To make sense of this bizarre and dispiriting moment in American politics, here are the things one needs to appreciate:
1) The debt-ceiling crisis is bogus. It was manufactured by the radical reactionaries elected to Congress under the Tea Party banner to dismantle the policies of presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. The Tea Partiers want to deny Washington the money government needs to function, so that over the years it will shrink and essentially cease to be a force in national life. The only thing bipartisan about the Tea Party is the nullification of 70 years of political life sponsored by Democrats and Republicans.
2) It became clear on the night of the 2010 national election, which saw the Tea Party voted into Congress in large numbers, that the Republican leadership would try to manipulate the Tea Party's Obama-hostile agenda with enough finesse to damage the president's ability to govern and his chance of re-election in 2012, while maintaining just enough gravitas to emerge from the conflict as the voice of reason and moderation.
3) The genius behind this strategy was the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner. So far the game has not gone according to plan. In fact, as bad as Obama looks to some, Boehner looks even worse. Obama still has plenty of room to maneuver, even if it is unclear what his end goal might be. Boehner, on the other hand, is a prisoner of the Tea Party, the Red Guard of Chairman Grover Norquist, the anti-tax ideologue who is the most powerful man in the GOP at the moment.
4) The debt ceiling is a very simple thing. It's a bill that usually is no longer than a single piece of paper. It gives the Treasury Department authorization to go to the bond market to borrow money that Congress has already approved for spending. It is not in the Constitution. It's a redundancy, like wearing suspenders with a belt to keep your pants up. Only one other Democracy, Denmark, has such a provision. Since it was invented in 1917 when federal budget controls were not as sophisticated as they now are, the debt-ceiling vote has always been a more or less routine piece of legislative housekeeping.
5) While there is no doubt that the Tea Party is the most radical thing to hit Congress since the Prohibitionists took control of Washington 100 years ago, there are serious questions about their competence: do they really know what they are doing? The Tea Party and their Republican enablers have with great success painted Obama as a wild-eyed taxer, hell-bent on spending the nation into bankruptcy. The facts show otherwise. Total indebtedness runs around $14 trillion. Over the last 10 years, $5.07 trillion was run up during the George W. Bush administration. Obama is responsible for $1.44 trillion. That means the Tea Partiers and the Republicans are either ignorant or liars. Our guess is that the Tea Partiers are indeed ignorant, and the Republicans are in fact liars.