08/07/2011 05:58 pm ET | Updated Oct 07, 2011

Fiscal Follies: The Leaders, the Led and the Gridlock on the Budget

It seems hard to disagree with the 8 in 10 Americans who say Congress is doing a terrible job in wake of the dismal, dispiriting debate over raising the debt ceiling. We dodged a needless and potentially devastating government default, but aside from that, this debt deal is largely a failure. The brutal debate produced an 11th hour band-aid, but it damaged the government's standing at home and abroad, and it's still not enough to get the nation's finances off their unsustainable path.

In fact, the main accomplishment -- apart from making the U.S. government look both arrogant and inept -- was to set up another crisis for December (just in time for the holidays). That's when the "trigger" mechanism will make automatic (and very severe) cuts if Congress can't agree on a more sensible solution.

And after all that, Standard and Poor's downgraded the United States government's credit rating anyway. It's hard to see how leaders of any political stripe walks away from this proud of what they've achieved.

But there's another point of view on this, which is actually pretty widespread among Washington policymakers and the media. Slate's Jacob Weisberg pretty much summed this up when he wrote "there's no point in explaining complicated matters to the American people." In this view, elected officials in Washington are just reflecting a nation that's divided about the role of government and completely unrealistic about what it will take to reduce deficit spending and get the country's finances back on track.

There is plenty of polling to show just that. For example, 51 percent of Americans say "government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people," while 46 percent say "government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals." Meanwhile, 6 in 10 say government should be "smaller and provide fewer services," but mention the specifics, and that view crumbles to dust. Large majorities of Americans oppose cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and pensions to federal workers. Majorities even oppose cutting subsidies to farmers, and 52 percent oppose cuts in defense.

What's an elected official to do? There's simply no way to follow those instructions, and get the country out of its fiscal mess.

But at this point, arguing over whether leaders or the public deserve more of the blame is the equivalent of fighting over who gets to wear the captain's hat on the Titanic, after hitting the iceberg. Leaders haven't done much leading, and the public desperately needs a better grasp of what it takes to really put the government's budget on a sound footing.

But we do get another chance in a few months, so is there any way to avoid the instant replay?

Frankly, we're not that optimistic. The Congressional "super committee" seems set up to fail, and at this point, we're not sure its report will carry any more weight than any of the dozens of budget plans that have come out in the last couple of years. The debate over its recommendations and the triggers will be vicious. To the public, it will look like another vaguely repulsive food fight. The cable news commentators will endlessly and reflexively pontificate about what it all means for the election -- forget what it means for the country's future. And we'll end up about where we are with (a) a budget that is neither sustainable nor helping the economy, and (b) a 82 percent disapproval rating for Congress -- maybe even worse. The country will be divided and demoralized. Nobody will win -- at least no one in the United States.

But suppose we actually spent the next few months talking about what parts of government matter most to us, what we're willing to pay for them, and where we're willing to compromise to protect the goals that we value most. Throw out the politics for a moment, and however you feel about Tea Partiers, progressives, Eric Cantor, the president or anybody else. Put the election predictions on pause. Let's talk about what's most essential to protect, and where we're willing to give to get a deal.

These are questions just every American should be able to answer, and we're pretty confident that most people can. After all, all those polls that show how unrealistic Americans are also show that most prefer a settlement that blends spending cuts and revenues -- just like nearly every commission report and study out there (and that includes many conservatives).

In Greece, people took to the streets when the government decided that some status quo benefits had to be trimmed. We'll place our bets that most Americans have already accepted that they won't get everything they want from a meaningful budget deal, but that they want the Congress to pass one anyway.

Will the country's leaders step up to the plate? Well, at least they didn't let the United States slide into default, which actually wasn't a sure bet just a few weeks ago. After all the mess and the backbiting, most members of Congress decided that protecting the "full faith and credit of the United States" was an important step to take.

Maybe the next time, they can do better. Maybe they'll even decide to demonstrate the realism, judgment, candor, and honor that the American people have every right to expect.