Hours before the negotiations on the debt limit between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner collapsed, political reporters received a missive from Mitt Romney's presidential campaign that served as a reminder of how irrelevant this kerfuffle might feel next year.
The headline read, "Romney for President Launches New Web Video: Obama Isn't Working: Where are the Jobs?"
The video spoke to the difficulties that new college graduates are having finding work in a brutal job market. This bit of campaign propaganda went straight at the core of Obama's political base -- young Americans who volunteered for him by the tens of thousands in 2008 and powered him to victory in state after state. If joblessness disillusions enough of them, the president will be in trouble.
Romney's exercise was a passing bit of politics unlikely to make many waves in an environment obsessed with debt and fears of default. But it was hugely instructive.
The Romney message was more in touch with what voters are worried about than the spectacular show of dysfunction Washington politicians are putting on. Consider a Gallup poll released last week. Asked what was the most important problem facing the country, 31 percent of Americans said the economy and an additional 27 percent specifically said unemployment and jobs, for a total of 58 percent. Only 16 percent listed the deficit or the debt.
While the president was snared in a trap set by the Republicans over the debt ceiling, Romney was out there campaigning on the electorate's animating issue. It's a nice division of labor for the GOP. Obama is caught up in the Tea Party's priorities. Romney isn't. It's upside-down politics.
None of this takes away from the fact that Obama was right to be angry at the collapse of his talks with Boehner. He was entirely justified in calling out House Republicans for refusing to accept what would have been an excellent deal from their own point of view. Obama went far more than halfway to accommodate conservatives with a deal that tilted heavily toward spending cuts. As the president himself said, if the deal he offered was "unbalanced," it was unbalanced on the side of not including enough tax revenues. This would have made Obama's own supporters very unhappy.
By rejecting this way out, House Republicans have shown they simply cannot govern. When control of government is divided between two parties, each party has to give some ground. But Boehner's GOP majority includes dozens of members who don't even think that defaulting on our debt is a problem, and do believe they can eventually get what they want if they keep saying "no" to every other alternative.
This is a recipe for catastrophe, which is what we are getting perilously close to now. It is a clear demonstration that this House majority does not take its responsibilities seriously. Too many of its members seem to forget that they are no longer outsiders free to protest, and proclaim their purity. They are part of the government of the United States. The fact that they are not willing to act that way now threatens the nation's economy.
Which brings us back to Romney. To this point, he has been free to run more of a general election race than a primary campaign. He can talk about jobs while Obama is grappling with how to run a government paralyzed by the Tea Party.
But this breakdown in Washington is too big an issue for Republican primary voters to ignore. If Rick Perry, Texas's right-wing governor, enters the race as expected, he will appeal to the Tea Party rejectionists and try to cast Romney as some sort of moderate -- a very dangerous thing to be among Republican primary voters these days. Will Romney have the courage to insist that the radicalism represented by the tea party is not authentic conservatism, not the path to a Republican victory, and not a formula for effective government? I'm not holding my breath, but this crisis calls for a period of reckoning inside the GOP. The presidential primary campaign is the obvious moment for it to happen.
In the meantime, Obama should watch that Romney ad on jobs several times. By letting the congressional Republicans set his agenda, he's gotten away from the one issue most likely to determine his fate in 2012. He should remember that the day after this debt crisis is settled, the Republicans' question will be: Where are the jobs?
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).