07/13/2011 08:23 pm ET | Updated Sep 12, 2011

Can the Center Hold?

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,


The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

With those words, the poet William Butler Yeats described the grim landscape of Europe as WWI came to an end. And surely, however big America's current problems may appear, they have no semblance to what faced Yeats' Europe. But in Washington this week it was hard to escape the conviction that the Tea Party faction that currently holds the Republican party in thrall is almost eager for the kind of apocalyptic outcome that Yeats feared. A senior Democratic committee chair said to me, "You know, the president may just have to invoke the Constitution and keep the government running without a bill to raise the debt ceiling." Others simply commented that House Speaker John Boehner is totally dominated by his rival, Virginia's Eric Cantor, and that Cantor wants a crisis so he can seize the Speakership from Boehner.

The Senate Republicans, in a weird way, are playing their designated constitutional role of a saucer in which passions can cool. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell suggested that Congress should simply allow Obama to fund the federal government if necessary, albeit with some strings designed to maximize the political risk to the president.

But Boehner, while he personally thanked McConnell, plaintively lamented, "I don't think such a proposal could pass the House in any way, shape, or form. You have a number of members who will never vote to raise the debt ceiling and a large block of members who believe this really is the moment to put our fiscal house in order."

Tale note of that: A number of members of the House Republican Caucus (some of my sources think it's as many as 70) are committed to voting for the United States government to default on its debt and enter bankruptcy! That's what "never raising the debt ceiling" means. Newt Gingrich fanned the flames of this folly, saying that "McConnell's plan is an irresponsible surrender to big government, big deficits, and continued overspending."

Numerous freshman Republicans claimed that defaulting would be "no big deal." "I certainly think you will see some short-term volatility," said Representative Austin Scott of Georgia, the president of the freshman class. "In the end, the sun is going to come up tomorrow."

And this thirst for playing chicken blindfolded is not confined to Washington. Minnesota is suffering from the longest-running government shutdown in U.S. history. As in previous shutdowns, government services deemed "essential" have been kept operating, with the courts monitoring the decisions. But six Tea Party state senators sued, claiming that unless the legislature authorized spending, only those services specifically specified by federal law or the Minnesota constitution could continue to operate. Since the Minnesota constitution does not spell out all of the various expenses required to operate prisons or maintain the Highway Patrol, apparently these patriots want to see the jails emptied and the police furloughed. And since the courts, in the view of these senators, don't have any role in this dispute, just who will decide exactly what is required by federal law or the constitution? (Fortunately, the Minnesota Supreme Court declined to hear this suit on procedural grounds, but it will eventually reach them if the shutdown is not resolved.)

This is conservatism?

It is easy to look at the level of hyperventilating and posturing on the part of the Tea Party and conclude that once again Engels was right: History repeats itself, but the second time as farce, not tragedy. But when a large enough fraction of a nation's political leadership determines that playing at Gotterdammerung is harmless "short-term volatility," they could end up ruining an otherwise perfectly good country. We are not quite Argentina in the 1930s -- not yet. But the American Tea Party seems more and more like a version of right-wing Peronism.

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