This is a peculiar season in American politics. The big game is over, the score is in the record book, yet there are more innings to be played. A lame-duck Congress and an exhausted president cannot leave the field.
This is the eighth time since the Nixon years Congress has gone into overtime to address pressing budget issues. Each time, the crisis was described as the worst ever, though rarely has that been true. But with so much at stake, so much contention in the political system and so few easy options, it may actually be the case this time.
Yet, there is a sense of unreality surrounding the pas de deux in which the principals are engaged, much like the ones the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy are undertaking in holiday productions of “The Nutcracker” this month.
For now, the White House and the Republican House are playing to the wrong audience. They are behaving as if they are trying to win an election, rather than sculpt a solution. The beginning of wisdom in this crisis is that neither side should win. The goal is political resolution, not political absolution.
Maybe this is the time to take a deep breath and dig deep into the fiscal Cliff Notes, using this sober time of reckoning to take on the vital national questions we almost always skirt. For we need to recognize that even after the election, the big national questions have not been answered. In fact, they have not been asked. Here are some questions we would prefer to evade but shouldn’t:
— Should the budget be framed as a moral balance sheet or a financial balance sheet?
This question prompts important debates about income inequality, social mobility, financial rectitude and national economic health. The greatest dodge in American civic life is the facile view that good economics are good politics. How do we know that will be true in the current case — a raging crisis — even in the unlikely event that it was true in the past?