Monday, July 11, 2011

Deconstructing debt ceiling rope-a-dope
on Capitol Hill

In at least one of the Japanese samurai films — was it “Seven Samurai”? —there’s a scene in which two warriors are going at it in full combat, sword blades flashing dramatically, for many long moments. Then one of the fighters swings his sword toward his opponent, apparently just missing him by scant inches. Apparently. After a moment of stillness, the other samurai stares ahead in surprise and drops his sword … a split second before his torso and his lower extremities reveal how they’ve been not so amicably separated.

To hear Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC explain it tonight on his “The Last Word” program, that’s just what’s happening in the caged match between President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and their Tea Party Republican associates over the federal debt ceiling. O’Donnell’s step-by-step explanation of the negotiations seem to reveal the president as a master of the transactional kung fu according to Capitol Hill — even as they show O’Donnell to be a ninja of explanation.

I’ve had my issues with Lawrence O’Donnell. There’s no question he’s a consummate Washington insider, one who knows where the bodies of legislation are buried, partly because (as part of the Senate Finance Committee staff that helped write tax legislation during President Clinton’s first term) he helped create some of them. And there’s absolutely no question where his heart’s at; in his analyses on “The Last Word” and in his promo spots fore MSNBC, O’Donnell wears his liberalism proudly and he doesn’t back down.

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That said, his on-camera delivery on MSNBC often leaves a lot to be desired. He speaks in a style that’s tirelessly didactic; his pauses for significance are painfully transparent, with O’Donnell straining to impart an importance that sounds as if it tries ... to be more important ... than perhaps ... it is. Sometimes you feel like you’re being lectured to, trapped in some college survey course you can’t get out of.

You may not like his way about the camera, you may not agree with O’Donnell’s analysis, but on Monday night you had to admire its thoroughness, the way he procedurally lays out the arc of the debt-ceiling debate and the ways in which Obama has, to this point at least, played the Republicans like a violin, performed a rope-a-dope Ali would be proud of.

The endgame over the debt ceiling is getting closer, even though the specifics of the outcome are still in doubt. But if it plays out like this insider’s insider thinks it will, the president will win a much-needed victory over a Republican House determined to destroy him; that president will show the public who the real obstructionists in the debate have been … and one commentator on a major cable television network will get bragging rights of his own, the kind a journalist loves: the right to say I Told You So.

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