OK, let's review, because it appears one thing is not leading to another.
First, with approval ratings for Congress near historic lows, voters across the country sent a message on Nov. 2. Well, they sent multiple messages, but one of the main ones was this: We're sick and tired of Washington politicians putting party before country. We're fed up with Congress' failure to address the country's urgent challenges, from jobs to deficits to wars to clean energy. We want representatives who can work across the aisle to produce tangible progress, not endless gridlock.
Seems clear enough. But the message didn't get through.
Only hours had passed after a promising meeting between President Barack Obama and both parties' congressional leaders on Tuesday when Congress reverted to its usual sniping.
First, congressional Republicans vowed to block Democrats' efforts on all other issues until they agreed on extending the Bush tax cuts and approved temporary government funding. Then House Democrats scheduled a vote to keep the tax cuts for only the middle class, which appeared designed to undermine ongoing bipartisan negotiations on the issue.
Thursday night, a plan to bring four competing tax-cut proposals to the Senate floor died, another victim of partisanship.
And Friday, the cherry on this garbage sundae: Erskine Bowles' deficit commission failed to show sufficient bipartisan agreement on a plan for attacking America's $14 trillion debt. So nearly a year's worth of sober thinking about how to fix the nation's most daunting long-term problem goes nowhere. If 14 of the 18 panel members had agreed, Congress would have been forced to consider their suggestions. Only 11 did. So while the panel showed some bipartisanship and brought publicity to getting serious about deficit reduction, politicians can comfortably continue to delay actually doing anything about it.
The dueling news headlines will drive you crazy. "Boehner excoriates Democrats"; "Pelosi blasts GOP on tax cuts." Republicans said Democrats were to blame. Democrats said Republicans were to blame.
Meanwhile, Rome burns. Little is likely to get done in this lame-duck session, including confirming noncontroversial judicial nominees and ratifying an important new START treaty on U.S. and Russian nukes.
What worries me is the sense that this is just a taste of at least the next two years.
I'm not suggesting there's no room for differences. Having two parties is natural and valuable. We don't all see things the same way, and each side should work to craft policy it thinks is best for the country.
Up to a point. Today's members of Congress need to revisit the best-selling book "Getting to YES." Authors Roger Fisher and William Ury urge people in a negotiation to see the other side as partners in problem-solving, not adversaries. They urge negotiators to distinguish demands that are flexible from those that aren't. Washington doesn't do things this way. In Washington, all demands are inflexible, all players adversaries.
Obama has given lip service to bipartisanship. Now he needs to model it, over and over. That will tick off the far left, but the country will be better for it, and it might even help him politically.
Another solution: Fewer safe congressional seats. The nation's 435 House districts will soon be redrawn. If independent panels drew the maps, instead of politicians, we wouldn't have so many seats so safe for one party or the other. Such safe seats allow their occupants to play to the far left or far right with no political penalty.
The biggest part of the problem, and solution: You and me. In the end, politicians will do what they believe most of their voters want them to. We say we want compromise, but do we mean it? Not on deficit reduction. The public rails against the debt but demands policies that worsen it.
Voters have to call out extremist politicians. A nascent effort around bipartisanship is taking shape. A group called No Labels will meet in New York on Dec. 13. It will bring together people of all persuasions but who share a common goal: Ending the polarization that grips America.
Only then can we get serious about keeping this country great.