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The New Congress’s Task

Republicans in Congress are entitled to a bit of gloating as they settle into their new positions of power and get down to work. They said the voters were unhappy with the way President Obama and his congressional allies were governing, and the voters backed them up. Perhaps it’s true, as Republicans say, that the Democrats overestimated the mandate they were given in 2008. The Democrats’ earlier victory showed the depth of disenchantment with the Bush administration. It wasn’t necessarily a blanket endorsement of the Democratic agenda.

When they’re done gloating, though, the Republicans should start listening to their own words. They seem to believe their electoral gains in 2010 were a sweeping endorsement of the Republican agenda. That defies their own logic. It ignores the shellacking that voters gave that same Republican agenda in 2008.

The fact is that neither party has an unfettered mandate to act as it sees fit. And yet that’s how they’ve been behaving for years. The result is endless warfare. Sometimes one side gains ground, leaving the other side more determined than ever to win it back, as we’re seeing in the health care wars. More often, they fight each other to a standstill, as they’ve done on energy and climate, immigration, job creation and the ever-growing deficit. They act like a pair of aging boxers, one moment locked together too tightly to move, the next moment taking turns whacking each other. It keeps the players and their fans entertained, but it leaves the public out in the cold.

The current moment offers an opportunity to pause and try something different. Instead of focusing on how to win in 2012 — or, more generously, how to bring about their private visions of the perfect world — the leaders on both sides could sit down and map out a middle path. Agree on a plan that puts money in consumers’ hands while prodding business to invest in American jobs. Create incentives for businesses to burn less carbon while ensuring them a stake in a new, greener energy sector. Agree to start sealing the borders as firmly as is humanely possible while addressing immigrants’ hardships in ways that don’t eviscerate the rule of law. Above all, leave everyone feeling like they’ve won something.

It’s often said that voters choose divided government in Washington because they want it that way. They want the rival parties to check and balance each other, to work together and govern from the middle. This interpretation of the voters’ will might be just happy talk that ignores America’s very deep divisions, the role of money in politics and a host of other factors. Nonetheless, the reality remains: Divided government is a fact. The parties in Congress have no responsible choice but to cooperate and compromise. Deadlock is not an option. There is too much that needs to be done.

The wise old rabbis of the Talmud had it right: The day is short, the task is long, the workers are idle, the stakes are high and the master — in this case, the American people — is demanding. You’re not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to abandon it.

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