To much of America, it may appear that the battle to lift the debt ceiling simply proved that Washington is broken. But as messy and ugly as it was, it also has been a clarifying moment — one that could define the terms of engagement of the 2012 election and shape the battle as one of two vastly different governing philosophies.
Whoever the Republican presidential nominee turns out to be, it now looks likely that President Obama’s battle for reelection will be fought around big issues. Chief among them: the size and role of government, and the values that will set priorities for a diminished pool of resources in austere times.
“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.
In the debt-ceiling fight, the Republican presidential candidates have, almost to a man and woman, staked out their positions with the hard line of their party.
“As president, my plan would have produced a budget that was cut, capped and balanced — not one that opens the door to higher taxes and puts defense cuts on the table,” presumed frontrunner Mitt Romney said in announcing his opposition to the compromise. “. . . While I appreciate the extraordinarily difficult situation President Obama’s lack of leadership has placed Republican Members of Congress in, I personally cannot support this deal.”
Of course, the election is 15 months away, and much will happen between now and then. Individual events have a tendency of looming large for a while, and then fading. A year ago, critics of Obama were warning that his presidency would be defined by its response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill; more recently, his allies were hoping that the killing of Osama bin Laden would have a similar effect.
But the way the debt-ceiling deal has been structured guarantees that the issue will be revisited several times before Election Day 2012.
“The fight is going to be between their stridency and a balanced, fair and thoughtful approach to the future,” Axelrod said, adding that the president “will relish that debate. He can’t wait for that debate.”
But other Democrats are not so sure that a politician who described himself as “a Rorschach test” in 2008 will be equipped to articulate and defend a concrete vision of his party’s values and its approach to governance.
Indeed, for much of the battle over the debt ceiling, Obama seemed to be, alternately, a bystander and a broker. And in the early assessments of the results, it appears that Republicans got the better of the bargain.
“If he wants the power to make transformative change, he’s going to have to make the argument for the change he wants to bring about,” said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was a senior policy adviser for President Clinton.
“Whether he will choose to do it or is capable of doing so, I don’t know,” Galston added. “His presidency is in jeopardy, and I hope there are people around him who are willing to tell him that frankly.”