There should be a buffer between MSNBC’s Bashir Live and Hardball. Maybe a half-hour of band saws cutting metal, to help the ears prepare for Chris Matthews discussing the ongoing budget negotiations as if they were merely political sport. (More)

Every MSNBC host has a niche, and Martin Bashir’s gentle voice and dry wit offer a change of pace from the usual fast-paced chatter. Al Sharpton brings both warmth and righteous outrage. Ed Schultz speaks the language of working class anger with the timbre of that guy at the end of the bar who has an opinion on every topic. Rachel Maddow provides the brilliant analysis you would expect from a Rhodes Scholar, leavened by sparkles of snarky humor.

How many of ‘Them’ see it:

And then there’s Chris Matthews, the former political operator who – for better and for worse – gives us an Inside the Beltway perspective on politics as sport:

Note the frames he uses: which political actors and parties stand to win or lose from resolving the ongoing budget negotiations, and whether a recession if no deal can be found would mar President Obama’s legacy. Toting up points on the scoreboard.

I understand Matthews’ schtick: this is how the Players see the issues. But while I’m sure many political leaders see things through that lens, I hope not all of them do. I’d like to think that at least some of them realize this isn’t just a game.

How I see it:

I don’t like the term “fiscal cliff,” but I basically agree with George Lakoff’s explanation of why that metaphor stuck. It is, like most political challenges, a complex problem with lots of moving parts. The Bush tax cuts, extended for two years in December 2010, expire at on December 31. So do other elements of the budget deal President Obama negotiated in that package, including extended unemployment insurance benefits, the payroll tax cut, expansion of credits for Obamacare, the Alternative Minimum Tax patch, and the Medicare “doc fix.” The mandatory budget cuts in the August 2011 debt ceiling deal – intended to force both parties to reach some other agreement in the failed “supercommittee” – also kick in on January 1st.

The total of those provisions would be, as the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog FAQ summarized it in a single sentence:

Much too much austerity, much too quickly.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that their net effect would bring the slowly strengthening economic recovery to an immediate halt, if not plunge us back into recession. But mere projections of Gross Domestic Product changes miss the point. Billionaires and big corporations won’t notice any change, nor likely most of those who blithely call for us to “jump off the cliff.”

But I worry about hardworking families who don’t have parachutes. An estimated two million people stand to lose their unemployment benefits on January 1st. Millions more will see their tax rates rise and some deductions and credits shrink. For many, that may be the difference between paying and missing the rent, or scrimping even more on groceries, or putting both off for a trip to the doctor.

It’s easy to shrug off that human suffering as being “better than a generation of buffered decline where the U.S. guts its private wealth to pay its public sector to provide an illusion of prosperity” when the pain won’t hit you or those in your circle. Such comments remind me of gun industry supporters who shrug off the deaths of others’ children as the price of their freedom.

Where we stand:

Although President Obama returned from Hawaii yesterday to get back to work on the budget negotiations, he has no House Republican with whom to negotiate. Speaker John Boehner punted the problem to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, perhaps hoping Senate Budget Committee Chair Kent Conrad will hold out for a bill that splits the difference between President Obama’s and Speaker Boehner’s last proposals. Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias argues that Speaker Boehner intends to use the Senate bill as the baseline for negotiations with House Republicans.

By that strategy, if President Obama asked for four and Speaker Boehner asked for zero, the Senate bill would split the difference at two … and House Republicans would then demand the difference be split again … to one.

Writing for The Hill, Rick Manning of the right-wing Americans for Limited Government pleads for Speaker Boehner to “be the Speaker” and demand a deal on his terms, concluding:

So, Speaker Boehner, be of good cheer. You actually hold the cards, if you are only willing to play them.

But there are no ‘cards.’ This isn’t a mere game. This is a serious challenge, with hardworking families facing serious hardship. President Obama seems to understand that, perhaps more than any other voice in the “fiscal cliff” din. That’s why he has tried to negotiate a deal, and why he cut short his holiday vacation to get back to work on the problem.

If only the Inside the Beltway heads would realize that. We don’t need Players. We need Leaders.

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Happy Thursday!