You know you’ve witnessed good theater when you get sucked into the drama so deeply that you forget that its all just theater. Some theatrical forms are energetic and emotionally demanding. Others, like Japanese Noh and Kabuki theater are more stylized and deliberately paced, requiring the audience to pay strict attention to nuance and to understand the symbols and conventions that provide a framework for the performance.
To observers of Debt Ceiling Theater currently enjoying a run in Washington DC, it should be clear that there are several different dramatic forms at work. First, you have your pure American Western, imagined by its Tea Party players to be True Grit, but really the more basic form of High Noon at the OK Corral as it is played for tourists at Tombstone. Others think they have a part in Atlas Shrugged, having not gotten the memo about how that movie failed and is closed. But by far the most fascinating dramatic forms in play are Kabuki and ‘No,’ with skilled actors on both sides. The Kabuki Master, and most consummate practitioner of the dramatic arts, is President Obama.
Kabuki is an extended theater experience; traditionally an all-day performance rather than the two to five hour range of Western entertainment. There are several structural conventions in kabuki, but one that it has in common with noh is called johakyū. This is a three part structure, described by the three ideographs for the word in Japanese, in which:
Jo, or “beginning,” refers to the introductory portion of the play, ha, to the middle portion in which the story unfolds, and kyū to the denouement. The performance is slower and quieter during the jo, gradually gains tempo in the ha, and becomes even more energetic during the kyū.
The current performance of Political Kabuki is an extended experience as well. Written to the johakyū structure, we are well into the second act, nearing the denouement of this little play. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The first act commenced immediately after the 2010 election when Obama plunged into budget talks with the lame duck Congress. With the hanamichi prepared, the Kabuki Master appeared on stage masked, head hanging, to deliver a scene-setting monologue about “shellackings.” He then invited other characters to join him off stage - a kumbaya meeting at the White House - after which a group of characters rushed to stage right and identified themselves as the villains, pledging scorched earth obstructionism if they did not get their way. This was ‘No’ theater at its best.
On its own Old West stage, teahadists played to their own audience. Scandalized that anyone would dare to continue to govern after the election, they sang multiple choruses of “Don’t Pass It, Go Home.” But, since all the players that mattered were on the kabuki stage, little of consequence occurred here. To an observer, the play seemed to be lacking a viable plot.
The Kabuki Master had ideas of his own. In exchange for extending the Bush tax cuts, the Kabuki Master obtained an extension of unemployment benefits, additional tax breaks for working stiffs, the repeal of DADT, Senate approval of a new treaty with Russia, a child nutrition program and medical help for 9/11rescue workers. Behind his mask he smiled.
We begin with another monologue from the Kabuki Master, playfully called the “State of the Union Address.” In it, he set the scene in bold strokes for what was to come:
To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations. And we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.
And if we truly care about our deficit, we simply cannot afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans. Before we take money away from our schools, or scholarships away from our students, we should ask millionaires to give up their tax break.
It’s not a matter of punishing their success. It’s about promoting America’s success.
In fact, the best thing we could do on taxes for all Americans is to simplify the individual tax code. This will be a tough job, but members of both parties have expressed interest in doing this, and I am prepared to join them.
So now is the time to act. Now is the time for both sides and both houses of Congress –Democrats and Republicans – to forge a principled compromise that gets the job done. If we make the hard choices now to rein in our deficits, we can make the investments we need to win the future.
Let me take this one step further. We shouldn’t just give our people a government that’s more affordable. We should give them a government that’s more competent and efficient. We cannot win the future with a government of the past.
“Think and act big, if you dare,” he said with a stare. And with that the play continued.
Now the action began to pick up. The chorus of ‘No’ is heard in the background, but to little effect. There is a small budget crisis that the Kabuki Master deftly ducks with little effect on his plan. Then comes The Ryan - the nemesis is introduced at last! The villains’ chorus pranced around the hanamichi, singing this refrain:
Cut, cut, cut all taxes away
Cut, cut, cut entitlements today
Sell, sell, sell this cod liver oil
Take this medicine, then return to your toil.
The Kabuki Master, his pose struck and held with great skill, watched silently, and waited. Bidening his time while holding center stage, he watches the villainous dancers careening about him. The chorus of 'No,' kissing the Grover 'No'rquist paw, shrieked:
'No' new revenue at all allowed
'No' more money if you’re not endowed
'No' sacrifice from the free market crowd.
It’s Noon at the OK Corral at the Tea Party theater. No deals, no compromise, just a good old fashioned shootout. Founder’s intent, drown the beast for our small government feast. Bang, bang, you’re done. [This troupe can’t count constitutional amendments beyond the number 2, so don’t expect much plot here].
And the Kabuki Master waited. And when the Bidening was over, the players scattering in a huff, he relaxed his pose and strode to the front of the stage.
“You are all children,” he thundered, “and naughty ones at that. Why, my own daughters manage to get their homework done before deadline, why can’t you? Oh, the deadline looms much nearer than you assume, so you better get cracking lest you look like buffoons.”
Then from backstage there was a whisper, a 14th amendment solution, controversial yet . . . . Could it really be possible that the Congressional undoing is its insistence on spending in spite of its ceiling? And the bit players came and went, the commentators came to vent, and the Kabuki Master struck a new pose, “No comment.”
“Come to my White House, and lets strike a deal. But lets do something big, really big, like $4 trillion big. No more of this namby, pamby stuff,” he said.
And so, the other players dutifully came... and then left because it was all just too big. In the end, the Kabuki Master is running the show.
But there are other players on this stage, and Jim DeMint stepped to the front of the hanamichi with a very curious speech on Today:
The only way we will default is if Secretary Geithner and the President choose to default. They're required by law to pay our bills, they're also required by law to pay Social Security and Medicare...so we don't need to panic.
Hmm. Are we conceding the point of the 14th Amendment? Are we offering some kind of “Get Into Debt Free” card so the ha can continue? It’s kabuki, so only time will tell.
But the ha draws to a close.
Since the play is not over, the denouement is yet to be seen. Now the pace quickens and the players gather for the final dances and choruses. Thunder and lightning and sword play, oh my!
It seems that both sides must give to get a deal. The villains just don’t get the giving part, and wear their foolishness as a costume. It seems likely that the lights will go out in the theater for a time, but will come back on before the end.
The Kabuki Master is deft and skillful. More likely than not, he will hold the hanamichi in the end and leave the rest to exit and ponder their parts in the next run of Political Kabuki.