WASHINGTON — Of all the endlessly repeated conventional wisdom in today's Washington, the most lazy, stupid and ubiquitous is that our politics is broken. On the contrary. Our political system is working well (I make no such claims for our economy), indeed, precisely as designed — profound changes in popular will translated into law that alters the nation's political direction.
The process has been messy, loud, disputatious and often rancorous. So what? In the end, the system works. Exhibit A is Wisconsin. Exhibit B is Washington itself.
The story begins in 2008. The country, having lost confidence in Republican governance, gives the Democrats full control of Washington. The new president, deciding not to waste a crisis, attempts a major change in the nation's ideological trajectory. Hence his two signature pieces of legislation: a near-$1 trillion stimulus, the largest spending bill in galactic history; and a health care reform that places one-sixth of the economy under federal control.
In a country where conservatives outnumber liberals 2-1, this causes a reaction. In the 2010 midterms, Democrats suffer a massive repudiation at every level. In Washington, Democrats suffer the greatest loss of House seats since 1948. In the states, they lose over 700 state legislative seats — the largest reversal ever — resulting in the loss of 20 state chambers.
The tea-party-propelled, debt-conscious Republicans then move to confront their states' unsustainable pension and health care obligations — most boldly in Wisconsin, where the new governor proposes a radical reorientation of the power balance between public-sector unions and elected government.
In Madison, the result is general mayhem — drum-banging protesters, frenzied unions, statehouse occupations, opposition legislators fleeing the state to prevent a quorum. A veritable feast of creative democratic resistance.
In the end, however, they fail. The legislation passes.
Then, further resistance. First, Democrats turn an otherwise sleepy state Supreme Court election into a referendum on the union legislation, the Democrats' candidate being widely expected to overturn the law. The unions/Democrats lose again.
And then last Tuesday, recall elections for six Republican state senators, three being needed to return the Senate to Democratic control and restore balance to the universe. Yet despite millions of union dollars, the Republicans hold the Senate. The unions/Democrats lose again.
The people spoke; the process worked. Yes, it was raucous and divisive, but change this fundamental should not be enacted quietly. This is not midnight basketball or school uniforms. This is the future of government-worker power and the solvency of the states. It deserves big, serious, animated public debate.
Precisely of the kind Washington (exhibit B) just witnessed over its debt problem. You know: The debt-ceiling debate universally denounced as dysfunctional, if not disgraceful, hostage taking, terrorism, gun-to-the-head blackmail.
Spare me the hysteria. What happened was that the 2010 electorate, as represented in Congress, forced Washington to finally confront the national debt. It was a triumph of democratic politics — a powerful shift in popular will finding concrete political expression.
But only partial expression. Debt hawks are upset that the final compromise doesn't do much. But it shouldn't do much. They won only one election. They were entrusted, as of yet, with only one-half of one branch of government.
But they did begin to turn the aircraft carrier around. The process did bequeath a congressional super-committee with extraordinary powers to reduce debt. And if that fails, the question — how much government, how much debt — will go to the nation in November 2012. Which is also how it should be.