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While most eyes were trained on the State of the Union address (or a burning cabin in California), PBS on Tuesday aired a documentary on the ongoing fiscal deadlock in Washington titled, "Cliffhanger." In it, the House Speaker John Boehner is portrayed as hopelessly trapped between an equivocating and untrustworthy President Obama who "poisoned the well" and an immovable Tea Party caucus manipulated by the hyper-ambitious Eric Cantor. But the usually excellent Frontline series didn't merely get lost in the weeds of DC politics. When it comes to the unprecedented Republican debt ceiling hostage-taking that precipitated Washington's "cliffhanger," PBS missed the forest for the trees altogether.

What is the Fiscal Cliff?  One of the most striking omissions from a film titled "Cliffhanger" is any definition of the so-called "fiscal cliff."  That triple witching hour on January 1, 2013 when the Bush tax cuts and the two-year payroll tax reduction set to expire just as the $1.2 trillion, ten-year sequester was to begin is never fully explained. (The sequester drop-dead date was shifted to March 1.) And the risk in that manufactured crisis was not that the United States would suddenly increase its national debt, but instead reduce too quickly and thus trigger a steep (and unnecessary) recession.

Glossing Over the Original Sin.  In "Cliffhanger", Frontline's sins are myriad. But none is more crucial than skirting past the original sin itself. That is, the Republican threat beginning in 2011 to trigger a default on the full faith and credit of the United States isn't just without parallel in modern American history. It is the GOP's extortion over the debt ceiling (which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called "a hostage that's worth ransoming" and a "new template") which is responsible for the sequester and "fiscal cliff" showdowns which followed.

Continue reading below the fold.

In "Cliffhanger," journalists including Lori Montgomery of the Washington Post and Jackie Calmes of the New York Times explain that failure to raise the debt ceiling would result in a global economic calamity. (Left unmentioned is that Speaker Boehner, "Young Gun" Paul Ryan and Senator Lindsey Graham among the Republicans leaders admitting that a U.S. default would unleash "financial collapse and calamity throughout the world.") Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Bob Woodward recalled, described the scope of the catastrophe that would ensue if the GOP ransom was not paid:

"Geithner says, 'We could trigger a depression worse than the 1930's. It will be indelible. It will last for generations.'"
But only in a passing remark by John Farrell of the National Journal does Frontline even mention that no party has ever both threatened to block a debt ceiling hike and had the votes to do it:
"Cantor proposes to do something which had not been done before: use the debt ceiling vote for maximum leverage and threaten to throw the country into default."
In no way does this constitute "politics as usual." What Republicans now call "the Obama sequester" (despite having voted for the August 2011 Budget Control Act in which Speaker Boehner crowed, "I got 98 percent of what I wanted") exists only the GOP threatened to bring down the American economy.

The National Debt? Republicans Built That. Key to understanding the current fiscal brinksmanship in Washington is the Republican pretense that history began on January 20, 2009. As the new GOP House Majority's default threat escalated in the spring and summer of 2011, Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling claimed that for Republicans raising the debt ceiling is "contrary to our DNA," Majority Leader Cantor pleaded for understanding:

"I don't think the White House understands is how difficult it is for fiscal conservatives to say they're going to vote for a debt ceiling increase."
That, of course, is complete nonsense. The debt ceiling was routinely raised 40 times since 1980, including 17 times under Ronald Reagan and another seven under President George W. Bush. As it turns out, the current GOP leadership team including Eric Cantor voted a combined 19 times to bump the debt limit $4 trillion during his tenure. (That vote tally included a "clean" debt ceiling increase in 2004, backed by 98 current House Republicans and 31 sitting GOP Senators.)

Of course, they had to. After all, the two unfunded wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the budget-busting Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 (the first war-time tax cut in modern U.S. history) and the Medicare prescription drug program drained the U.S. Treasury and doubled the national debt by 2009. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded two years ago, the Bush tax cuts (unmentioned by "Cliffhanger") accounted for half of the deficits during his tenure, and if made fully permanent, over the next decade would have cost the U.S. Treasury more than Iraq, Afghanistan, the recession, TARP and the stimulus--combined. And Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Eric Cantor voted for all of it.

