There is still a slim chance that this summer's debt ceiling debate won't end with demagoguery's winning the day. That's an unusual development, yes, and something to be thankful for, however fleeting the interruption.
After all, whenever politicians moan and groan about how Washington isn't "working," or, as the president likes to say, whenever his agenda crashes against democracy, that the system is "broken," well, it's probably not. This debate, in fact, is more substantive than most. Because of a genuine ideological divide in D.C. and a partisan division of power, the president and Congress have been forced to wrestle with the brutal economic future they have done so much to hasten.
And in the process, we've seen the facade of our supposedly temperate and judicious leader fall for good.
When Barack Obama turned down a bipartisan debt ceiling deal last week, he proved himself as rigid an ideologue as anyone in the bunch. He simply can't support any piece of legislation that doesn't feature some "spread it around" component. And he can't broker a process because any policy that doesn't feature some element of punishing the rich simply isn't a "balanced" approach.
We have been spoon-fed a narrative that casts one side as the malleable and cooperative and sane and the other as the hopelessly inflexible. The president is imbued with a superhuman rational disposition. And time and time again, he has moderated his position for the common good. Look! Someone on the far left is angry with him for not having the power of a monarch. He must be a centrist! Is this not the man who shelved a single-payer government plan that MoveOn.org wanted for the more reasonable option of forcing us to participate in a government-run monopoly?
Yet in reality, an Obama "compromise" entails pulling back from the entire Daily Kos agenda -- "the middle" -- and adopting the most liberal policy position that was political feasible in a rather moderate nation. For the first two years of his presidency, the only debate he had was with his own side.
So if things stand, this will be the first genuine political victory for the economic wing of the tea party. Tax hikes are not being seriously considered in any plan on the table, as the horrified pangs of distress from the left can attest. No amount of Tim Geithner's politically motivated scare stories or the demonization of the tea party by the deeply sane wing of America's punditry is likely to undo this reality when a deal finally comes down.
We've heard since the start of the debate that some House Republicans were crazy for wanting the debt ceiling to be a debt ceiling. We've heard Democrats falsely claim that failing to hike the ceiling means the nation defaults. Never mind that the fringe position matches rather neatly with the majority of Americans, who in nearly every poll oppose raising the ceiling. These riffraff have probably taken the debt ceiling too literally. Or perhaps they haven't been sufficiently tenderized by the barrage of fear-mongering. Perhaps another prime-time speech blaming the previous president might do the trick.
Recently, Obama joked with a La Raza crowd, "The idea of doing things on my own is very tempting. I promise you, not just on immigration reform." He was joking, but when many of the crowd cheered heartily and chanted "Yes, you can," we learned a little about expectations on the left. No doubt, Obama would like things to go a lot more smoothly. But without two houses of Congress jumping off the ideological deep end with him, Washington is working a lot better than it used to. That's bad news for Obama.