There’s no guarantee that such a majority will be established in time to walk the country backward from the fiscal cliff. And in the meantime, our leaders have a responsibility that transcends their ideological differences: the responsibility to work with one another to keep the country solvent.Poeple love to fantasize about radical change. But radical change is a very rare thing in history, and most decades turn out to be very much like the decades before. It is highly unlikely that either party will have, within the next 20 years, the kind of majority needed to enact the budgetary fantasies of its core partisans. Compromise is essential.
The dream of realignment has become the enemy of such compromises. It inspires politicians to claim sweeping mandates from highly contingent victories: think of Dick Cheney insisting on another round of deficit-financed tax cuts in 2003 because “we won the midterm elections” and “this is our due,” or the near-identical rebukes that President Obama delivered to Eric Cantor (“Elections have consequences — and Eric, I won”) and to John McCain (“the election’s over”) during the debates over the stimulus and health care.
The losers, meanwhile, wax intransigent, while hoping for a realignment of their own. After all, why cut a deal today if tomorrow you might overthrow your rivals permanently? Better to just say “no” flat out, as the Bush-era Democrats did with Social Security reform and the Republicans did with health care, and hope that the next election will deliver you the once-in-a-generation victory. . . .
In reality, the next election may be no more transformative than 2008 turned out to be. The next Republican president may find himself as hemmed in and frustrated as President Obama has become. Meanwhile, America will still have a credit rating to fix, and a deficit to close.
And in the words of my favorite book of Samurai advice, "this understanding extends to all things." We have to deal with the world as it is, not waste all our energy wishing it were some better place.