“This had nothing to do with the debt ceiling,” said Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman who runs a political leadership program for elected officials at the Aspen Institute. “This was about the 2012 election, and the lines were drawn about as clearly as possible on both sides.”
Obama strategist David Axelrod agreed: “This has helped crystallize the debate. There is no doubt there will be a very distinct choice.”
If so, that will be a stark difference from recent presidential elections, where candidates sanded the edges off their partisan differences and positioned themselves above the partisan and ideological fray. The rhetoric was gauzy and vague: Obama was the agent of hope; George W. Bush, a uniter, not a divider; Bill Clinton, the avatar of a third way.
In 2012, the contrast between the two parties seems certain to be drawn in sharp relief.
The Republican vision is of a dramatically smaller government and of a budget that is balanced without raising taxes. Democrats argue for what Obama describes as a balanced approach, one that includes new revenue and treads cautiously around Social Security, Medicare and social programs that provide a safety net for the poor.
Both parties insist that theirs is the only path back to what voters say they want most: a stronger economy.
The public still has an appetite for seeing the two parties work together. When respondents in a new poll by The Washington Post and the Pew Research Center were asked for a single word to describe the spectacle that just took place, two-thirds volunteered “ridiculous.”
But the battle that brought the government to the edge of default also brought into question whether skills of compromise and conciliation can be applied in this polarized era.
The reasons for this have become familiar: a toxic political and media culture, congressional districts drawn to produce lawmakers more attuned to their parties’ ideological bases than the center, and the insecurity and anxiety that comes with economic hard times.
“I tend to believe that most people in these offices want to do the right thing for the country, but you have a structural system now in place that’s counter to the two parties finding that sweet spot of common ground,” said Chris Lehane, a former Clinton White House official who is now a political strategist in California.
According to one study by political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, there is less ideological overlap between the two parties in Congress than there has been at any time since the late 1890s.