US brinkmanship tips over the edge

Mark Mardell
North America editor
@BBCMarkMardellon Twitter

  • Published
President Barack Obama. 30 Sept 2013Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Republicans are strongly opposed to President Obama's healthcare plans

The ferocious Republican distaste for President Obama, and their hatred of his changes to America's healthcare system have plunged the United States into crisis.

The economy may not suffer that much, it is hard to tell, but the country's image will be hurt. "Dysfunctional" is merely polite. "Weird" is more like it.

For the past two years, the US government has staggered from one funding crisis to the next, reeling away from the cliff at the very last moment.

The heart-in-mouth, edge-of-the-seat drama was exciting if unedifying, but they managed to pull back from the brink just in time.

You wouldn't want a family or a business to behave like that, but people tend to shrug about politicians' games.

Now they have gone over the cliff. Not because of a massive miscalculation or even misstep, a stumble on some loose stones, but a bravado-fuelled game of dare that was almost bound to end this way.

As the clock ticked down to midnight the Republicans sliced down their demands. First, you may remember, they wanted Obamacare gutted, defunded.

Then it was a delay for a year. Then it was a delay to the central provision of the law forcing people to have health insurance. Finally they suggested formal negotiations with the Senate to resolve their differences.

They are determined to look like the reasonable ones, open to compromise. But they know all the while that the president and the Democrats are not going to bargain away what they regard as their proudest achievement.

So we are deep into the blame game.

The Republicans are pushing hard the line that all they were after was "fairness" - the same delays to President Obama's healthcare legislation for ordinary Americans as have already been granted to unions and big business.

President Obama drags those same ordinary Americans out and says the Republicans are hurting them to save face with extremists in their own party, who can't accept the result of the last election.

His last point strikes home. This is more than the House Republicans relentlessly pushing an advantage to wring some concessions out of the president. Their leadership looks and feels trapped. They made demands that they knew wouldn't be met rather than be accused of weakness and betrayal by their own hardliners.

It is an irony that those who most cherish the American system work to expose its gravest flaws.

There are those who would say this is the system functioning - if there is no agreement, then nothing happens, and the less government the better.

They may have a case, but governing by lurching from crisis to crisis, clutching a hostage, does not improve America's image in the eyes of the world.