The 113th Congress is sworn in Jan. 3, 2013 in Washington, D.C. As polarization increases, the debt ceiling, sequestration, and the 2013 budget will become increasingly difficult to handle.
Credit: Mark Wilson

OWL’S HEAD, Maine — Another sterling moment in the annals of American democracy, 21st century-style. The fiscal cliff was not a cliff, of course, just a metaphor—though if you add in the lemmings, it's not a bad description of how Congress leads us, as we saw in the midnight struggle of the House of Representatives to pass a budget bill that ended the Bush tax breaks for the very rich.

Oh sure, we elect Congress, so it's ultimately our fault. But the people we elect we once believed were in it for the good of the country. The 9 percent approval rating Congress ekes out—did I read somewhere the Mafia scores higher?—is a reflection that the American electorate has caught on to the fact that given a choice between bringing economic chaos on the country or getting re-elected, most Congressmen these days would choose re-election.

"Give me liberty or give me death"—what a quaint notion. It is about as relevant to US political leadership today as that early Roman hero, Cincinnatus, who voluntarily gave up dictatorial powers to return to plowing his fields, is to today's Italy.

Senator Olympia Snowe, leaving the Senate because of her obvious frustration over its dysfunction and partisanship, recently described how Congress behaves: "It's governing by deferral, deadlines, and deadlocks. It might get there, but it's a painful process in the interim. And it won't be done well because we will not do it with the thoroughness and the deliberation that these issues require."

But the deeper reason for her leaving is surely that the Republican Party she's represented, first in the House and then in the Senate, for the past 34 years, has changed almost beyond recognition. The country is so polarized these days as, the conventional wisdom has it, because the Democrats have become more liberal and the Republicans more conservative. Not really. Democratic positions have pretty much stayed the same. It's the Republican move to the far right that has created the polarization.

President Obama is every bit as practical and middle-of-the-road as President Clinton or earlier Republican presidents, be it in his aggressive use of drones in a foreign policy that is hard to distinguish from that of George W. Bush's second term or even his health-care bill, which President Nixon would have supported.

The irony is that the federal debt that is the cause of so much right-wing Republican anguish is a direct result of Bush II's tax cuts, his two wars, and the financial collapse that climaxed his presidency. And, remember, Bush inherited years of budget surpluses under Clinton.

The Republicans have hoist themselves on the petard of Grover Norquist's no-tax pledge even as they elevate to Mt. Rushmore status Ronald Reagan who raised taxes over a dozen times and hyped conservative values but basically adopted centrist policies that would make him anathema to today's Tea Party members if they actually knew anything beyond the revisionist rhetoric about Reagan's presidency.

Yes, we'll eventually get there, preventing the sequestration, massive expense cuts that would doom our economy, but as Senator Snowe has said, "it won't be done well." Ditto—or as we used to say when we were children, an appropriate viewpoint from which to observe Congressional behavior—double ditto for the debt ceiling cliff looming even higher on the horizon.

Sorry for the doom and gloom—hardly what you want to celebrate at the start of the New Year.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.

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