if the national credit rating and the stability of a bedrock of the international financial system are at stake. It is an ominous sign for America that the only direction our top officials seem to be able to steer us is into yet another game of chicken.

Opinion: Now look beyond the fiscal cliff

It is utter lunacy for the United States to face invented hazards that virtually no other major country does. We face plenty of profound challenges without having to invent new ones that only bring out the worst in our political gangs. I would use the term "leaders" as was common in the past, but precious few in this crowd actually deserve that label.

The Senate package does not include any material spending cuts, infuriating those on the right. It angered many on the left because it worsened unionized government workers' job insecurity, is overly generous to the rich on inheritance taxes, and it doesn't protect entitlement programs. The head of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, said the deal "sets the stage for more hostage taking."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Further, the deal addresses only a tiny slice of the economic problems confronting America. Not only does it not address the $16 trillion national debt, it ignores the far bigger and more challenging deficit associated with looming retirement health care obligations. It also does not in any way address the still great need to help stimulate growth and create jobs in the U.S. economy. And it leaves in place most of the loopholes and provisions that allow America's richest to steadily accumulate more and more while inequality in this country gets worse and worse.

So, this was both a manufactured crisis and an unnecessary distraction from bigger issues. The deal that was hastily cobbled together actually increases our deficit, and it creates an even bigger potential crisis just weeks from now. That said, other than its lack of vision, creativity, accountability, sense of responsibility, courage, basic math skills, wisdom or competence, this cliff deal is not bad.

Zelizer: GOP faces choice: leadership or gridlock

Which raises two questions. One -- the one Washington will focus on -- is "who is to blame?" This question is based entirely on the illusion that there are two sides in our political battles. There are not, of course. All of us are in this together. One party speaks on behalf of one set of interests. The other party speaks on behalf of another. They dress it up in the language of principle and ideology, but at the end of the day, they act on behalf of the perceived economic interests of their bases -- not those who vote for them, but those who fund them.

House passes fiscal cliff bill
Norquist: Deal compatible with pledge
John Avlon weighs in on cliff battle
Cole: House will pass Senate fiscal bill

You may feel one party has done more than the other to cause this problem. That may be fair, but it is also a distraction from the bigger point. The only effective collaboration between both sides in this process has been inadvertent: A problem-creating partnership.

In his late night remarks following the House passage of the bill, Obama lamented that this bill was not the "grand bargain" the country needed to meaningfully raise revenue, cut spending and focus sensibly on growth. He said there was not enough time for that. But of course, we knew this deadline was looming from the moment it was manufactured in our political sausage factory. Both sides decided not to address it during the political campaign.

Oh, and then there is the additional reality that neither side even raised a grand bargain of the type proposed by the president's own Simpson-Bowles commission in a serious way. The fact that we even call the type of agreement that adequately starts to address our multiple needs a "grand bargain" as if it were some impossible dream reveals much about the current state of play in our nation's capital.

Which brings us to the other question: How do we get out of this mess? The only solution is to recognize that everything in our system that institutionalizes and deepens our partisan divides and makes the compromises and collaboration that are the essence of democracy impossible must be seen as an obstacle to the greater good.

It is time to realize that gerrymandering, campaign finance practices and the embrace of extra-constitutional traditions like filibuster rules deepen the divides that have made Washington dysfunctional. The two-party system is a boon for America when it is seen as providing a voice for two parts of a unified whole. But today's Washington is a zero-sum world of ideologues, men and women who have lost sight of who and what they are working for.

It may be that only a real massive movement away from the existing parties and the corrupt system they have created can break the destructive cycle in which Washington -- and the American people -- are trapped.

I've always felt such a move away from the current system was impossible, unrealistic. But then again, I never imagined a situation in Washington so dangerous to the well-being of so many Americans.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Rothkopf.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT