The Eternal Game of Chicken

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., second from left, accompanied by, from left, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., second from left, accompanied by, from left, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., gestures as he speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, following a meeting with President Barack Obama to discuss the economy and the deficit. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

It's supposed to be turkey week, but instead I'd like to talk about the eternal game of "chicken" that our elected representatives in Washington keep playing. Because now I see not just Democrats talking about why going over the "fiscal cliff" might not be such a bad idea, but it seems Republicans are considering the matter as well. Which leaves me wondering: Has everyone on the banks of the Potomac just gone stark staring crazy?

Both sides in this fight are advocating cheerfully flinging ourselves off the fiscal cliff for what is essentially the same reason -- so that their political party will gain leverage in the negotiations. With the Democrats at least it has a sort of rational logic to it, since all the "fiscal cliff" measures will take place if Congress does nothing -- therefore, Democrats think if they hold firm on their demands, then Republicans will be faced with a choice of bad or worse, knowing that the American public will likely hold them responsible either way. Republicans, on the other hand, are truly through the looking glass, and are arguing that if they wait until after the first of next year, then they'll be able to reluctantly vote for the Democrats' plan, but without breaking their pledge to Grover Norquist never to raise any taxes, ever. Because the tax rate hikes will happen automatically, they can just wait until after they happen and then vote for exactly the same result and they'll somehow still be ideologically pure.

This is flat-out insane. Or perhaps just incredibly self-serving and brutally partisan, which isn't a whole lot better. Because the world markets will react, and trust in the United States to self-govern competently will slip another big notch. In other words, there will be consequences beyond the Beltway, whether the uber-partisans want to admit it or not. But they don't seem to care -- the whole game of "chicken" is to see which side "blinks first" to avoid a perfectly avoidable catastrophe.

Lest I be accused of false equivalence, I do think that the Republican position is even more untenable than the Democratic one. Democrats, after all, just shellacked Republicans at the polls, and they feel they should have some political leverage as a direct result. Elections matter, in other words, or at least they used to. Republicans are off in a fantasy world of hair-splitting and illogic, cowering in fear of their overlord Norquist. Only in this frightful universe would voting for something a few days after you voted against the very same thing be considered in any way "different" or "more acceptable." But the Republicans still slavishly dance to Norquist's tune, so if he says "jump" they're likely going to respond with "How high?" I can't help but see Republicans as modern-day Neros, tuning up their fiddle and adjusting their music stand so they can see (by the flames raging outside).

I know that we've got a divided Congress, with one house in each party's hands. This will not change in the new year, although the Democrat position will improve slightly in both houses. But it seems we're still doomed to live through two more years much like the previous two -- lurching from self-imposed fiscal crisis to self-imposed fiscal crisis, all because nobody can manage to make any sort of long-term deal.

Our government has been reduced to hostage-taking. And the favorite hostage is "the American economy." The House Tea Partiers turned this into an art form in the current Congress, and it looks like more of the same for the foreseeable future. Frank Herbert, in his epic novel Dune, took this to the extreme, with the philosophy which states that the power to destroy a thing is the ultimate power over that thing. The Republicans have proven that they are willing to trash the American economy for political gain already. Democrats now seem willing to play this brutal game from the other side of the aisle.

This is exactly why the public is disgusted with Washington. Both parties -- both parties -- are now openly speaking of letting a crisis happen, just to increase their bargaining position. The ends, they tell us, will fully justify the means, and pay no attention to that sinking credit rating behind the curtain. Republicans, astonishingly enough, have even gamed this out to the next fiscal crisis, when Congress will have to raise the debt ceiling once again. Round and round we go, but this whirligig ride never stops; it just speeds up.

Perhaps I'm being too pessimistic. But it's hard not to be, when all of a sudden "let's kick the can six months down the road" is looking like one of the better options which are politically feasible at this time. Maybe they'll surprise us all and actually hammer out an agreement, at some time before the crystal ball drops on New Year's Eve. Maybe we'll avoid the crisis at the last minute -- I've thought all along that this was one of the more likely outcomes, actually.

But now I'm not so sure. Because we seem to be playing the suicidal game of "chicken" over and over again with America's future. For those who have never seen a movie about the bad boys of the 1950s, "chicken" is when two cars race toward each other on a deserted road. One is driving in his right lane, the other is driving in his left. Because they're headed toward each other, this puts them both in the same lane. The "game" is to see which driver will, at the last minute, yank his wheel in a desperate attempt to continue living, and swerve and avoid impact. If neither driver swerves, then you end up with a head-on collision where (pre-airbag) everybody stood a good chance of dying a gruesome death.

That's the game we seem to be playing now. Except on the edge of a cliff. And both parties are being egged on by those in the back seat whispering "the airbags will protect you -- it won't be so bad -- don't chicken out!"

Welcome to the lame duck session of Congress, in other words. Feel free to insert your own joke here at the end, about lame ducks, "chicken," and turkeys. Bonus points for using the phrase "Chris certainly is in a fowl mood today."


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