What did today's politicians dream about when they were boys and girls? 

Many professional athletes say that when they were little they imagined the game-winning shot, the 75-yard run, the breakaway goal to decide the World Cup. Indeed, sports psychologists counsel their patients to imagine success, if not greatness,  as a way of helping to make it happen.

And our professional politicians? Who do they imagine their glorious selves to be when they daydream?

Surely not the failures we see now on the Washington stage, having to leave friends and family during the holidays to possibly hammer out on the “fiscal cliff” . . . what? A ninth-inning grand slam to win the World Series? Hardly. We will be lucky if we get a bunt.

I don't believe the hype that this moment is a decisive one; governing generally, and fiscal matters specifically, don’t often yield to neat metaphorical moments where the results are final and absolute. Instead, they grind on.

But I do think our politicians have lost any ability to imagine a grander future, let alone a grand bargain.

Where is the politician who can imagine and articulate the national benefit in mending the nation's finances? Who can describe clearly what needs to be done on the debt and why everyone could benefit from a stronger economy  this change would bring? Who can convince us that the approach has to be big enough to matter and fair enough to pass?

Barack Obama comes closest to this politician. But he has decided to beat the Republicans at their own lousy game. And he is making them crazy doing it. You can almost hear Ed's teeth gnashing in his morning post, where he notes that Democrats have actually made this debate about tax cuts!

I understand the president's decision: It’s hard to have much vision when too many on the other side are blindly focused on avoiding any new revenue as part of the solution.  

In another time and on other issues, some politicians did dream big. They wanted power not just for ephemeral reasons, little wins and small scores settled. They wanted it to put their names in the record books.

This famous dressing-down of George Wallace by President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office in 1965 is a summary of what this blog has been trying to say today. Johnson was talking of civil rights that day, but he was calling on Wallace and all politicians to be bigger.

“What do you want left after you, when you die?,” Johnson asked Wallace, towering over him and leaning in. “Do you want a Great Big Marble monument that reads, ‘George Wallace – He Built’? Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board across that harsh, caliche soil that reads, ‘George Wallace – He Hated’?”

Johnson knew: We will only be as great as our politicians' dreams.