07/25/2011 03:07 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2011

A Failure of Imagination

Barbara Tuchman, in her book, The Guns of August, records a conversation between two former World War I adversaries. One asked the other why the disaster happened. The other replied, "Ah, if one only knew."

History is replete with disasters that could not be imagined. Neither side thought that the American Civil War would be long nor imagined the carnage. Despite the killing power of the weapons used in that civil war as well as the Franco Prussian War of 1871, none of the political or military leaders of the Allies or Central Powers could imagine the scale of horrors of the impending war. Nor, once such a high initial price had been paid, could they imagine stopping until victory was achieved.

So when President Obama asserts that he is certain that Congress will raise the debt ceiling because he cannot imagine that Congress will let the nation default, I get worried. When others echo this "I cannot imagine that happening" mantra, I get downright scared.

Can you imagine this Congress failing to do a simple reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) when the result is a cost of $200 million a month to the Treasury and the loss of thousands of jobs and the stopping of airport construction projects at the height of the building season? Well, you don't have to imagine it. It happened last Friday.

Can you imagine one House of Congress not passing a budget for two years? Think the current Senate. Can you imagine one House of Congress passing a budget that increases the odds of a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States? Think the current House of Representatives. Can you imagine that a solid block of one party is convinced that a default on the debt does not matter and a balanced budget can be achieved with spending cuts only? Think the Tea Party wing of the GOP. Can you imagine a large group of Congressional members believe spending can be controlled without touching entitlements? Think the liberal left of the Democratic Party. These are the electoral ground troops of each party and they are mobilized for battle.

Think of this. We are within a week of an event that could plunge the nation and the world into a new economic crisis, perhaps a depression. And no one in the leadership of either party seems to be able to imagine not getting there. Nor can they imagine accepting the positions of the other party. All of the fumbled negotiating to this point has only produced more entrenched positions, less trust and narrowing options. In fact, imagine that there is no compromise that can pass both the House and the Senate.

A century after WWI we may be facing another period of a deficit in imagination. Maybe the failure to increase the debt ceiling will be a non-event like Y2K. Or maybe Washington will come to its senses and it will be a short minor hiccup. Maybe. But what if it is 1914 and the troops are mobilized and the armies are marching on those assumptions, and they are wrong. Imagine that.