Political analysts are beginning to speak openly of the possibility that the long awaited showdown within the Republican Party may be nigh. The energy of the Tea Party has been both exhilarating and alarming for serious Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. But as the deadline to raise the debt ceiling approaches and the Tea Party wing of the Republican caucus in the House appears ready to end the republic as we know it, some of that alarm may be turning to horror.
It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt.
The more mature of the Republican leaders, who actually understand the nature of the fire being played with, have known from the beginning that the debt ceiling must be raised. They have said it again and again. Although they have strayed from time to time in order to appease their fire and brimstone colleagues on the far right, they have repeatedly acknowledged that the economic damage of a US Treasury default would be far to great to allow to happen to the nation. And under no circumstances does Mitch McConnell want to have to try to rebuild the Republican brand if it, rightly, gets blamed for stupidly causing a global economic catastrophe of epic proportions.
To their great dismay, however, dozens of the extreme right wingers swept into Congress with the Tea Party wave of 2010 either fundamentally do not understand the consequences of their actions or, worse, don't care. Also to their great dismay, these radicals have no more regard for the Republican leadership than they have for any other leaders. The Tea Party considers the old guard Republican leaders as much a part of the problem as the much hated Democrats.
That has made leading the party in any kind of cohesive way nearly impossible. During the budget showdown in the Spring, the Tea Party Republicans in the House publicly spanked John Boehner and forced him to reject a deal he had already accepted. They made him go back to the table where it was clear to everyone that he was the tail, not the dog. House Republican Whip Eric Cantor basically replayed the scenario with Boehner again two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell's proposal to save the country by placing responsibility for the really important decisions into the safe hands of the President has been received by the Tea Party with all the fanfare of fecal matter found in the punch bowl. They are standing firm that they would rather see the country crash and burn.
It is important to remember that the debt ceiling problem is not organic. This is a problem that has been created solely for the purpose of having leverage during a negotiation. It can be solved with a one line piece of legislation that says Congress is going to do what it has done some 89 times in the last hundred years -- raise the debt ceiling and live to fight another day.
And here's the thing. At the point where Mitch McConnell and John Boehner feel that they simply may not be able to hold enough of the Republican caucus together to save themselves, there is another option. They can stop appeasing and start leading.
The Tea Party element within the House is sizable enough that Republicans cannot jam something down the Democrats throat without it. But the overall Republican majority in the House is not that big. Only 25 Republicans would have to be convinced to vote with Democrats to save the economy from devastation.
The only way this would happen, of course, would be if the Republican leadership at long last was willing to stand up and say enough is enough. Lives are at stake. Governing is not a game. There is serious business that needs to be attended to, and they will not be a party to actually killing the hostage like the Tea Party wants.
They would not be out there alone in the cold if they did distanced the main body of the Party from the Tea Party. None other than Karl Rove is right there with them and would be in their corner. While more than happy to swing right to collect votes for George Bush, Rove is the one of the Bush White House people who famously referred to the far right as "the nuts." He recognizes that extremists are not going to win the Presidency and he wants Republicans to have another shot at that... sooner rather than later.
Doing this would obviously infuriate the Tea Party. It would almost certainly lead to more primary challenges of moderate Republicans. But that may not be a bad thing for moderate Republicans.
At the point that senior leadership is willing to call the Tea Party radicals out for the irresponsibility and immaturity they have shown rather than perpetually offering deference and capitulation, the Tea Party will actually lose much of its power base. If they don't force the economy into a depression, they have an opportunity to work with Democrats and the administration to actually grow the economy and create jobs.
Economic mayhem always strengthens the far right. Prosperity, however, favors moderation. We are far enough along in our economic recovery that with Democrats and moderate Republicans working together to bring back prosperity, they could actually cut the oxygen supply for the extreme right. A lot.
Issuing this smack down would be a bold move for Republicans, but it is a bold move the nation urgently needs them to take.