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 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT