As some in Congress groped for a way to avert economic Armaggedon, House Republicans continued to chase their mirage -- the repeal or defunding of "Obamacare" -- at the expense of the nation's much more serious problems.
This blatantly partisan attempt to bury President Barack Obama's singular legislative achievement has now wasted a year or more of time. The Party of Lincoln could have, and should have, devoted itself to addressing the critical national task of putting the jobless back to work.
The Republicans' laser-like focus on killing Obamacare was doomed from the start. Lawfully enacted and confirmed, if surprisingly, by a Republican-dominated Supreme Court, the law did not show well in public opinion polls, a fact peddled endlessly by conservative radio and television talk-show personalities. But through it all, President Obama has had the final say over any repeal legislation with the stroke of his veto pen.
Republicans should have been more clear-eyed about the misguided road on which they embarked. They gulped the Kool-Aid in their failed 2012 bid to win the White House behind the hapless Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor -- who had pushed through his state legislature a law upon which Obamacare was modeled -- was a weak voice for killing it in that election.
Nevertheless, party diehards, with tea party components leading the repeal-and-replace brigade, convinced themselves that squashing Obamacare was still an ace they could play all the following year. They stayed on that treadmill even as unemployment continued to plague the stalled economy, as the likes of Michele Bachmann and freshman Sen. Ted Cruz kept seeking their holy grail of an America without Obamacare.
In a colossal political miscalculation, they bet on public zeal for getting rid of the health care law, overplaying their hand against the newly re-elected president, who insisted on paying the nation's legitimate bills. For once, Mr. Obama decided to stare the Republicans down. He did so either believing he held the higher cards or realizing that his own credibility in the Democratic Party required a stiffer presidential backbone.
The ensuing conflict pitted the Republican conviction that Obamacare was the be-all of the public's concern against the prospect of economic chaos wrought by the U.S. government's default on its fiscal obligations. The mismatch led to a deep plunge of GOP favorability.
Although Mr. Obama's own favorability also took a hit, the Republicans caught most of the blame for the fiasco, and most of them came around to realizing it. With the House Republicans and Speaker John Boehner held hostage by their tea party contingent, the foolhardy attempt to similarly hold Mr. Obama hostage over defunding Obamacare in the government shutdown crumbled.
Intercession of moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins, followed by grown-ups of both parties in the Senate, moved the confrontation toward a resolution. Their efforts shifted the engagement from the no-man's-land of the House to the Senate, even as Senator Cruz tried to assume leadership of the anti-Obama forces in the House. It was a particularly boneheaded caper, considering traditional House-Senate mutual discord.
In all this, President Obama allowed the drama play out on Capitol Hill. Any resolution reopening the government with no material concessions on Obamacare, and at least a temporary continuation of the nation's ability to borrow to pay its ongoing bills, would validate his firm stand. At the same time, permitting a fig leaf or two on minor points to assuage Republican disappointment would cast him as reasonable in this whole deplorable episode. In the end, the fig leaves offered by the deal negotiated in the Senate were exceedingly minor.
Many critics denegrate such a deal as kicking the can down the road, which certainly would be a valid observation. But compared to going over this latest fiscal cliff chasing the mirage of defunding Obamacare, any resolution offered by the Senate conciliators of both parties was welcome.
The Republicans will be better served conferring among themselves on how to extricate themselves from this road to nowhere, rather than continuing to fight the war they lost in 2012 and again has left them only reinforcing their image as the Party of No.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.