Dionne: The heartbreak of Washington extremism
Seeing our government and our creditworthiness held hostage to the demands of a right-wing minority is infuriating. It's also heartbreaking.
It's heartbreaking because the only thing keeping our country from being its growing, innovative and successful self is genuinely and unnecessarily stupid politics.
The United States emerged from a horrific global recession in better shape than most other countries. Our recovery was slower than it had to be because of too much budget-cutting, too soon. Nonetheless, we avoided the more extreme forms of austerity and our economy has been coming back -- at least until this made-in-the-House-Republican-Caucus crisis started.
It's heartbreaking because a nation whose triumphs have always provided inspiration to proponents of democracy around the world is instead giving the champions of authoritarian rule a chance to use our dysfunction as an argument against democracy.
Does it really make House Speaker John Boehner proud that when the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank host global economic leaders on Thursday, one of their central pieces of business will be scolding the United States for using the debt limit as a political football?
It's heartbreaking because the reward to President Barack Obama for pursuing broadly middle-of-the-road policies is to be accused of being an ultra-liberal or, even more preposterously, a socialist. Are our right-wing multimillionaires and billionaires who are making more money than ever so unhinged that they can cast a modest tax hike as a large step toward a Soviet-style economy?
The most revealing example of the lunacy that now rules is the very health care plan that has Republicans so up in arms that they're willing to wreck the economy to get it repealed. The Affordable Care Act is actually based on market principles that conservatives, including Mitt Romney and the Heritage Foundation, once endorsed. Its centerpiece promotes competition among insurers and subsidizes the purchase of private insurance.
It has little in common with the British National Health Service or the Canadian single-payer model -- systems that work, by the way -- except for sharing with them the goal of eventually covering everyone. Yet we have a shutdown driven by the idea, as Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., put it, that Obamacare constitutes the "greatest threat" to our economy. It should not surprise us when errant nonsense creates a nonsensical crisis.
And what's going on is heartbreaking because this contrived emergency is distracting us from the problems we do need to solve, including rising inequality, declining mobility, under-investment in our infrastructure, a broken immigration system and inadequate approaches to educating and training our people.
Obama has finally decided he's had enough of a politics based on "extortion" and "threats." He has signaled that he is happy to negotiate, just not under a gun held by the most irresponsible elements of the GOP. He is exhausted, and rightly so, by the fecklessness of Boehner, who told Democrats early on that he would not shut the government down and then crumpled before a revolt by a corporal's guard of 40 to 80 members of a 435-member House.
Now it is said by people who see themselves as realists that because he is dealing with irrational foes, Obama has to be the "adult in the room." The definition of "adult" in this case is that he must cave a little because the other side is so bonkers that it just might upend the economy.
Giving in is exactly what Obama cannot do. The president offered Boehner a face-saving way out on Tuesday by suggesting he'd be happy to engage in broad budget talks if the government reopened and there was at least a short-term increase in the debt limit. To go any further would be to prove to the far right that its extra-constitutional extremism will pay dividends every time.
What's required from the outside forces who want this mess to go away is unrelenting pressure on Boehner and the supposedly more reasonable Republicans who say they want to open the government and pay our debts. Up to now these Republicans have been the enablers of the tea party faction. They're the ones who must become the "adults in the room" because they're the ones who allowed all this to happen.
The tea party folks at least know what they believe and fight for it. The rest of the Republican Party cowers before them, lacking both conviction and courage. It would be truly heartbreaking if a once great political party brought the country down because its leaders were so afraid of confronting unreason in their ranks.
Write to Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.