By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON — Some of us can recall the helpless feeling of being in a vehicle driven by someone who is intoxicated. If you’re like me, you don’t want to cause a scene unless the driving is really erratic. But there comes a moment when you need to say: Stop the car. You’re going to hurt someone. Hand over the keys.
We have a political system that is the equivalent of a drunk driver. The primary culprits are the House Republicans. They are so intoxicated with their own ideology that they are ready to drive the nation’s car off the road. I don’t know if the sequestration that’s set to begin Friday will produce a little crisis or a big one; the sad fact is that the Republicans don’t know either, yet they’re still willing to put the country at risk to make a political point.
I’m no fan of the way President Obama has handled the fiscal crisis. As I’ve written often, he needs to provide the presidential leadership that leads Congress and the country toward fiscal stability. In my analogy, he should take the steering wheel firmly in hand and drive the car toward the destination where most road maps show we need to be heading — namely, a balanced program of cuts in Social Security and Medicare and modest increases in revenue.
Instead, Obama has chosen to be co-dependent, as the psychologists say about those who foster the destructive behavior of others. He double-dared the reckless Republicans by proposing the sequester back in 2011. And rather than stepping up to leadership since his re-election, he has triple-dared the GOP hotheads with a partisan inaugural address and weeks of what the Republicans rightly have called a “road show” of blame-game politics. Doesn’t he see that the GOP is addicted to this showdown at Thunder Road? This is all the power the GOP has these days, really — the ability to scare the heck out of everybody and run the car into the ditch.
Much as I would criticize Obama, it’s wrong to say that both sides are equally to blame for what’s about to hit us. This isn’t a one-off case of the Republicans using Obama’s sequestration legislation to force reckless budget cuts. It’s a pattern of behavior: First the Republicans were prepared to shut down the government and damage the national credit rating with their showdown over the debt ceiling; then they were careening toward the “fiscal cliff.” This isn’t a legislative tactic anymore, it’s an addiction.
Where did this recklessness come from? Only a few years ago, George W. Bush was the compassionate conservative and John McCain won the GOP nomination as the Republican who knew how to govern across party lines. What happened to that Republican Party? Today’s Republicans seem to suffer from what’s sometimes known as Obama Derangement Syndrome, in which their hatred of the president blinds them to the country’s interests. To be honest, this malady is eerily similar to the Bush Derangement Syndrome that afflicted Democrats during the previous decade. The Democrats were so incensed back then they stopped caring if America succeeded or failed in Iraq; the Republicans are so angry now that they don’t care if the economy goes to hell.
So how can we get these incapacitated drivers to stop before they do any more damage? If this were really a case of chronic drinkers, the answer would be an intervention to keep them off the road. In politics, the public gets to intervene through elections. We just had one, and the Republicans lost, big time. Yet it didn’t seem to make much difference. The House Republicans are still grabbing for the wheel and the car is rumbling toward trouble.
Obama tries everything to gain control — except a clear, firm presidential statement that speaks to everyone on board, those who voted for him and those who didn’t — that could get the country where it needs to go.
The weird thing is that, politics aside, there is every reason to be optimistic about America’s future. The country’s financial markets are resilient; the housing slump finally seems to be ending; a new era of low-cost shale oil and gas is beginning and, as a result, the U.S. is becoming a competitive manufacturing economy again.
There’s one ruinously dysfunctional part of the American story, and that’s the breakdown of our political system. It’s time for an intervention, to take the keys away.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.