Gaps and Errors in the Timeline.  "Cliffhanger" includes an interactive, if surprisingly unhelpful, timeline of the ongoing fiscal face-off in Washington. Unhelpful, that is, because the PBS guide is rife with misrepresentations and omissions.

For starters, Paul Ryan's "Path to Prosperity" document, one which formed the basis for the 2011 and 2012 GOP budgets, was preceded by the "Roadmap for America's Future" that came before the Simpson-Bowles Commission. (That the Ryan budget would add trillions to the national debt was omitted altogether.) More importantly, the existence of the Congressional debt "Super Committee" tasked with avoiding the $1.2 trillion in cuts to the Pentagon and non-defense discretionary spending is never mentioned. Its failure in the fall of 2011 was due to the Republican refusal to countenance a dime in new revenue from tax increases. It was that breakdown which made the sequester everyone says they want to avoid a very real possibility.

Why Obama Gave Boehner "Nothing." Frontline describes one particularly dramatic moment during a meeting between Speaker Boehner and President Obama just after the 2012 election. With the Republicans soundly defeated at the polls and the fiscal cliff looming, Boehner as he had a year earlier agreed to $800 billion in new revenue as part of a compromise package. As Boehner recalled for Frontline, "I agreed to put $800 billion dollars of revenue on the table if the President was willing to make real spending cuts and reform our entitlement programs so they're sustainable for the long term."

"Boehner says, 'I'm giving you $800 billion in new tax revenue. What do I get for it?' The President says, 'Nothing.' And what the President meant was, 'Listen, you already put that on the table before. I won the election; that's not a concession. You need to come further to me. That's the starting point.'"
But that reading is a misreading of Obama's position and his leverage. It's not just he won reelection by promising to end the upper-income Bush tax cuts; on January 1 all of the Bush tax cuts were set to expire. So in his back pocket, Obama had$4 trillion of new revenue over the next decade to negotiate with. And a deal avoiding tax hikes for all Americans earning under $250,000 per household, a goal both parties shared, could be reached any time before or after the New Year's deadline.

But none of these discussions make much sense unless Frontline viewers know that the Bush tax cuts were the single biggest driver of national debt in the last decade and will be so over the next. The very idea of a "cliff" was without precedent. It's not just that the same Republican leaders repeatedly gave George W. Bush a blank check to hemorrhage red ink, but that they were only willing to blow up the global economy with a Democrat now in the White House. To put it another way, "Cliffhanger" makes for great theater, but not much of a documentary.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Excellent piece of research (9+ / 0-)

    Thank you

    I hope that the quality of debate will improve,
    but I fear we will remain Democrats.

    Who is twigg?

    by twigg on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 12:03:26 PM PST

  •  It's going to take a long time to undo (9+ / 0-)

    decades, nay centuries of misinformation. That our money is no longer tied to a scarce mineral just hasn't registered, in large part because the people tasked with managing our currency, the Congress, LIKE not being able to do anything about it. They LIKE being able to tell constituents that they are sorry, but the cow just has no more milk to give.
    That our currency is now made out of strokes on a computer keyboard is not only incomprehensible to people who don't know how to type, but entirely unwelcome to people who are determined the old excuses for comforting the comfortable and discomfiting the populace shall continue to work!  

    They're not being willfully ignorant; they're being willfull.  Period. If they give in an admit the whole thing was a sham, their goose is (geese are) cooked.

    Imagine you've told all the neighbors that Mum has run off with the milkman when, in fact, you've stashed her body in the basement so you can continue to collect her pension check. How can you possibly come clean?  Poor Boehner and Cantor have perpetrated a gross deception -- one that's likely caused any number of people to expire in the prime of life. How are they going to admit they did it all by pretending not to have what they are charged with making?

