Over the past three years, American politics has been dominated by a liberal fantasy and a conservative freakout.
The fantasy was the idea that President Barack Obama, a one-term senator with an appealing biography and a silver tongue, would turn out to be Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Robert F. Kennedy and Mahatma Gandhi all rolled into one. This fantasy inspired a wave of 1960s-style enthusiasm, an unsettling personality cult (that "Yes We Can" video full of harmonizing celebrities only gets creepier in hindsight) and a lot of over-the-top promises from Obama himself. It persuaded Democrats that the laws of politics had been suspended, and that every legislative goal they'd ever dreamed about was now within reach. It was even powerful enough to win Obama a Nobel Peace Prize, just for being his amazing self.
The freakout, which began in earnest during the long, hot health care summer of 2009, started from the same premise as the fantasy — that the Obama presidency really was capable of completely transforming American society and that we might be on the brink of a new New Deal or a greater Great Society.
But to freaked-out conservatives, this seemed more like a nightmare than a dream. So they flipped the liberal script: Where Obama's acolytes were utopian, conservatives turned apocalyptic, pitting liberty against tyranny, freedom against socialism, American exceptionalism against the fate of Nineveh and Tyre.
This wasn't a congenial climate for bipartisanship, to put it mildly. The fantasy ensured that the Democrats would go for broke (quite literally, judging by the budget figures) on domestic policy — anything else, after all, would have been a waste of their world-historical moment.
The freakout ensured that Republicans, more or less in lock step, would resist every proposal and vote "no" on every bill. (After all, to compromise with tyranny was no better than surrendering to it.)
So Democrats hailed the death of conservatism and the dawn of a glorious new liberal epoch and then griped that Republicans wouldn't lend their support to its fulfillment. Republicans denounced Obama as a Marxist and shrieked "you lie!" at him in the House chambers, and then they complained that he wouldn't listen to their ideas.
But in the past month of lame-duck activity, we've witnessed a return to political normalcy. The Republican midterm sweep delivered the coup de grace to the liberal fantasy by dramatically foreshortening what many pundits expected to be an enduring Democratic majority. But it also dropped a lid, at least temporarily, on the conservative freakout. (It's hard to fret that much about the supposed Kenyan-Marxist radical in the White House when anything he accomplishes has to be co-signed by Rep. John Boehner.)
In this brave new postelection world, lawmakers on both sides stopped behaving like players in some Beltway version of the battle at Armageddon and started behaving like, well, lawmakers. They cut deals, traded horses, preened (and sometimes whined) for the cameras, and cast their votes on a mix of principle, pique and political self-interest, rather than just falling into line for or against the Obama agenda.
Partisanship didn't disappear, but moderation repeatedly won out. Congress cut a big bipartisan deal on taxes and spending and then shot down a more partisan liberal budget. One of the most controversial items on the lame-duck agenda — the Dream Act, offering the children of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship — was defeated by bipartisan opposition. Two of the less controversial items — the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" (supported by 75 percent of Americans, according to various polls) and the New START arms control treaty (supported by nearly every Republican foreign policy hand) — passed by healthy margins.
This return to normalcy is good news for fans of bipartisan comity and centrism for centrism's sake. And it might be good news for the country. In the end, some sort of bipartisanship will be required to pull America back from the fiscal precipice, and the productivity of this lame-duck December shows that cooperation between the two parties isn't as impossible as it seemed just a few months ago.
But when it comes to the hard challenges ahead, comity won't be enough. Real courage is required as well. And this month's outbreak of bipartisanship was conspicuously yellow-bellied. Republicans and Democrats came together to cut taxes, raise spending, and give free health care to the first responders on 9/11.
They indulged, in other words, in the kind of easy, profligate "moderation" that's done as much damage to the country over the years as the ideologies of either left or right.
If that's all that the return to normalcy delivers, we'll be back to fantasies and freakouts soon enough.
© 2010 New York Times News Service