Washington — The supercommittee’s failure reflects the nation’s divide: Americans crave both the Republicans’ demand for low taxes and the Democrats’ insistence on protecting social programs. So far, no group or leader has persuaded them they can’t have both, and there’s no quick solution in sight.
It’s possible the stalemate won’t be broken by the time of the 2012 elections, nearly a year away. Some GOP strategists think Republicans can oust President Barack Obama and win control of both chambers of Congress. That would enable them to enact much of their agenda, and Americans could render a judgment on its results.
Or, perhaps, Democrats will score big victories that will force Republicans to yield some ground.
The bipartisan supercommittee’s collapse stems from an all-too-familiar reality of modern politics. Republican lawmakers respond to activists who overwhelmingly oppose higher taxes. And Democrats answer to activists who will tolerate no nicks in Medicare, Social Security and other programs without steeper taxes on the wealthy.
The same differences pushed the nation to the brink of default last summer, prompting the first-ever downgrade of the government’s creditworthiness.
Yet no leader or group has convinced enough Americans that everyone must accept some pain to bring taxes and government services more closely in line. So the federal debt hit $15 trillion last week. And the government suffered another embarrassment Monday, immediately spooking U.S. markets and possibly unsettling foreign markets in the days ahead.
Nineteenth Century Americans venerated Henry Clay as “the Great Compromiser” for helping resolve knotty national problems. Today, that title would almost surely be hurled as an insult, especially at a rally or caucus to nominate someone for Congress.
The supercommittee’s six Democrats and six Republicans knew they would be criticized for failing to reach an accord. But they saw a worse fate in straying too far from their respective parties’ uncompromising stands on taxes and social programs.
Many veteran politicians expect more versions of recent elections, which were heavily influenced by partisan activists who put a scare into lawmakers threatening to veer from party orthodoxy.
“Compromise is not where the incentives are in the political process right now,” said former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, who once headed the GOP’s House campaign committee. Because so many House districts are solidly Republican or solidly Democratic, he said, “members are judged by what their primary electorate thinks of them.”
Eventually, Davis said, repeated failures to tame the deficit might inflict so much pain on Americans — possibly through a severe recession or even depression — that today’s primary-dominated voting patterns will change.