The next Washington impasse already is taking shape; what is needed now is an entirely new paradigm for resolving it.
One glimmer of hope is that a bipartisan group of lawmakers and activists are going to start next week trying to create one.
The impasse will come when the nation's leaders need to do their next round of deficit cutting sometime in the next two months, before the federal government again hits its legal debt ceiling and needs a new round of funding from Congress to keep running. Republicans insist the new budget deal must include only spending cuts, no tax increases; Democrats insist it must include some increased tax revenue from eliminating deductions and exemptions.
Lurking in the background is a deeper reality, which is that there is nothing even approaching a consensus on how to deal with the elephant in the room: the need to start reducing the growth in costs of the big Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security entitlement programs. On this core subject, the divide between the two parties is even more stark than it was over tax rates before the New Year's Day resolution of that thorny subject.
Once upon a time, it was possible to argue that the way to get beyond this impasse would be for a core group of lawmakers from the center of the spectrum to band together, create a critical mass, and produce a solution that would attract others. But at this point, there is too little of a political center remaining in a polarized Washington to make that much of an option.
Thus, the need for a new paradigm. The current model—based on an assumption that the White House and congressional leaders can come to some accommodation—clearly isn't working very well as evidenced by two years of failed stabs at a big deficit deal. Nor are the models of the 1980s or 1990s likely to be replicated today.
In the 1980s, the Reagan economic program came together because there was a coalition in the center, consisting of conservative Democratic foot soldiers and moderate Republican leaders, who coalesced first around the Reagan budget and tax cuts, and then around modifications to that program in subsequent years.
In the 1990s, the two most important figures on the political scene were Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, who rose in power and prominence because they staked out and drew people to the political center. For President Clinton, that meant dragging his Democratic Party away from its leftist moorings and toward the center. For Mr. Perot, it meant convincing disenchanted partisans from both sides that, by joining forces with him, they could force the whole political system to the center, even if that meant detaching themselves from their old party loyalties and joining his independent and third-party presidential bids.
Today, most of the elements that produced those moves toward common ground in the '80s and '90s are missing. There are few conservative Democrats or moderate Republican leaders of the old mold; neither the president nor his GOP leadership counterparts are seen by the other side as pulling people toward the center; there is no Ross Perot to lead a centrist insurrection, much less a third party.
Instead, there is a left and a right, and not much of a magnet to pull them together.
What's lacking is an attitude among the capital's politicians that, while acknowledging they have different views, they must agree that they need to solve problems despite differences. In the absence of a new center, there is a need for a new attitude.
And right now, this attitude is more likely to emerge from the two parties' rank and file than from the leadership, which has broken its swords in failure over the past two years. The best model may be the big tax reform of 1986, which came about because a couple of second-tier legislators in the Senate and House—Bill Bradley and Richard Gephardt—joined forces to start a big train moving.
One place where this kind of movement may be starting is a group called No Labels, an organization of Republicans, Democrats and independent political activists. It says it is dedicated to finding "a new politics of problem solving." Former Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia—each a former problem-solving governor with something of a maverick reputation—have just been named its leaders.
They are convening a meeting in New York on Jan. 14 that they say will attract lawmakers from both parties "committed to meeting regularly to build trust across the aisle." The group also is busy trying to generate popular support for its efforts.
Two giant tasks lie ahead for Washington: fixing the tax system and changing entitlement programs. Neither will happen without such "trust across the aisle." We'll see soon enough.