In the US, a Political Showdown Over Health Care

A decade ago, in the introduction to my essay collection “The Great Unraveling,” I argued that the modern Republican party was a “revolutionary power” in the sense once defined by, of all people, Henry Kissinger — a power that no longer accepted any of the norms of politics as usual, that was willing not just to take radical positions but to act in ways that undermined the whole system of governance people thought they understood.

At the time, I got a lot of grief for being so “shrill.” The accepted thing was to criticize both sides equally, to balance each column saying mean things about Republicans with another attacking Democrats, to insist that any signs of a dysfunctional political system rested on equal degrees of intransigence on both sides.

So, now we face the imminent threat of a government shutdown and/or a government default in the United States because Republicans refuse to accept the notion that duly enacted legislation should be allowed to go into effect, and repealed only through constitutional means. Oh, and the cause for which most of the G.O.P. is willing to threaten chaos is the noble endeavor of ensuring that tens of millions of Americans continue to lack essential health care.

Hmm. Maybe I was right? Nah.

The G.O.P. craziness may now be obvious, but recognizing it too early still brands you as unreliable and partisan. It’s true that the situation has changed some from 2003. Back then the Republicans were radical but rational: In order to push through things they wanted, like tax cuts and a war on false pretenses, the Bushies exploited the unwillingness of those who espoused the conventional wisdom to recognize the new asymmetry in American politics.

These days Republican leaders are weak, apparently helpless in the face of dingbat Jacobins who imagine that sabotaging the government can get President Obama to undermine his one major achievement, the Affordable Care Act. But the key point is that we are now in insane political terrain.

Pundits dove into the Syria affair with an obvious sigh of relief — that sort of thing, with all the bloviation about presidential leadership and so on, was comfortable territory. But for America at least it was very much a side issue; the political confrontation, which now seems almost guaranteed to produce at least a few weeks of chaos, is the central thing.