Suddenly the headlines are filled with talk of an impending "fiscal cliff," a series of tax and budget changes which the news pages say is an impending catastrophe and which the editorial pages are urging Washington lawmakers to prevent.
How would they do that? Why, with the same "Grand Bargain" we keep hearing about, an economically destructive plan in which Democrats betray their principles by imposing benefit cuts to Social Security and Medicare in return for the Republicans' grand concession of raising taxes on -- you.
It's a nearly surreal situation: Democrats acting like Republicans, and Republicans acting like Visigoths about to sack every city on the continent. All this surreality raises all sorts of Zen-like questions.
The bottom line is that there has been a determined, 30-year strategy to co-opt leading Democrats into agreements that would undo or downsize their party's signature achievements while convincing the public that these highly unpopular moves were unavoidable or that the alternative would have been worse.
That's where the "fiscal cliff" comes in.
A lot of Democrats in the White House, on Capitol Hill, and elsewhere have been pushing a package of spending and tax cuts for a long time. The current codename for that package is "Simpson Bowles," but it was being developed long before those two gentlemen failed to guide their Deficit Commission to an agreement and packaged it under their own names instead.
If you're a Washington power player, what's not to like about this kind of deal? Republicans would get 90 percent of what they want, and would score yet another massive rhetorical victory against the idea that government serves a useful social purpose -- something Democrats have been decidedly reluctant to defend lately.
Democrats would be able to pursue wealthy campaign contributors and foundation owners (like billionaire Pete Peterson), and would get another talking point for their misguided argument that voters want them to "do something," even if the "something" in question hurts voters.
A deal like that has got something for everybody -- everybody, that is, except you.
Schools, roads, bridges and other infrastructure would suffer. There would be fewer police, firefighters, and teachers. It would become harder and harder to find Medicare providers. And the economy would contract, leaving us all worse off -- all, that is, except for the extremely wealthy.
How do you pass a program like that? First, create a plausible outside threat. That's the "Fiscal cliff." Second, convince yourselves and your progressive supporters that this is a masterful political strategy. That's the "long game."
It's too bad that neither the "fiscal cliff" nor the "long game" actually exist.
The "fiscal cliff" is the Washington term some clever polemicist dreamed up to denote what happens at the end of 2012: That's when the Bush Tax cuts expire. And unless Congress votes otherwise, that's when the "automatic" across-the-board spending cuts passed during last year's debt ceiling crisis are supposed to take effect.