Our political system is not accustomed to the kind of battle that is going on now. President Barack Obama has been slow to adjust to it. The voters are understandably mystified and frustrated by it. In the meantime, the economy sits on the edge between stagnation and something worse. The president's speech to Congress and the Republican presidential debate last week should have taught us that we are no longer in the world of civics textbooks in which our political parties split their differences and arrive at imperfect but reasonably satisfactory solutions.
Now, we face a fundamental divide over the most basic questions: Is government good or bad? Can public action make the private economy work better, or are all efforts to alter the market's course -- by Congress, the president, the Federal Reserve -- doomed to failure?
When politicians and their supporters believe the other side is pursuing policies that would destroy all they cherish, compromise becomes not a desirable expedient but "almost treasonous," to use the phrase tossed about by Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. Under these circumstances, taking enormous risks with the country's well-being, as House Republicans did in the debt-ceiling rumble, is no longer out of bounds. It's a form of patriotism. When your adversaries' ideas are so dastardly, it's better to court chaos, win the fight, and pick up the pieces later.
And to make matters worse -- and more confusing -- the two sides are not equally distant from the political center. We are in an age of asymmetric polarization. Precisely because they believe in both the government and the marketplace, Democrats are always more ready to compromise. Obama's economic address last Thursday was seen as tough and firm because he finally called Republicans in Congress out. Progressives liked the new fortitude, and also the relatively large sums of money Obama would mobilize to jolt the economy back to vibrancy.
But there was nothing remotely radical (or even particularly liberal) about Obama's ideas: tax cuts, many of them business-friendly, and new spending for such exotic projects as, well, schools and roads. As the president said, his proposals had all drawn Republican support in the past. He was, however, talking about a Republican Party that existed before it was taken over by a new sensibility linking radical individualism with a loathing for government that would shock Hamilton, Clay, Lincoln, and, for goodness' sake, Robert Taft.
Thus, the GOP sees the solution to the crisis in the measures its right wing has always favored: gutting regulation, keeping taxes on the affluent low, cutting government programs, and stopping Ben Bernanke and the Fed from doing anything to put the unemployed back to work that might risk the tiniest bit of inflation and thus dilute, even momentarily, the wealth of the already wealthy.
Last week's Republican debate was instructive in showing how deeply this new orthodoxy has penetrated. Bashing Bernanke and the government was in. Perry joined in the doctrinaire foolishness his rivals displayed in an earlier debate. He echoed them in saying he would reject a budget deal based on $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. (A colleague of mine suggested the candidates should have been asked how they felt about ratios of twenty to one or fifty to one.)
Up to this point, Obama has acted as if nothing much had happened inside the Republican Party. He kept talking about bipartisanship and tried not once but twice to make a big deficit deal with John Boehner. Quite predictably, both blew up in his face. The president seems to have awoken to the danger he faces. In his speech to Congress, he pointedly addressed those who believe "that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle government, refund everybody's money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they're on their own." He added: "That's not who we are. That's not the story of America."
But that is precisely who most of the Republican Party now thinks we are.
The president has offered eloquent defenses of the role of government in the past, only to revert to bipartisan fantasies that, in the end, always make him look weaker. The central question -- for his jobs plan and his future -- is whether this time he sticks with an analysis of the nature of our political fight that sees it as it is, not as he wishes it were.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).