WASHINGTON -- Are you ready for the Big Magilla of American politics? This fall, every important domestic issue could crash into every other: health care reform, autopilot budget cuts, a government shutdown, even a default on the national debt.
If I were betting, I'd wager we will somehow avoid a total meltdown. House Speaker John Boehner seems desperate to get around his party's Armageddon Caucus.
But after three years of congressional dysfunction brought on by the rise of a radicalized brand of conservatism, it's time to call the core questions:
Will our ability to govern ourselves be held perpetually hostage to an ideology that casts government as little more than dead weight in American life? And will a small minority in Congress be allowed to grind decision-making to a halt?
Congress is supposed to be the venue in which we Americans work our way past divisions that are inevitable in a large and diverse democracy. Yet for some time, Republican congressional leaders have given the most right-wing members of the House and Senate a veto power that impedes compromise, and thus governing itself.
On the few occasions when the far-right veto was lifted, Congress got things done, courtesy of a middle-ground majority that included most Democrats and the more moderately conservative Republicans. That's how Congress passed the modest tax increases on the well-off that have helped reduce the deficit as well as the Violence Against Women Act and assistance for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
All these actions had something in common: They were premised on the belief that government can take practical steps to make American life better.
This idea is dismissed by those ready to shut the government down or to use the debt ceiling as a way of forcing the repeal or delay of the Affordable Care Act and passing more draconian spending reductions. It needs to be made very clear that these radical Republicans are operating well outside their party's own constructive traditions.
Before their 2010 election victory, Republicans had never been willing to use the threat of default to achieve their goals. The GOP tried a government shutdown back in the mid-1990s, but it was a political disaster. Experienced Republicans are trying to steer their party away from the brink, the very place where politicians such as Sen. Ted Cruz and a group of fourscore or so House members want it to go.
Particularly instructive is the effort to repeal health care reform. The very fact that everyone now accepts the term "Obamacare" to refer to a measure designed to get health insurance to many more Americans is a sign of how stupidly partisan we have become. We never described Medicare as "Johnsoncare." We didn't label Social Security "FDRsecurity."
Tying the whole thing to Obama disguises the fact that most of the major provisions of the law he fought for had their origins among conservatives and Republicans.
The health care exchanges to facilitate the purchase of private insurance were based on a Heritage Foundation proposal, first brought to fruition in Massachusetts by a Republican governor named Mitt Romney. Subsidizing private premiums was always a Republican alternative to extending Medicare to cover everyone, the remedy preferred by many liberals.
Conservatives even once favored the individual mandate to buy insurance, as MSNBC columnist Tim Noah pointed out. "Many states now require passengers in automobiles to wear seatbelts for their own protection," the Heritage Foundation's Stuart Butler said back in 1989. "Many others require anybody driving a car to have liability insurance." Since all of us will use health care at some point, Butler argued reasonably, it makes sense to have us all in the insurance pool.
But that was then. The right wing's recent rejection of a significant government role in ending the scandal of "a health care system that does not even come close to being comprehensive and fails to reach far too many" -- the words were spoken 24 years ago by the late Sen. John Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican -- tells us why Congress no longer works.
The GOP has gone from endorsing market-based government solutions to problems the private sector can't solve -- i.e, Obamacare -- to believing that no solution involving expanded government can possibly be good for the country.
Ask yourself: If conservatives still believed in what both left and right once saw as a normal approach to government, would they speak so cavalierly about shutting it down or risking its credit? This is what's at stake in the Big Magilla.
E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.