President Barack Obama acknowledges House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio...

President Barack Obama acknowledges House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio while speaking to reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. (Nov. 16, 2012) Credit: AP

Maybe the tea party folks were right about the corrupting influences of Washington. Two years after the tea party radicals hit their high point with a wave of midterm House elections, Republicans are pointing fingers at one another and bickering so much that it is hard to tell them from Democrats.

The big fight of the hour is over how best to deal with the self-made crisis known as the "fiscal cliff." Or is it, as some call it, a "fiscal bluff?" Both sides know what they need to do, but, since all of the options will bring pain, each side drags its heels in a very Washington-style way before they do it.

"Fiscal cliff" is popular shorthand for the term used to describe the end of the year. That's when President George W. Bush's tax cuts expire and the Budget Control Act of 2011 goes into effect, bringing a long list of automatic cuts to defense and social spending policies and programs as major provisions of President Barack Obama's health care program also go into effect.

Some experts like Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who popularized the "fiscal cliff" term, fear a possible recession if we go over the cliff. Wall Street does get nervous about any sort of uncertainty.

But some other experts call it more of a slope, noting that the full negative impact wouldn't set in for days or weeks -- plenty of time for reason to set in, one hopes. Either way, some Wall Street investors already are covering their bets by hoarding cash to take advantage of possible bargains ahead.

Smart move. Congress as a rule never makes a hard decision until it has a looming crisis to use as an excuse -- and this cliff gives a built-in negotiating advantage to President Obama.

Just think: What happens if we go over the cliff? Among more than 1,000 expected automatic cuts, those that have gotten the most attention would end the Bush tax cuts and cut deep into defense spending. Both moves would upset Republicans more than they would trouble Democrats.

These and other big bites to tax breaks and social services are more likely to be blamed on Republicans than on Democrats, judging by recent polls. A similar public reaction favored President Bill Clinton in his standoff with House Speaker Newt Gingrich through two back-to-back government shutdowns in the 1990s.

Current Speaker John Boehner, who was part of the Gingrich team, shows no appetite for going over the brink again. Nor does President Obama want to launch his second term with another recession.

But the biggest headache for both men is the hard-core Republican right wing who don't seem to realize, even after they lost seats in both houses and saw Obama handily reelected, that their side is losing. Boehner seemed to send that signal when he purged four conservatives from their prime committee posts who had opposed his attempt to strike a budget deal with Obama last year.

The Grand Old Party is divided between the pragmatic establishment lawmakers and the hardliners who appear to be suffering various stages of AODD -- Anti-Obama Delusional Disorder.

The pragmatists can plainly see that Obama has the edge in this confrontation. They want to cut a quick deal on tax rates, conceding to Obama's demands for an end to the Bush tax cuts on upper income earners, so they can press for a bigger victory on entitlements.

The AODD crowd is standing their ground with muskets drawn and torches held high to resist any concession on tax rates, even as the clock ticks down to the cliff and an end to the Bush tax cuts on upper- and middle-income earners alike.

All of which reminds me of George Santayana's definition of a "zealot" that former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles fiscal responsibility commission, brings up when discussing tax fighter Grover Norquist: "One who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim." I don't want to see our government go over the fiscal cliff, but that may be what it takes to show the tax-fighting zealots that most Americans aren't ready or eager to go over the brink with them.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune.