So I remember thinking, when Congress and President Obama concocted the supercommittee on the deficit -- and the fiscal cliff as a last resort if all else failed -- that it was a generally boneheaded, albeit necessary, idea.
Conceived in desperation as a way to come up with a deal to raise the debt ceiling (and pay our bills) in the summer of 2011, it seemed like the only way out: a way to agree to do what needed to be done in the short term and to force action in the long term on the bigger picture.
How silly it all seems now. Of course the supercommittee failed. Why would anyone think that a congressional committee could magically come up with a bipartisan solution that has been so elusive for so long? And of course the fiscal cliff turned out to be a dud. Why would we have thought otherwise? It somehow makes perfect sense that Washington created its own gargantuan hurdle and then crawled around it, with both sides promising to climb the real mountain another day.
And so Washington begat the next hurdle: the debt ceiling, playing at a theater near you in February. All villains, no heroes.
It's hard to say whether it's more disgraceful or more depressing. Take your pick.
Sure, there's plenty of blame to go around. I get it: Republicans are divided, engaged in outright civil war. The no-tax diehards kept the House speaker from cutting any real and meaningful deal. Then again, liberal Democrats wouldn't touch Medicare and Social Security. They almost flipped out when the president suggested he might be willing to change the way benefits are calculated.
And then there's the president himself. Sometimes it feels like his debate is mostly internal: between the transformational president he wants to be and the transactional president he has become. He can blame everyone else, and he would be partly right. But there's more: Leaders, especially second-term presidents, are supposed to lead. Sacrifice political capital for principled vision. Sacrifice political expediency for belief. Sacrifice some short-term popularity for the long view.
Oh, and by the way, we're all a part of this terrible equation, too. We (as in voters) want it all, and we don't want to pay for it. Sure, no tax hikes sounds great -- until the great budget battle engages on your personal turf, and you draw the line.
I also get where the pols are coming from: There's no political benefit in real, bipartisan, consequential, long-lasting, visionary compromise. Legislators have redrawn congressional districts into such partisan playing fields that moderation is politically dangerous, even fatal.
So we have stacked the deck against ourselves. Even when we create a fiscal cliff as a way to force real, meaningful action, we choose to fail. Because, in an odd way, failure is much easier to explain: just blame the other guy. Success, on the other hand, comes with responsibility.
And no one wants that.
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