The nation's putatively conservative political party has walked away from negotiations to avert a fiscal calamity that was brought on by the refusal of the same political party to negotiate responsibly over a financial issue that affects virtually every American.
In that, the national Republican Party has all but forfeited its claim to seriousness, essentially abandoning its responsibilities to prevent a series of catastrophic tax hikes and spending cuts that would lurch the country back into recession. Instead, Republicans are leaving it to the House's minority Democrats, who now need to act swiftly.
Interestingly enough, this could actually be an advantage for Americans who care about a sensible approach to tax and spending policies, and for the Republican Party, itself. The idea is that Democrats would present a program that would appeal to enough centrist Republicans to gain a majority of votes in that chamber.
Thus, not only would Democratic tendencies be constrained by the need to draw GOP support from within the House, but also in the Senate, where Republicans promiscuously misuse the filibuster authority, requiring a 60-vote majority to pass just about anything.
That could be enough to forge a compromise among Democrats and Republicans to keep from plunging over the cliff. Without an agreement, the Bush tax cuts automatically expire on all Americans, the payroll tax cut championed by President Obama expires and $1.2 trillion in automatic spending reductions kicks in, half coming from military spending. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has already warned of the dire impact on military operations.
But the larger question is what will become of the Republican Party? Will it recover from two years of dirty dancing with the tea party to become what it once was: a plausible conservative alternative to the left-leaning Democrats? The nation needs the creative tension of two parties, each helping to check the other's excesses.
There is reason to hope. The tea party influence was weakened by November's elections in which Obama was convincingly re-elected and in which Republicans lost seats in both chambers of Congress.
This was a historically startling election. Obama won even though the economy remains weak and the nation's unemployment rate is stubbornly high. A Republican should have been able to win the White House.
But Republicans never presented themselves as a party that could be trusted to operate the levers of government in any kind of fair manner. Not only did most Americans blame the Bush administration for the continuing weakness in the economy, but they saw through the Republican obstructionism of the past four years and understood that the party was offering only the same old Kool-Aid as before.
Add to that the powerful force of fast-changing American demographics and it becomes clear that the non-evolving Republican Party is facing a mortal threat to its relevance, if not its existence.
It has been said that the Constitution is not a suicide pact – a document that must be obeyed even at the threat of the nation's security. It's a dicey concept, but if it is sometimes true regarding the Constitution, it is undeniably so about the need for political parties to pay fealty to their base.Democrats moved toward the center after losing enough elections and the nation eventually elected Bill Clinton – twice. Republicans will have to do the same if they are to retain their influence in the nation's life. The effort to avoid the fiscal cliff would be a good place to start that work – without the tea party.