Get ready for the mother of all train wrecks. Washington is fascinated by speculation that the Clinton administration and the Republican-controlled Congress are on a collision course that could shut down the government and even lead to economy-damaging defaults on the national debt.
Paul Tsongas likens the situation to the big league baseball strike, with "true blood lust" prevailing over the true interests of the contending factions -- and, of course, the country as a whole. He warns that a real fiasco could confirm popular distrust of the present political system and bolster third-party sentiment throughout the land.
Just listen to the leaders.
Says President Clinton: "I will not be blackmailed into selling the American people's future down the drain to avoid a train wreck. Better a train wreck for a day or two or three or four, better political damage for Bill Clinton, than damaging the future of millions and millions of Americans."
Says Republican presidential front-runner Bob Dole: "We will never compromise away the mandate the American people gave us last November. We will fight to the end for fundamental conservative change, or we will take our case to the American people in 1996. This will not be an autumn of compromise -- make no mistake about it."
In recent years there have been some minor derailments. But this year, instead of days, a government shutdown could go on for weeks unless Mr. Clinton, Mr. Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich feel compelled to show they can govern.
The two parties are arguing not only about money but about the size and mission of the federal government. And these philosophical disputes are heightened by Republicans who feel any compromise with the White House would be fatal to their "revolution" and by Democrats intent on showing up the GOP as the enemy of working class and elderly Americans.
Although the gap between the two parties sounds unbridgeable, it should be noted that both are advocating federal income tax cuts that contradict their vows to work toward a balanced budget. It also should be noted that both parties have put Social Security "off the table" despite warnings by experts of a possible fiscal meltdown when the baby boomer generation reaches retirement age.
For now, the hottest political issue is Medicare, with Republicans committed to painful but necessary cuts and Democrats gleefully looking for ways to demonize their opponents. Actually, the Republicans are on the side of fiscal prudence on this issue, but don't tell that to the old folks.
Thus, we come down to the gut issue. If this year's struggle becomes a matter of doing or ducking something to hold down the soaring cost of government entitlements, then a train wreck might be worth all the pain and hassle it will cause. But there ought to be a better way, and if the two major parties cannot find it the field might be open to alternative political movements.