11/29/2011 02:55 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2012

Winning the Debt Battle: Be Careful What You Wish For

With the failure of the "supercommittee" in Congress to find $1.2 trillion in savings to help address the nation's long-term debt, each side blames the other. The public is not surprised, though it is justifiably angry. The approval rating of Congress, as a result, is now in the single digits.

Insiders suggest that Republicans and Democrats accepted the latest failure because they concluded it is better to go into the 2012 election cycle with the battle lines clearly drawn, especially if the agreement would have meant giving up cherished principles. Indeed, the hope of both parties seems to be to win it all in 2012 so that they have the votes to push through their own solutions, devoid of the need for serious compromise.

Be careful what you wish for.

If the Democrats win the presidency and take control of Congress in 2012, what would they do? Presumably, they would raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans while preserving Medicare and Social Security largely intact. The assumption that more tax revenue from those who make a million or more a year can substantially reduce a $15 trillion debt while the population is aging and the elderly place more cost pressure on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security seems not a conclusion they feel compelled to justify.

If the Republicans take the White House and the Senate, keeping control of the House, what would they do? The answer seems to be to cut the regulatory burden on business, lower all tax rates, and make significant cuts in social programs. The assumption that the increase in employment (and tax revenues) from curtailing regulation and spurring business development can actually offset lower tax rates, again despite a massive debt and an aging population, returns them yet again to the same supply-side orthodoxy that even their icon, Ronald Reagan had to eventually abandon.

Winning, with the consequent failure to actually solve the debt problem, would in time lead to -- well, losing. Americans are smart enough to reject a party that cannot deliver, and both parties, in victory, would be unable to deliver.

There is something they would produce, however, and that is increased cynicism. When winning, not governing, becomes the measure of political success, it, of necessity, produces losers. In 2012, those losers would be the American people and their diminishing faith in democratic government to solve national problems. As their distrust in political parties, Congress and the presidency grows, their trust in the American Constitutional system weakens. This will have profound international as well as domestic consequences. Domestically, it will lead to calls for Constitutional amendments (or another Constitutional Convention), the wisdom of which is anything but a foregone conclusion. Internationally, the failure of the world's most prominent market-driven democracy to put its financial house in order cannot but lessen the appeal of Western values and political institutions.

In 1787, James Madison came to the Constitutional Convention with a plan for a national government which included two houses in Congress, both based on population, a national veto over State laws, and a Council of Revision to serve as a check on the Congress. He got none of these but ardently campaigned not only for the compromise that came out of the Convention but for a Bill of Rights which he had steadfastly opposed in Philadelphia. Madison knew that compromise and the ability to govern trumped political purity and winning. He knew that the people's emotional attachment to the Constitution was more important than stoking the fires of factious wrangling. Had he lacked political courage, where would we be today? If our current members of Congress don't muster more political courage, where will we be tomorrow?