With Supercommittee Failure, 2012 Election Offers False Hope

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Supercommittee members, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, left, and Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts greet each other on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 21, 2011, as the deficit reduction panel's deadline approaches with little expectation for success.

“Good riddance!” say the pundits on both left and right. The Super Committee is dead, and with it any short-term hope of a solution to the nation’s long-term deficit woes. For the right, this is a victory, because no tax increases were bartered away. “Good for America,” says Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich. For the left, failure is also a victory. The social safety net remains intact, and tax increases poll well. “The American people can make a decision in this election, which side are they on?” says Bernie Sanders, the liberal senator from Vermont.

And therein lies the saddest part of this sad moment in American democracy. The next election is almost certain to solve nothing, no matter what happens. Here is why: The current position of ideological warriors in both parties is that no compromise should be brooked, since to do so would be a betrayal of first principles. Both President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have a different view, one that accepts the reality that neither party has the ability to accomplish anything unilaterally at this time and that accomplishing something is in the national interest. But they have been so far unable to convince a majority in Congress of their view.

So the question for 2012 is: Will the next election allow one side to take the upper hand? The answer is no. In the best possible outcome for Republicans, with a new incoming Republican president, an increased Republican majority in the House and a new Republican majority in the Senate, Democrats will still be able to filibuster any Republican debt plan. (If Republicans sweep all toss-up races, they will only have a 55-seat majority in the next Senate, five short of the number needed to break a filibuster.)

By the same token, Democrats see no path to the sort of Congressional control they enjoyed in 2009. If everything breaks the way Democrats hope, Obama will be re-elected, Nancy Pelosi will regain the Speaker’s gavel with a razor thin majority, and Democrats will barely hold the Senate. That will leave Senate Republicans with a filibuster veto, while Pelosi will have to struggle mightily with Blue Dogs in the House to hold her caucus on any close vote.

Whatever happens, the losing party is likely to retrench to the margins. This has been the pattern for the past decade. In American politics, each defeat is inevitably interpreted as a need to return to “core values” and to rebuild the party brand. That means that more intransigence, not less. And if a muddled 2012 result greets Americans on November 4, then power will remain shared, with both parties having veto power over the other. In other words, bipartisanship is the only route to a long-term deficit deal. Compromise is the only alternative. And since the American system will offer voters no “compromise” lever next year, it will be hard for the outraged voter to speed the return to long-range fiscal sanity. Next year, voters will be able, instead, to vote for more or less benefit cuts, and more or less tax hikes, with no clear path for any of it to pass.

This is why no one should take the political arguments favoring the supercommittee’s failure at face value. They are rooted in the potential for short-term political gain, not in a desire to solve the country’s long-term deficit problem. That is pretty much the current definition of Washington. President Obama pointed this out at length during the summer, when he repeatedly charged that Republicans were putting their self-interest ahead of the country’s interest. And President Obama was punished for it. So now he would rather travel through Asia than wade into the muck of Congressional dysfunction.

The United States is stuck with its divisions, and it will be until 2013, at least. There is no way out. And that is why the future looks so grim.