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Debt zealots threaten U.S.

At a time when the world seems off its axis, when a far-right Norwegian kills 68 kids in hopes of starting an anti-Muslim crusade, when the Taliban bombs civilians in hopes of restoring an eighth-century caliphate -- one would hope for some sanity in the United States.

We're the stable country, right? The place that much of the world (even those who resent us) once admired for its economic and political smarts? I used to feel gratitude when I returned from trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan that I lived in a country free of radical zealots. No more.

The battle over raising the debt limit makes me wonder whether we've gone off our own axis. Some members of Congress appear eager to sacrifice our economy and reputation in the name of doctrine. Secure in their righteousness, these zealots disdain compromise with the passion of jihadis.

Mercifully, this kind of zealotry doesn't involve guns. But such doctrinaire behavior wounds the country deeply in other ways.

In the past, raising the debt ceiling was a pro forma matter, no matter which party was in power. This year, Republicans insist the increase be linked to cutting the deficit.

Of course, deficits didn't used to bother Republicans. Ronald Reagan ran them up by cutting taxes. Bill Clinton disappeared them and created a huge surplus, while raising taxes. George W. Bush ran up much of our present deficit (despite Republican efforts to blame it all on Obama) via tax cuts, unfunded wars, a huge new Medicare drug benefit and two bank bailouts.

This history has been relegated to the dust bin as some Republicans seek to wound Obama no matter the harm to our economy. ("We want to get the win now," Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan told the National Review.)

But the ideologues in the tea party are the ones driving the struggle. They dream of dismantling Medicare, Social Security, and indeed the whole federal government, and view the debt limit as a handy weapon.

Tea-party leaders such as Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., insist failure to raise the debt limit won't hurt us at all. It's this doctrinaire disconnect from reality that should make Americans nervous.

The mere suggestion of default caused rating agencies to consider downgrading America's debt from Triple A; that would raise interest rates on mortgages and car loans and borrowing by small businesses, as well as on the government's future borrowing. That, in turn, would drive the deficit up, and the prospects for economic recovery down.

Indeed, this whole imbroglio has shaken global confidence that the American government knows what it's doing. As the financial writer Sebastian Mallaby told CNN: "Allies around the world would look at the United States and say, 'Their political system is so dysfunctional they can't even keep their government open, so what kind of a reliable ally can they be?' "

Leaders in Beijing, Tehran, Arab states and other capitals of unpleasant autocracies no doubt watched the debt-limit impasse with amazement and concluded that this country is a declining power. That conclusion will surely color how they react to American demands on any number of issues.

Our Tea Party Taliban doesn't use guns, but its dedication to doctrine is harming the country with the ferocity of bullets. Our prestige and influence is reeling from self-inflicted wounds.

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