Anyone alive in the 1970s likely remembers Karl "the Great" Wallenda. Patriarch of the world-renown Flying Wallendas, circus act, Wallenda was famous for nail-biting wire walks that often included pyramids comprised of his family members. While the family still performs today, Karl Wallenda's career (and life) ended abruptly in 1978 when he fell while attempting a walk between towers of two ten story buildings.
Anyone alive in the 1970s likely remembers Karl “the Great” Wallenda. Patriarch of the world-renown Flying Wallendas, circus act, Wallenda was famous for nail-biting wire walks that often included pyramids comprised of his family members. While the family still performs today, Karl Wallenda’s career (and life) ended abruptly in 1978 when he fell while attempting a walk between towers of two ten story buildings.
There’s a lesson in Wallenda’s career trajectory: It’s spectacular to watch, until it becomes grotesque and horrifying. Much the same can be said of the U. S. Congress. While members of Congress don’t funambulate high wires, they routinely dangle the American people over metaphorical cliffs. As with Wallenda, it’s great theater, until it kills somebody.
We saw ample evidence of this last week with a pointless romp through brinksmanship politics over legislation to provide a two month extension of the federal payroll tax holiday, continued unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless and aversion of a cut in Medicare reimbursements.
By all accounts, Republican members of the House blinked. They needed to. Many is the time for dug in heels, held breath and dogged intransigence. This wasn’t one of them.
At the heart of this Sisyphean debate, rival ideologies clashed as to how an initiative such as the one detailed above could be funded. On one side, Republicans hope to slash entitlements and other spending. In contrast, the Democrats would raise taxes on the wealthy. This same argument both poisoned the “supercommittee” on deficit reduction this fall and fueled last summer’s fractious debate about the debt ceiling.
Following a familiar pattern as Congress made its desultory way through a succession of crises last summer, each side appeared to believe it could make the other cave, as deadlines loomed and public sentiment grew less tolerant.
The direct beneficiary of rising public ire is none other than their central foe: Obama. The White House contends Obama has gained political ground during the protracted scuffle. Accordingly, the president has attempted to sell himself as the true advocate for the middle class. His rising poll numbers suggest the gambit has (in some measure) paid off for him.
Two recent polls list his approval ratings in the upper 40s, their highest level since last summer. At the same time, public opinion of Congress has continued to plummet. Some Republicans have conceded as much. In an interview with CNN, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said the reality is that the payroll tax cut must be extended to help Americans still struggling in the economic recovery, “It is harming the Republican Party… It is harming the view, if it’s possible any more, of the American people about Congress.”
Despite this slide, Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH) remained firm. As Boehner stated on the House floor, “Who doesn’t believe that if we don’t do this now that when we get to February 28th, guess where we’ll be? We’ll be right here doing the same thing that we are doing right now.”
The White House saw things quite differently. During a recent press conference, Obama stated what he believed to be the Republicans’ central motivation, “What they’re [Republicans] really holding out for is to wring concessions from Democrats on issues that have nothing to do with the payroll tax cut.”
Given that the Keystone Pipeline project from Canada was recurrently slid into these discussions, Obama may be on to something. Frankly, it’s hard to make a strong connection between tax breaks, unemployment benefits, Medicare reimbursements and a controversial pipeline.
In this light, it’s hard to take the failed Republican strategy as much more than opportune wrangling. While the Speaker did deign to preside over the coup de grace himself, little humility was evident in the concession. As reported by CNN, Rep Steve Cohen (D-TN) approached the Speaker in the aftermath and reached out to shake his hand. “You’re a good man — I feel for you,” Cohen said to Boehner. Boehner shook his hand, then turned and kept walking — doubtless in search of another high wire.