What if 2010 had happened in 2006, and tea party Republicans bent on reducing the size and scope of government took over during the end of George W. Bush's term?
When the financial crisis hit in 2008, with big banks on the verge of collapse, what would those tea party Republicans have done when then-President Bush asked them to approve the Troubled Asset Relief Program and bailouts for banks and automakers?
What would they have done if told by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson that if they failed to approve a bailout, we wouldn't have had an economy on Monday?
Would they have risked it, when the cost would have been expanding the size and scope of government?
We know what the Democrats did, and what they didn't do. They could have played politics, accused Bush of coddling Wall Street and big business, and withheld their support. They could have done precisely what the tea party-backed conservatives in the House of Representatives are doing now in the debate over raising the debt ceiling.
They didn't. Instead, they voted for a bailout many didn't want, because the consequences of inaction would have been dire.
As a result, 2010 did happen. The tea party -- largely in response to the bailout and repeated unfulfilled promises by Republicans to be the party of fiscal restraint -- organized, protested and demanded change. And change they got: Democrats were turned out of the House.
Once more, a treasury secretary is warning of dire consequences if Congress fails to act. (Not only him, but a Federal Reserve System chairman, Moody's, Standard & Poor and a bunch of other economists, too.)
But this time, a Democrat is president, and Republicans are in charge of the House of Representatives. And this time, they are just saying no.
Why? Because they see this crisis as an opportunity, a chance to finally starve the beast that is the federal government. And they want that beast starved.
The latest diet tool: Something called Cut, Cap and Balance, a pledge that asks signers to cut the budget, cap federal spending and amend the U.S. Constitution to require a balanced budget. Thus far in Nevada, only U.S. Sen. Dean Heller has signed on, although former congressional candidate Kirk Lippold agreed before abandoning his bid in the 2nd Congressional District.
Democrats are opposed, saying there's no need for a constitutional amendment (requiring two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-fifths of state Legislatures to approve) to balance the budget. And they should know; it was a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who last did it.
They're also opposed because they know the cuts and caps would necessarily fall on the biggest budget busters on the federal ledger: Entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
And that's what makes the tea party's resistance so curious. President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have offered to make concessions on entitlement programs, as well as billions of dollars in cuts to federal deficits over the next 10 years. Longtime Republican priorities are just sitting on the table, like a Thanksgiving turkey.
But because the tea party has a preternatural dislike of cranberry sauce -- i.e. taxes -- which Democrats insist also be on the table, they're not only ready to reject the turkey, they're ready to blow up the entire table and set fire to the house, while they're at it.
It makes no sense, especially given that their rhetorical hero -- Ronald Reagan -- raised taxes 11 times in eight years, according to what former Republican U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson told the New York Times this week.
"He did it to make the country run," Simpson said.
Ah, there's the rub. The modern tea party doesn't much care if the country runs. In fact, a good many of them wouldn't mind at all if it didn't.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist, and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.