In laying out his arguments for adopting the Constitution, and thus creating the system of government that has guided the nation's destinies for nearly two centuries, Alexander Hamilton concluded:
"I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man."
That one ought to be chiseled in marble and placed over the doorway to the Oval Office, mounted in the Cabinet Room, and posted throughout the halls of Congress for every lawmaker and leader to ponder.
It contains the kind of timeless wisdom political leaders can apply today in their deadlocked deliberations over how to reform or simplify the appalling and unfair U.S. tax system, how to deal with questions about the proper balance between domestic and defense spending, and, most fatefully, how to find a way out of the desperate budget deficit crisis confronting the nation.
It's a simple formula to follow, too: If you want to accomplish anything in a complex democratic society, you must be prepared to compromise. And don't expect perfection in the end result, either.
Hamilton, and the other hard-eyed realists who founded the Republic, understood one overriding fact about fashioning a workable democratic government. It was that history taught what Hamiliton called "the lesson of moderation."
Without a spirit of moderation that dictated the necessity to compromise, democratic government would shatter into unworkable factions arising out of "too many particular interests . . . too many local institutions . . . and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth."
Which is exactly the danger facing the nation today.
The governmental crisis upon us is stark, clear and historic in its stakes: Either the exponential rise in the national debt -- driven relentlessly by soaring budget deficits -- is reversed or America and its citizens face an increasingly bleak economic future.
While no magic formula exists to solve this problem easily or without pain, certain simple facts are evident:
The time to resolve it is critically short. It will not be resolved unless the president and leaders of Congress demonstrate a willingness to compromise and act out of a spirit of moderation. Every group must be prepared to pay a price.
Despite the current impasse, the history of policy failures that created this mess, and the dimensions of the problem, there is reason for some optimism in the present political climate.
The 1984 presidential election and last week's election of leaders of the Senate present an extraordinary opportunity to set aside political partisanship.
Ronald Reagan, with a chance to become the first eight-year president in a generation, approaches his second term remarkably free to make the kinds of moves in domestic and foreign affairs that will establish his place in history. The size of his reelection victory places him above obligations to any single group or faction. Politically, he has no debts. He can act to do what seems in the best interests of most Americans and the country.
In granting Reagan so free a hand, the voters also sent a clear signal about the general direction of the government they want. They elected a more moderate U.S. Senate and kept firmly in place congressional checks on excesses of presidential power. They want a practical government that works, and they are in no mood for new experimentation or ideological posturing from true believers of any stripe.
Moderation was the message delivered by the Republicans when they elected their new Senate leaders. To a striking degree, the people who emerged are practical, tempered, serious men of government.
The country is fortunate to have a Senate led by such as Bob Dole of Kansas and Alan Simpson of Wyoming and to have key chairmanships filled by the likes of Pete Domenici of New Mexico, Bob Packwood of Oregon and Dick Lugar of Indiana.
They are all politicians of proven ability whose careers have been marked by good sense, independence and no harboring of false illusions about the difficulties that lie ahead. Time and again they have demonstrated that they understand the need to both act and strike a careful balance between competing interests.
They also have shown that they understand the necessity of reaching workable political compromises.
Their considerable gifts and experience will be sharply tested in the months ahead as they try to find ways to raise revenues, simplify and make fair the tax code, keep the nation secure militarily without jeopardizing the lives of private citizens at home, and all the while acting to reduce the horrendous defict.
Obviously they cannot do all this -- or any of it -- alone. They must work in concert with Democratic lawmakers and the president. Nothing will be easy. Failure to act only will make conditions worse and the solutions infinitely more painful.
It is a time that cries out for bipartisanship and cooperation instead of confrontation and rancor.
The hope is for a new period of good will in Washington, a period in which compromise and good sense are the operative norms. And something else: realism.
In his final plea for adopting the Constitution, Hamilton acknowledged the imperfect nature of the system of government that would result. But, as he said:
"The system . . . is the best that the present views and circumstances of the country will permit."
And still is, if the people who lead it are willing to bend to make it work.