    We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

    by hannah on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 12:18:14 PM PST

    •  GOP keeps "a hostage that's worth ransoming" (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      despite losing elections for behaving this way,  obstructing any meaningful progress and persisting in finding new ways to pirate the public good on behalf of their wealthiest supporters, behaving opposite of what the public clearly wants and expects, and throwing frenzied tantrums whenever that's ever so politely pointed out.  

      This PBS documentary, ostensibly done in the public's best interest, cannot pin the tale of blame where it squarely belongs--on the backends of the GOP and it's wealthy backers. And that's due to the heavy influence now held by the corporate sponsors of PBS (including Koch boys) who might be sorely offended if there were to be any narrative labeled a 'documentary' clearly laying out the truth of their treason to the American people.

      The Republicans (and their wealthy base) won't release 'the hostage' (the economic benefits and services of a functional government and thriving economy for the rest of us) unless they get back forever the 'Bush Tax Cut' bonanza for the very richest of Americans and corporations. And they still want to take away big chunks from our much needed Medicare & Social Security programs prefunded out of our payroll deductions, and kill the ACA, along with trying to abort any funding that promotes useful and needed reforms in the SEC, FDA, FCC, EPA, OSHA, DOL, ATF, consumer protection agency, etc. They don't just want to shrink government to 'balance the budget', they want to crush it under their heels, at least all those populist parts that mostly benefit the rest of us.

      They have the temerity to repeatedly demand the president give them a 'balanced' budget (that's actually their responsibility, and addressing longterm deficit management is actually part of managing that budget) and yet refuse to fund anything in his budget that they see might promote the general welfare (their core and primary reason for being per the Constitution)--because that just encourages the base supporting Democrats, and, worse, such programs tend to impede the wealhy seeking to take away ever more from us.  

      They refuse to put forward a budget that would represent a good bipartisan compromise because even such a compromised budget results in an adequately functioning government, which of course just encourages the base supporting Democrats. Keeping Obama's nominees hostage is also a key element to preventing a beneficial functioning government, one that might slow the pace of piracy of and plundering by the richest 1%.  

      They still aim to completely obstruct a clearly popular President Obama on every front possible. It's hard not to conclude that Republicans are working overtime to ensure the shackling of Obama as their highest vlue hostage while leaving the rest of us starved for the many $Trillions held back as leverage. And they clearly gloat in their success to date.

      The most shameful truth is that this horrendously huge hostage taking by the GOP of our government's ability to function on our behalf is but a pretext for sabbotaging Obama--their real object of seething hatred. They are using all possible 'legal' and legislative maneuvers to forcibly enslave this black president's legacy in the smoldering ruins of economic 'reconstruction' of their making, crippling (as a coordinated national strategy) the people's government from federal to local levels by imposing the bonds of austerity and deprivation that they've intentially created, while they persist in doing whatever they can to enable the hasty transfering of our remaining wealth to the richest. They bomb us relentlessly with propoganda through the media outlets they own and couldn't allow PBS to have any ability to fire back anymore.  

      They will work relentlessly to prevent any lasting positive legacy that Obama has worked so hard trying to provide us. This is a hostile takeover attempt and clearly the GOP still believe they can pull it off.  The GOP is cock sure of one thing--we don't deserve any real Hope and Change and only their favored few rich ownership class supporters are deserving--winner (as defined by only the GOP) takes all, and no way in Hell will they allow Obama to even breath free. I think they imagine if they succeed in keeping Obama impotent, a symbolic cipher of ruin, it is very possible that the majority of voters won't support him anymore, or anyone like him. This is magical thinking.

      This situation where PBS fails to tell us the truth is the natural result of another big crime against American citizens imposed by the Bush regime--the GOP leadership demanding and forcing PBS funding, again via taking hostages, to become so dependent upon corporate resources and the largesse of the most wealthy power holders in America as to neuter it's effectiveness as a reliable source of criticism of the legislative actions and executive functions. With funding control being 'privatized' comes the corrollary demand to have programming and editorial management tailoring PBS content to never again offend 'conservatives' or cast doubt upon their private sector motives, and also to try to portray their agenda as having great points that we sorely need to undersand to succeed in the future that they have planned for us. PBS clearly can no longer afford to deal in truth which we as citizens need in order to rectify our government's path, to restrain the reckless driving of the GOP to take us over the cliff, and to hold these hostage takers and their supporting corporate backers to a full accounting, even if it results in a negative portrayal of conservative interests, or dares to go so far as calling it criminal or actually raw treason.

