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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Frontline: “Cliffhanger”

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“On the night President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address, FRONTLINE takes an in-depth look at the fiscal crisis that divides Washington and continues to threaten to take the nation to the brink of financial collapse,” says the WGBH press release for “Cliffhanger.” Not only is the documentary series taking on SOTU evening ratings, they are attempting to explain one of the most confusing yet constantly referenced concepts that drives American political debate, the fiscal cliff. I admit that I have frequently begun to research the topic, realize that while the budget crisis that created it is real, the fiscal cliff itself is essentially a fake construct, then promptly shut the newspaper/magazine/laptop before my eyes glaze over. “Cliffhanger,” attempts to handle the over-saturation issue by approaching the topic like a taut thriller along the lines of The Thomas Crowne Affair, complete with ominous music and black-and-white photos that look like they were taken by an undercover private investigator. In other words, the title is not only a play on words but a theme adopted for the entirety of the episode. Unfortunately, the tactic comes off a bit cutesy, and feels at odds with the cut-and-dried, informational tone of the actual content.

In many ways, however, Frontline does an admirable job of exploring the recent factors that led to America’s deficit instability, but the more I learned, the more it seemed they failed to provide context beyond the past few years. What does fall within the scope of this Frontline is explained with characteristic clarity, a strength that also masks the episode’s weaknesses. Mainly that the “Cliffhanger,” version of the budget narrative begins with the 2010 midterm elections and the subsequent influx of Tea Party Republicans joining government ranks. There is no explanation of 1980s tax code reform and mounting disagreement over how to deal with it that made a shift in party balance such a huge event. It is as if the trouble hit Washington out of nowhere, like a lightning bolt, on the eve of those elections, as opposed to being a growing source of concern and partisan strife over several decades.

It is true that the term ‘fiscal cliff,’ is recently coined, and refers specifically to the immediate (though apparently postponable) standoff between a Democrat presidency that wants to raise taxes and a Republican house majority who would rather avoid that at all costs in favor of cutting spending, potentially in sensitive areas like education and health care. However, the source of this tension obviously goes back further than 2010; many believe the current incarnation of partisan conflict over budget can be traced back to changes in taxation policy made during Ronald Reagan’s time. Through the 1960s and 1970s the American government was not running deficit the way it does today, but Reagan managed to completely rewrite the tax code and purge progressive income taxes, lowering taxes on the wealthiest while simultaneously increasing taxes on the poorest. Republicans at this time wanted to dismantle the social safety net, and hoped shifting the tax burden would lower government efficiency to the point where dissatisfied citizens would be moved to vote for politicians who supported that goal. So in explaining the fiscal cliff, why doesn’t “Cliffhanger” begin at the beginning, even in brief? Explaining the deep roots of our current predicament, and the partisan ideology that has evolved over time as a result, would not only provide a much better understanding of this fiscal cliff business to political neophytes like myself, it might even justify some of that Noirish tension “Cliffhanger” uses to such mixed effect.

Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform has openly acknowledged that the tax changes were made in part to encourage citizens voting for politicians who favor a smaller, less powerful federal government, with his famous quote “My goal is to cut the government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Norquist actually appears in “Cliffhanger,” in order to comment on the shenanigans of Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan, but given his involvement in the longer history of US taxation, the show missed an opportunity to have him provide some deeper insight into the partisan divide. Speaking of the guests, Frontline here presents an even better than usual parade of talking heads in “Cliffhanger,” somehow procuring the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Rahm Emanuel, and John Boehner - the kind of politicians one would expect to be commented on during the program, not providing the commentary themselves. At times, however, it feels that there were a few too many voices jumping in; in a roughly 50 minute program that features over two dozen interviews, does there really need to be several representatives from The New York Times? Perhaps the production was in need of some padding; they filled out a story that was understandably lean on arresting visuals with these interviews, archival photographs, reenactments in which faceless men in power suits traipse around fancy-looking hotels and golf greens, and random bits of B-Roll like a shot of pigeons flying in formation around a fountain near the White House. In short, the production could have benefited from some streamlining.

Three years from the fateful midterm elections that caused us to speed towards this fiscal cliff like two greasers in a game of chicken, Obama continues to believe that tax reform, rather than budget cuts, will save this nation from impending financial ruin. In the 2013 State of the Union Address, the state of our debt was the topic broached first and longest. President Obama said “To hit the rest of our deficit reduction target, we should do what leaders in both parties have already suggested and save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and the well-connected.” He also slyly referred to the “…brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors.” and “manufactured crisis,” small but frequent digs at the Republican party by trying to undermine the validity of their stance on reform. Will Obama be able to undo the decades-long partisanship in order to finally reach an agreement with the House, and will it, in fact, be the fiscal solution he proclaims it to be?

Stray observations:

If anyone is burning up with opinions about Frontline, the fiscal cliff and/or President Obama’s State of the Union Address last night, now is the time to let it out! Please share your thoughts in the Comments.