Dinner-table conversation is a favored pastime at our house.
Not always really heavy stuff, not like Joe Kennedy quizzing his young family and grooming one or more to be future presidents. But one of the things we enjoy discussing -- not surprisingly, given my profession -- is the day's news.
"Do you think it was always this bad?" our son, Jason, 26, asked as we talked during the holidays about the polarization of the "fiscal cliff" congressional debate.
"No. It's gotten a lot worse," my wife, Sandy, and I answered together.
I can't say that's a scientific conclusion, but it does seem like our Congress today is more sharply divided, more unwilling to find middle ground than it was in previous years. And I have heard and read a lot of similar statements during the cliff debate.
In the end, the Senate was pretty much one-sided, 89-8, for a compromise bill that dissolved the threat of sharp middle-class tax increases but delayed action on spending cuts.
Agreement in the House was not so bipartisan, with most Republican members holding out for action to reduce federal spending.
There's time to reach broader agreement before the deadline for decisions on spending cuts comes around two months from now, but there's little reason to believe things will run more smoothly then.
As President Barack Obama acknowledged during one of his debates with GOP candidate Mitt Romney before the Nov. 6 election, the most prominent voices among Republicans and Democrats have settled into two sharply different and mutually exclusive worldviews.
Obama Democrats favor federal policies that benefit the middle class and the poor, at the expense of the rich if necessary. Government spending, to many of them, is a way to support the national economy as it climbs out of recession. (Yes, but you have to know when and how to back off to prevent damaging side effects.)
Dominant Republicans dislike policies that redistribute income, saying they destroy basic American liberty. They see government spending as far out of hand, promising out-of-control federal debt and financial ruin.
Such fundamental disagreement is why our nation was formed as a republic, in which supreme power belongs to the people, their elected representatives and an elected president. Within constitutional bounds as interpreted by the Supreme Court, those representatives get to make the rules by majority vote. The president's power comes from his (or her) having survived a national election and from the ability to veto bills that don't have enough congressional support to override that veto.
The structure is sound. It's made to resolve policy differences, even big ones, and it's done a good job of that for almost 224 years.
Still, there are strong forces today that spread the policy divide, push political camps apart and strain our republican system.
First is a redistricting process so advanced in its technical capabilities that in the hands of knowledgeable operators it can determine who gets elected.
Second is the massive supplies of political money that take up where redistricting leaves off, steering elections and manipulating the legislative process.
We should not be surprised that policymaking in Washington seems to be more of a struggle these days. The surprise is more that such powerful outside influences haven't overwhelmed the government into complete ineffectiveness or one-party rule.
The national government today is Obama's ship to steer. He stands between the elected Republican House and Democratic Senate. He's the one person who can make it work. I hope he does.