WASHINGTON — My Republican father used to say that conservatism was looking for stairs to walk down rather than a window to jump out. It wasn't an original statement, but it was accurate. I wonder what he would say now.
Those were the days when one could be a moderate and conservative at the same time without fear of party reprisal, before adherence to rigid doctrine replaced a constructive approach to politics and, for that matter, good old common sense. It was a time before the virtual civil war being fought now every three months or so in this city threatened to bring down the economy and hoist us all on the petard of antisocial causes seasoned with unbending ideology.
Why, Republicans and Democrats even used to seek each other's advice now and then, perhaps over lunch and dinner or in sharing a ride home or to the office. It was an era when "loyal opposition" wasn't a phrase meaning capitulation.
The government shutdown that ended early Thursday barely averted a U.S. default. But another crisis, like the hurricanes that often plagues us, will be back in January, when we will have to deal with the prospect of closed government and possible default once again. In the meantime, estimates of the shutdown's cost have ranged as high as $24 billion.
The latest polls reveal that 74 percent of the general public — Democrats, Independents and Republicans — blame the Grand Old Party for the latest fiscal nightmare. Perhaps that will convince the party's hard noses to reassess their positions next time out, but don't count on it. The rebellious Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — backed by the now-activist Heritage Foundation and its leader, former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina — will still be around.
It is difficult to explain to those in the so-called tea party, who believe all those fiscal experts are just alarmists about the repercussions of default, that they are playing with fire, as Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said recently. Their belief that what would rise from the ashes would be better reveals an incredible ignorance about the realities of financial insolvency on a global scale.
At the risk of exaggeration, putting us back together might not be possible -- at least not with the world standing we have enjoyed since World War II.
Yet, blaming the Republicans for all of this also would be a mistake.
The catalyst for this dilemma has been the ill-advised health care reform act. Not that reforms weren't needed. But the inexperienced chief executive failed to understand that adopting any legislation without a single vote from the opposing party is not good practice. Democratic congressional leaders rammed the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act down Republicans' throats, with Barack Obama's blessing, leaving no room for possible compromise that might have scaled down the sweeping scope of the act and reassured a nervous public. The White House was utterly derelict in its leadership role in this matter, giving its generals on the Hill full rein. The result was an unpopular initiative that remains so.
This, however, is no excuse for what we can expect probably until next year's midterm elections. If the polls are correct and this long national nightmare continues, the Republicans may find themselves twisting slowly in the wind — to continue the Watergate metaphor. The tea party adherents in the House, elected as the result of anger over Obamacare, don't seem to understand there are times when the public demands statesmanship. Inflexibility against all odds and reason is a prescription for political disaster.
While a numerical advantage makes it unlikely that Republicans would lose control of the House, GOP viability in the Senate and the White House may be damaged for some time to come. More dangerous for our system is the possibility that a third party — one that splits off the moderates from the radicals -- might emerge from this turmoil.
We've heard all these dire predictions before in times of stress, but there is no ignoring the evidence of a cataclysmic reaction by Americans and the rest of the world over current lawmakers' intransigence. Should the fiscal horror that still lurks ahead become more than a specter, a political revolution might be in the offing. We might contemplate taking the stairs or jumping out the window.
Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at [email protected].