The United States needs an "adult conversation" about its debt problem, but such a conversation requires an honest acknowledgment of the facts. And if the U.S. federal government shuts down at midnight tonight, it will be in large part because Americans have been poorly served by their political parties: one doesn't see the urgency of tackling debt, and the other refuses to see the unacceptable cost of its radical solution.
Yes, bickering between the Democrats and Republicans would be the most obvious cause of the shutdown, in which many of the government's core functions cease and hundreds of thousands of federal workers go without paycheques. They arise from bad policies, coming from the weaknesses of the parties themselves.
The Tea Party has, by invitation and force of its numbers, taken over large swaths of the Republican Party. The movement found its energy out of pure opposition to the character and ideas of Barack Obama, and to the very notion of government spending. But on fiscal issues, it and the Republicans generally outsourced their thinking. Representative Paul Ryan jumped in, and his plan would eliminate the deficit by 2015. But only by destroying that thin fabric that constitutes the American social safety net - especially Medicare, Medicaid and "ObamaCare," the President's farsighted health-reform effort, which in sum would be cancelled or radically reduced.
But Mr. Obama also fails the tests of both policy and politics. The deficit never gets to balance in his budget plan, not in five years, not in 10 years. Even with his cost-saving proposals, interest-on-debt payments would soar, reaching $844-billion, or 15 per cent of total spending, by 2021. Since the passage of his health-care reform legislation, he has been a timid leader. In particular, he ceded an opportunity to lead on fiscal matters, by failing to act when the Democrats had majorities in both houses of Congress to reverse unaffordable George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy - a policy that is costing the U.S. Treasury hundreds of billions of dollars.
There is a solution available: In December, a bipartisan commission proposed a deficit-fighting plan the spread the pain around, while preserving essential social programs. Instead of adopting that approach, or the unappetizing proposals of Mr. Ryan or Mr. Obama, Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders will likely muddle their way to a deal. And the debt clock will keep ticking.