Paul Greenberg

How long is this show going to go on in Washington, and must it? They say closing time for its costars is midnight, December 31. That's when the president and the speaker of the House need to agree on the federal budget Or Else, but politicians never met a deadline they couldn't postpone, as in Can, Kick Down the Road.

This year's burlesque is turning into a melodrama (working title: Meltdown) as both sides steer the country right over the dreaded (cue scary music) Fiscal Cliff! Thelma and Louise, here we come. The Mayans couldn't have written a scarier doomsday scenario into their calendar, and this one is about as convincing.

The country is supposed to be petrified as the witching hour approaches without an agreement on the federal budget, all those reviving Bush tax cuts end, and "automatic" cuts go into place for every federal entity, including the Army and Navy. Not since the Perils of Pauline has there been such a production. And it's about as tough to take this farce seriously.

For the moment John Boehner and Barack Obama trade places before the camera as each plays his latest card in this high-stakes game of bluff, bluster and general bombast. Both rate an Oscar even if their script deserves a great big national yawn. (Some of us are old enough to have seen this show before.)

The speaker unveiled his Plan B to great fanfare. It was supposed to meet and raise the president's bid -- a demand that tax rates rise for the wealthiest Americans, which Mr. Obama defines as those making more than $200,000 a year. (Or $250,000 for couples.) This might come as news to a lot of owners of small businesses who file as individual taxpayers, but the president says they're filthy rich and deserve to be punished for it. That's the important thing, you see, not whether taxing away capital would be good or bad for a still ailing economy.

The speaker came back with his Plan B (for Bluff?) by offering to raise rates on those taxpayers who make a milliion a year. Although at last report he couldn't even get his own caucus to approve so transparent a dodge. And so this game of Texas Hold 'Em goes on as the few still watching stifle a yawn and drift away -- which would seem the most sensible response to Mr. Boehner's latest dud. Plan B's fate may stay in the headlines for a whole other 24 hours before the next counterbid arrives from the White House. If any does.

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The only sure result of actually raising taxes on millionaires, as the experience of other countries demonstrates, is that millionaires vanish. When the Brits raised the rates for the highest earners, next time Inland Revenue looked around for some, lo and behold, a lot of those British millionaires had become Belgian or Bahamian ones.

Much the same farce is being enacted in France. Its former president, Nicholas Sarkozy, predicted just what would happen in his country once Francois Hollande's socialists took over and proceeded to raise the tax rates: That country's millionaires would soon become other country's millionaires. "It could be a filmmaker, an actor, a writer, an entrepreneur," Mr. Sarkozy warned. "They will not stay!"

They didn't. Gerard Depardieu, the movie star, may be the best known of the lot to suddenly become a Belgian, but Bernard Arnault, reputed to be France's richest man, led the departing drove, applying for citizenship in La Royaume de Belgique last August. For that matter, M. Depardieu was offered a Russian passport by that noted egalitarian, Vladimir Putin. Who knew he was such a friend of the arts, or at least multi-millionaire artists?

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Meanwhile, the farce in Washington goes on. Each side is outdoing the other when it comes to propositions, publicity stunts, and other theatrics not worth paying serious attention to. Perhaps the most sensible comment offered on Plan B came from a Republican congressman from South Carolina, one Michael (Mick) Mulvaney: "I'm just tired of talking about it. I'd rather talk about golf." The games being played in Washington would make golf look like a serious intellectual endeavor.

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It's all enough to bring back memories of the Clinton administration's master stroke when the leading roles in this game were being played by a different president and speaker of the House, those two master actors Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich.

When the country was headed over that decade's Fiscal Cliff, then known as The Trainwreck, the White House explained that it just couldn't afford to keep the national monuments open in Washington under these perilous fiscal circumstances. So the myriads of tourists who'd come to the nation's capital to pay their respects to the Washington Monument or Lincoln Memorial were told that those sites were being closed down -- and they howled on cue. Just as we're now expected to.

The names of the players may change from time to time, but not the game. Over in La Belle France, the astute M. Sarkozy could see what was going on. He called this kind of politicking "mindless demagoguery," but we'd wager it's quite mindful, even premeditated. It's the kind of thing that is carefully planned and meticulously carried out by consultants and campaign managers in political war rooms across the country. The 30-second spots are readied, YouTube videos readied, and the mass data analyzed to target those most susceptible to such low appeals. They even have a category of their own in political adspeak: the Low-income, Low-information audience.

But whether it's the rich or the poor we're being urged to hate at the time by separate but equally cynical the demagogues, the motive behind their game remains the same: to enlist our class and/or racial prejudices in favor of their political goal of the moment. Whether it's to win an election or advance another suspect deal.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.