      PBS seems to now become an active part of the hostage-taking enabling-team, as well as being a hostage. PBS has has defaulted on the truth and now betrays the public trust when most needed. It no longer is allowed to fulfill it's original mission to We The People, to 100% of Americans or even to 10%, but instead has become the servile tool, the PR service, of those wealthy 1 percenters most eager to impose their will upon us and extract whatever remaining wealth they can from us and our future wealth as well--as their fitting due and 'entitlement'. Reforming PBS to fully independent operations and upholding the best of professional journalism needs to be a key priority for Obama, or else to provide us with better outlets and free media that do work 'for us' instead of against us.

      When life gives you wingnuts, make wingnut butter!

      by antirove on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 01:51:34 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Also, every dollar is nothing but a certified (5+ / 0-)

    IUO -- a record of a debt. The United States government doesn't incur debts in its own currency; it issues currency for others to use. If some people exchange those dollars for bonds, for safe keeping, that's a service we provide.

    Yes, as a nation we owe goods and services to our elders and the up and coming generation. But, the dollar value of those obligations isn't quantified, for the most part and really depends, to a large extent, on the size and health of our population. If they are unhealthy and die sooner, our obligations will end up being less. But, our moral standing will sink into the toilet.

    We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

    by hannah on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 12:24:32 PM PST

  •  I totally agree. I had the same reaction. (5+ / 0-)

    That was a very shallow and misleading "documentary."

  •  This episode belongs on Fox rather than PBS. (6+ / 0-)

    John Boehner was presented as the moderate, a dealmaker wanting to govern responsibly, pulled between hardline TPers on Right and rigid Obama on Left.  

    Every onscreen comment was from someone  to Obama's right: the only Dems commenting were blue dogs Bill Daley and Rahm, from the pro-corporate, anti-populist wing of the administration.

    The rest included multiple TPers, Newt, Simpson, Luntz, and Grover.

    No Krugman, no Katrina vanden Heuvel, no Jan Schakowski, no Bob Borosage, no Kos, nobody to question the deficit hysteria. No Senate Dems or Norm Ornstein to point out the scorched Earth obstructionism of the GOP from before Obama even took office.

    Frontline has done good programs on the banksters and the economic crisis, but whoever produced this program apparently never looked at those.

    There's no such thing as a free market!

    by Albanius on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 12:42:21 PM PST

  •  I'm John Boehner and I approve this program (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SilentBrook, MKinTN

    The only thing they didn't say!

    Keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce.---Molly Ivins

    by never forget 2000 on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 01:04:07 PM PST

  •  PBS is Koch owned now.... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SilentBrook, MKinTN

    so much for "public" broadcasting.
    The News Hour is overrun with TeaParty and other disgusting Republicans. Notice the dumbing down of PBS newscasters. And this Frontline story is just one of several  documentaries that are warping the truth. Koch is trying to lure fox viewers over to PBS.

  •  Didn't watch the whole thing (3+ / 0-)

    The inherent bias was obvious from the first minute.

    The underlying assumption of a fiscal "crisis" was to be expected, I suppose, since "both sides" have adopted it.

    Perpetual crisis means never having to say you're sorry.

    by chuckvw on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 01:29:59 PM PST

    •  Once they showed Bob Woodward (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I knew that it was going to be biased.

      Keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce.---Molly Ivins

      by never forget 2000 on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 09:12:00 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Well crap, I watch TeeVee 2 or 3 times a week. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I think I'll skip Frontline. I hope Moyers is good or I won't be watching it at all this week.

    The free market is not the solution, the free market is the problem.

    by Azazello on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 01:38:46 PM PST

  •  Tried to watch it... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ...but the narration, in Will Lyman's soporific tone, sent me to dreamland.

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