Time for grownups

Finally, the Responsibility Caucus has spoken. A total of 343 lawmakers, from both chambers and both parties, supported a bill to raise the debt ceiling and avoid financial calamity. For now.

In an act of astounding irresponsibility, however, 187 votes were cast against the measure and for disaster. Every significant Republican candidate for president except one, Jon Huntsman, sided with the naysayers. The danger to America’s fiscal health is not over. It’s just beginning.

Here’s the question: Can the spark of good sense that flared briefly on Capitol Hill be kept alive? Or will it be quickly suffocated by the forces of ideological fury?

The stakes could not be higher. The economic recovery is sputtering and confidence is dwindling. The stock market continues to slide. America’s reputation for fiscal soundness has already been blemished. The country’s credit rating could still be downgraded.

The next big test will come when the 12-member bipartisan commission, created by the debt ceiling measure to recommend $1.2 trillion in further cost savings, is appointed. Will it be dominated by the voices of purity or pragmatism, confrontation or conciliation?

President Obama was absolutely right when he said, “Voters may have chosen divided government. But they sure didn’t vote for dysfunctional government. They want us to solve problems.” So here’s a suggestion: no one who voted against the debt ceiling increase should be appointed to the commission. That level of rigidity and self-righteousness should be an automatic disqualification for membership.

Of course excluding the hardest-liners is no guarantee of success. But including them is a guarantee of failure. The problems facing the commission are extraordinarily delicate and difficult. The country is trying to cure two fiscal illnesses at once and the remedies are largely contradictory. It’s like taking cancer medicine that causes heart failure.

Stimulating the sluggish economy requires more government spending, not less. That’s the way to keep teachers and cops working, put tax rebates and unemployment benefits into people’s pockets, generate more consumer confidence and private-sector hiring. But the soaring budget deficits demand the opposite: more belt-tightening, smaller government programs, lower interest payments.

The answer, if there is one, comes down to one of Obama’s favorite words: balance. Conservatives have to accept new revenues, liberals have to accept cuts in cherished social programs, and the whole package has to be calibrated very carefully.

Short-term energy and long-term austerity is an easy goal to articulate but hard to implement. Balance, like compromise, has become a despised word in Washington. The middle of the road is the most dangerous place to be. When Obama is denounced as a socialist by the right and a sellout by the left, you can understand why centrists feel under siege. But they remain an essential part of the governing process.

Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia, got it right when he said of his fellow moderates: “That’s kind of their lot in life, that they always are the grown-ups.”

We are not optimistic. A recent study by the website Progressive Punch reveals how deeply divided the Congress really is. They analyzed all the votes cast this year and rated every lawmaker, with zero being the most conservative and 100 the most liberal. Every Democratic senator scored at least 65; not a single Republican ranked over 36. That’s a huge gap, but the polarization is actually even wider. Forty-nine of 53 Democrats ranked above 80; 41 of 47 Republicans rated below 20.

Anyone who tries to move toward the middle is immediately excoriated from the extremes. On the left, for example, there are jihadists like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who loves to deride “centrist fantasies” of reasonableness and accommodation.

But it’s the Krugmans who live in Fantasyland. In the last election only one in five voters described themselves as “liberal.” How can a Nobel laureate in economics be so bad at elementary arithmetic? There is nothing close to a majority, in Congress or in the country, to support his ideas.

The holy warriors of the right suffer from the same capacity for self-delusion. Mitt Romney opposed the debt ceiling deal because it did not include a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. But such an amendment would never pass; if it did, it would cripple the federal government’s ability to deal with a crisis. How can a man who offers himself as an experienced economic expert espouse such an insane idea?

If there are any grown-ups left in Washington, it’s time for them to step forward. It might be their last chance.

Steve and Cokie’s new book, “Our Haggadah” (HarperCollins), was published this spring. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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