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WASHINGTON — Why is this political crisis different from all the others?

It’s different because Republicans are badly divided over the government shutdown while Democrats are united. President Obama and his party want to say, firmly and unequivocally, that they will never again give in to the Republicans’ abuses of the governing process — or to their willingness to risk catastrophe. In the GOP, by contrast, there was buyer’s remorse about the party’s current adventure even before it began.

It’s different because the Republicans are causing fiscal chaos over an issue quite apart from normal budget wrangling, and making a demand — for gutting the Affordable Care Act — that they know Democrats, especially the president, cannot meet.

It’s different because the new health care system got up and running on the very day the shutdown began. Conceding to the GOP would take health insurance away from people and ruin a program for which we now know there is a public appetite. It’s not going to happen.

It’s different because Obama is different. In the past, he was always ready to negotiate and typically went out of his way not to cast showdowns in partisan terms. This time, he’s freely calling out “House Republicans” as the culprits. He’s confident in asserting that serious talks can take place only if Republicans stop using threats to the country’s well-being as bargaining levers.

And it’s different because the Republicans have no coherent strategy. Their leaders, as one Republican put it to me, have been laying track just ahead of the train as it roars forward.

They are making insulting offers — for example, proposing to fund a few parts of the government that they cherry-pick while allowing the rest to languish. House Speaker John Boehner’s approach has been driven by fear: fear of the most right-wing House members, fear of rabid talk-show hosts, fear of the Frankenstein monster of fanatical organizations the party has relied upon to gin up the faithful.

The greatest insult Republicans issued was to the men and women who work for them. The GOP’s claim that members of Congress and their employees have an “exemption” from Obamacare is a lie. On the contrary, they are the only people in the country with an existing employer health plan who have been required to buy insurance on the ACA’s exchanges.

These are people who labor daily to make their bosses look good. Now Republicans have actually proposed that among the people in the country who already have insurance, these tireless souls become the only ones to give up the employer contribution to their premiums. This amounts to a pay cut ranging from about $5,000 for individuals to $12,000 for those with family coverage. I guess this is a pittance to politicians who spend their time thinking about millionaire “job creators.”

Maybe House Republican staffers should form a union.

This cynical attack on the living standards of their own really does show how entirely phony and political (in the very worst sense of that word) Republicans have been in creating this crisis. The government is shut for only one reason: Boehner wants to keep his job. This is not a sufficient cause for throwing hundreds of thousands of other people out of theirs. “This is the conservative right versus the reckless right,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Budget Committee Democrat. “The country should not become the victim of the Republican civil war.”

Which is why the only way out is for the growing number of Republicans on the responsible side of the skirmish to insist that the whole charade be called off. There should be negotiations all right, but on real budget issues, and for the long term — after the government is opened and the debt ceiling is raised. The House and Senate could then engage in the kind of normal compromise-seeking discussions that the GOP has so far resisted.

The right-wing minority that has plunged government into chaos should be treated for what it is: a narrow slice of public opinion whose power has been amplified by gerrymandered districts and a far-right echo chamber. It cannot expect to dictate to the nation’s majority.

The last election should have set the Republican Party on a more constructive path. Unfortunately, the governing wing of the GOP is still intimidated by the apocalyptic wreckers. This embarrassing chapter can only end when the wreckers are pushed to the sidelines. There, they will be free to spin their fantasies without endangering the republic.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm

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