11/20/2012 06:35 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

Lincoln Obama and the Fiscal Cliff

First things first, go see Lincoln. It's a really good movie, a really good story, visually and intellectually top-notch, wonderfully acted, and it makes you think.

But it's what you think about that matters most: Lincoln is the first film I've seen about American government that has a clue about how our system actually works. Earlier attempts, from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington to The Best Man to The Candidate focus on corruption or nutty idealism. Lincoln is the first to dive into the question of how decisions are made in our democracy.

Lincoln centers around the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery. It takes place right after Lincoln is re-elected but in a lame duck session before his Second Inauguration. It's about a leader with a moral vision and a political agenda who uses the levers of power as they actually exist to achieve something concrete. The film doesn't ignore corruption, but it paints a picture of the House of Representatives as a place where the full variety of American character and interest can be found, and where Lincoln uses all forms of persuasion and intimidation, savory or not, to get his way.

There are some flaws in how the film depicts government. Some of the bad guys are cartoonish, the bribery part is overemphasized, and the decisions by the vast bulk of Members to vote their philosophy barely pokes its head above water.

What history paints as inevitable and easy turns out in the film to be miserable and murky and difficult. But if you want to know how American legislatures dispose of Executive proposals, well this is it. The closeness of the decision for Lincoln are dramatically apparent. Should he negotiate a peace with the Confederacy that stops the horrific bloodshed? Shall he seize the moment and permanently end slavery, at the cost of thousands of dead and maimed? How can he use the Presidents powers to get the decision he wants from the Legislature? His Cabinet has a full measure of geniuses, idiots, self-righteous rivals and generous friends. It's hard, even cruel.

The interplay between Congressional leaders and rank-and-file members is made equally clear in the film. Political parties and factions within them are crucial blocs of votes, combinations of self-interest and political philosophy. Wavering individual Congressmen are motivated by greed, or personal experience, or moral vision. Leaders must bully or persuade or themselves take positions they don't really believe. It's ugly and inspirational at the same time.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the way it works. I spent over 25 years in a significant legislative body, the New York State Assembly. There were a few life-and-death decisions, lots of wasted time, lots of money and lobbyists, lots of important decisions, lots of arm-twisting, and a variety of characters and personalities second to none. It is the American system as the Founders designed it, and it worked.

Obama and the Congress are about to engage in just that process and there's lots at stake. Economic stability, prosperity, fairness, equality, strength and power hang in the balance. And a decision must, must be made. What often passes for good government these days is a vision of politics that, however laudable, doesn't exist and never existed.

America's elegant liberal reformers and its Tea Party activists who share a dislike for the bargaining and deal-making that democracies use as an alternative to armed conflict should watch "Lincoln." It's an important reminder of how things get done. Politics ain't beanbags, as Mr. Dooley said, and it ain't polite or easy to watch either.

The "fiscal cliff' is not the 13th amendment. But it matters, a lot. Elegant theory will not keep us safe. Hard bargaining and old fashioned politics will. Don't blow it boys. Lincoln is watching.