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PBS Misleads with Frontline "Cliffhanger" Documentary

February 13, 2013

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.

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 errors.

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.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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