The Joys of Fanaticism

In a just world, Speaker John Boehner's failure to get the votes for a Republican debt-ceiling plan that is already doomed to certain Senate defeat should put pressure on Republicans to compromise. But that doesn't seem likely. Boehner may yet find the votes for an even more conservative (and doomed) measure, and in any case, the House Republicans are as recalcitrant as ever on holding the economy hostage.

Boehner may lose some personal prestige over the affair; he could even lose his job. Yet the broader Republican strategy of playing chicken with the economy seems to be having its intended effect of weakening President Obama. According to the most recent Pew poll, Obama now polls only one point ahead of a generic Republican challenger, down from the 11-point lead he had in May.

Pew reports that "this shift is driven by a steep drop-off in support for Obama among independents." Among independents, 31 percent of those polled said they'd vote for Obama, down from 42 percent in May, and 54 percent now disapprove of Obama's job performance.

This slide has to be a devastating verdict on Obama's failed strategy of giving Republicans most of what they want and imploring them to compromise, rather than exercising real leadership.

The Commerce Department's preliminary report of economic growth for the first six months of 2011 shows just how weak the underlying economy is: The U.S. economy slowed sharply, growing only 1.3 percent. You would think that this reality might jolt some Republicans back to reality or jolt the president into recognition of the need for stronger leadership. But don't hold your breath. Republican true believers will only interpret these numbers as proof of the need for stronger lethal medicine and political intransigence.

The events of this month suggest that we are living through a momentous and needless catastrophe in the making. With the economy already very fragile, the Republicans are willing to push it off a cliff, and a weak Democratic president seems unable or unwilling to stop them.

As I've suggested in an earlier piece, what comes to mind is World War I, with the mutual miscalculations and bluffing games that led to a calamitous war that nobody wanted.

It is also truly chilling to watch one of America's two parties increasingly dwell in a parallel universe, where facts don't matter, and a kind of carnival atmosphere of let-it-burn prevails.

If America really does default on its debt, historians will look back on this episode as one of history's great failures of politics. Even if default is averted, the underlying policy of austerity being embraced by both parties will needlessly deepen and prolong the economy's weak condition.

One can only hope that Obama will awaken from his prolonged delusion that it's smart politics to keep trying to appease today's Republican Party or that a mass progressive movement emerges to change the underlying political equation.

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