A good way to understand the fiscal cliff deal, according to a piece posted today by New York‘s Jonathan Chait, is to look to The Big Lebowski and to equate the three nihilists with House Republicans, or more precisely Barack Obama‘s fear that House Republicans are beyond rationality.

“The basic text for understanding this situation, as with so many situations, is The Big Lebowski,” Chait writes. “A woman has allegedly been taken hostage by nihilists (nihilists conveniently being a common point of comparison with the House Republican caucus.) Jeffrey Lebowski, the Jeff Bridges character, fears they will kill her. Walter, the John Goodman character, has already figured out that there is no hostage. Lebowski here is Obama, and Walter is Harry Reid.

“Walter is right. There is no hostage. The Republican Party was actually terrified of the no-deal scenario. Policy-wise, the alternative to a small tax hike that they agreed to was a huge tax hike that they didn’t agree to. The politics were even worse: Republicans would be blamed for higher taxes on the middle class in order to defend the rich, deepening an already severe image problem.

“Obama grasped the basic leverage over the Republicans. But he also fears the sheer nihilism of the crazy House wing, members so fanatical they cannot even seem to grasp their own political self-interest and vote coherently. Walter explains, “Without a hostage there is no ransom. That’s what ransom is. Those are the fucking rules!” Whereas Jeffrey hopes to avoid confrontation by handing the nihilists a small payment:

Nihilist: Ve vant tha money, Lebowski.
Nihilist #2: Yah, otherwise ve kill da girl.
Nihilist #3: Yah, it seems you have forgotten our little deal, Lebowski.
The Dude: You don’t HAVE the fucking girl, dipshits! We know you never did!

[the Nihilists, stunned, confer amongst themselves in German]

Donny: Are these the Nazis, Walter?
Walter Sobchak: No, Donny, these men are nihilists, there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Nihilist: Ve don’t care. Ve still vant tha money, Lebowski, or ve fuck you up.
Walter Sobchak: Fuck you. Fuck the three of you.
The Dude: Hey, cool it Walter.
Walter Sobchak: No, without a hostage, there is no ransom. That’s what ransom is. Those are the fucking rules.
Nihilist #2: His girlfriend gave up her toe!
Nihilist #3: She though we’d be getting million dollars!
Nihilist #2: Iss not fair!
Walter Sobchak: Fair? Who’s the fucking nihilist here! What are you, a bunch of fucking crybabies?
The Dude: Hey, cool it Walter. Look, pal, there never was any money. The big Lebowski gave me an empty briefcase, so take it up with him, man.
Walter Sobchak: And, I would like my undies back.

[Stunned, the Germans confer amongst themselves again]

Donny: Are they gonna hurt us, Walter?
Walter Sobchak: No, Donny. These men are cowards.
Nihilist: Okay. So we take ze money you haf on you, und ve calls it eefen.
Walter Sobchak: Fuck you.