The government remains closed. The unimaginable — default on our national debt — looms, with unknown but foreboding consequence. Tea party Republicans remain willing to undermine trust in the full faith and credit of the United States in this unnecessary and manufactured crisis. And for some, the impending calamity seems to increase rather than temper their lunacy. At the right-wing Values Voter Summit this week, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) claimed that if Republicans refuse to lift the debt ceiling and the United States defaults, it would be an impeachable offense by the president. Go figure.

In Washington, this folly is measured by poll numbers. Republicans, and particularly the tea party, are “losing” because their public approval numbers have plummeted. Republicans are said to have “surrendered,” since they abandoned their threat to default on U.S. debts unless Democrats agreed to defund or delay Obamacare. Now Senate Republicans are offering to reopen the government and fund it at current levels only until mid-January. Supporters of the deal argue that it would allow for negotiations on a real budget before the next harsh across-the-board sequester cuts kick in, but it means that Republicans will use the threat of the sequester — and the next round of the debt ceiling showdown — to exact longer-term cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits.

Surrender? Any more “victories” like this, and Democrats will end up paying annual tribute to Republican party coffers. If Democrats accept these terms, it will only encourage Republicans to hold the country hostage over and over again.

This debate started in 2011. With Republicans taking the House in 2010, the president compromised, accepting that he couldn’t get support for vital jobs programs, such as investing in infrastructure. Instead he called for “balanced” deficit reduction that would include revenue from tax increases on corporations and the wealthy and spending cuts.

In response, Republicans threatened to default on America’s debts to force agreement on the Budget Control Act, which cut nearly $1 trillion in spending over 10 years with no tax increases. They exacted another trillion in cuts either by agreement of a “supercommittee” or, failing that, automatic enforcement of across-the-board “sequester” of $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Now Republican “surrender” is to lock in this victory, while opening new negotiations over cuts in basic security benefits . Progressive tax reform is still off the table and the gun of default still pointed at the country’s head. Ted Cruz and the tea party zealots may have lost their bid to torpedo health-care reform, but the right continues to set the terms of this debate.

This is particularly perverse because ever harsher austerity only adds to the country’s troubles. More than 20 million people still are in need of full-time work. Incomes are still stagnant. The top 1 percent is capturing virtually all of the rewards of what little growth we have. The International Monetary Fund now projects that even that will slow, projecting a rate of less than 1.5 percent growth in the coming months. We are closer to a renewed recession than to a healthy recovery.

Deficits are already falling more rapidly than at any time since the demobilization after World War II. More spending cuts will cost jobs and slow growth. Cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits will add to insecurity. And refusal to even consider closing the tax loopholes that give multinationals incentives to ship jobs and store profits abroad, or the tax dodges that let billionaires pay lower taxes than their secretaries, only adds to inequality while starving the public investments we need.

We should be debating the real challenges we face, not the contrived crises tea party Republicans keep inventing. How do we get the economy moving and creating jobs, even as the Federal Reserve starts reducing the $85 billion a month it has been pumping into the economy to keep it afloat? How do we empower workers to gain a fair share of the profits and growth that exist — from raising the minimum wage to curbing the absurd bonus structure that gives executives multi-million dollar personal incentives to dismember their own companies?

What are sensible steps to meet the right-now challenge of catastrophic climate changes beyond just paying to clean up the damage? Will we squander the opportunity to rebuild our decrepit roads, airports and sewers when interest rates are low and the unemployed plentiful?

Newspapers report that Republicans are getting the blame, as they should, for their manufactured crisis, but Americans understand that it is the country that is the big loser. Pessimism about our prospects and direction is soaring (nearly eight in 10 say the country is seriously off track). Anger at Washington is likely to turn to disgust.

And this, too, is to conservative advantage. The tea party may be plummeting in public esteem, but it is taking government down with it. There is simply no way to rebuild a widely shared prosperity without an effective government with a clear strategy in the global economy. There is no way to make the public investments we need and temper the extreme inequality that threatens our democracy without progressive tax reform. The terms of the Republican “surrender” takes us in the wrong direction.

Read more from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s archive or follow her on Twitter.