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Originally published Friday, October 11, 2013 at 4:49 PM

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The Gang of 40 and U.S. exceptionalism

In the United States, we always do things in a grand way, so it’s a tribute to U.S. exceptionalism that we have far outperformed China in the field of extremist ideologues.


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In the 1970s, in its days of hard-line communist isolation, China was ruled by the extremist “Gang of Four.” Drivers then were sometimes encouraged to proceed at red lights because red was the revolutionary color signifying advance — resulting in a chaos that was emblematic of the times.

In the United States, we always do things in a grand way, so it’s a tribute to U.S. exceptionalism that we have far outperformed China in the field of extremist ideologues. We don’t have some pathetic little foursome, but an unrivaled “Gang of 40.”

That’s my name for the 40 hard-line Republican House members who have forced the shutdown of the federal government and are now flirting with a debt default that could spin the world into recession. In their purported effort to save America money, they’re costing us taxpayers billions of dollars.

Obviously, there are differences — our Gang of 40 disdain Mao suits — but there is a similar sense in which an entire nation is held hostage by a small group of unrepresentative figures who don’t have much of a clue about economics or about where they’re taking the country.

The Gang of 40’s government shutdown has been bad enough, cutting off death benefits to families of service members and ending federal support for rape crisis centers. It’s doubly painful that all this is happening while the House and Senate gyms remain open.

What’s most troubling about the mess is the way the extremists downplay the risks of running into the debt limit. Astonishingly, Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., says that missing the debt ceiling deadline “would bring stability to world markets.”

Or there’s Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who said that not raising the debt limit could be reframed as “a pretty reasonable idea.” Even Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., says it wouldn’t be so bad to miss the debt-limit deadline and face a “managed catastrophe.”

There’s now a right-wing echo chamber, shaped by Fox News and websites like RedState, that repeats such nonsense until it acquires a patina of plausibility — and thus makes a catastrophe more difficult to avoid. A Pew Research Center poll this month found that 54 percent of Republicans believe that the United States can miss the debt-limit deadline without major problems.

What makes our trajectory dangerous is that the hard-liners are getting positive feedback. The most reliable Republican voters are about twice as likely to say that congressional Republicans have compromised too much as to say that they haven’t compromised enough.

Hang on to your hat. We may be in for a wild ride.

I’ve often been curious about the wretched political leadership in America in the 1840s and 1850s in the run-up to the Civil War: How could U.S. politicians have been so stubborn as they inched toward cataclysm? Watching today’s obstreperousness, I’m gaining a better insight.

Two features strike me about this moment — and both are echoes of the mistakes before the Civil War. One is the obliviousness of central players, especially the Gang of 40, to the risks ahead.

The second is the way politicians seek leverage by brazenly threatening deliberate harm to the nation unless they get their way. The House Republican hard-liners lost their battle against Obamacare in the democratic process, just as President Barack Obama lost his battle for an assault-weapons ban. But instead of accepting their loss, as Obama did, members of the Gang of 40 took hostages. Unless Obamacare is defunded, they’ll cause billions of dollars in damage to the U.S. economy.

The GOP claims to be the party particularly concerned by budget deficits. Yet its tantrum caused a government shutdown that cost the country $1.6 billion last week alone.

As for the debt limit, the costs of missing that deadline could be infinitely greater. Already, interest rates are spiking for one-month Treasury bills to their highest levels since the 2008 financial crisis.

The Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank, calculates that the 2011 debt-ceiling confrontation will, over a decade, cost U.S. taxpayers an extra $18.9 billion.

And that was the price tag for a crisis in which the debt-limit deadline was eventually met. If this deadline is missed, the costs in higher interest rates in the years ahead will be billions more.

Members of the Gang of 40 are unwilling to pay for early childhood education, but they’re OK with paying untold billions for a government shutdown and debt-limit crisis? That’s not governance, but extremism.

© , New York Times News Service

Nicholas D. Kristof is a regular columnist for The New York Times.




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