We can and will debate the details of the compromise legislation that brought us back from the fiscal cliff, but one thing is clear: the Democratic Party did itself proud.
The Dems showed Americans that they can govern. Only 85 of 236 House Republicans voted for the bill. It passed with the help of 172 House Democrats, many of whom had to hold their noses to vote for a bill that, in their view, preserved too many tax breaks for the wealthy. But taxes will go up for American households earning over $450,000 and cuts to important social programs were avoided.
Overall, it's a good deal, not a great deal, from a Democratic standpoint. But the point is that it could not have happened without the Democratic Party. The House Republicans, despite holding a commanding 236 to 199 majority, couldn't muster enough votes to avoid going over the cliff on their own.
That's because the tea party caucus embedded in the Republican majority would rather have seen the economy crash than vote for a bill that didn't shrink government. These ideological zealots believe that they are on a mission from God (literally) to kill government.
But our system of government works (at all levels) only when it is populated by people of principle who are also willing to compromise. Be for smaller government if you want. Fine. But recognize that there is a broader public interest out there that demands compromise to move forward. That key ingredient, the idea that compromise is good and necessary, just isn't in the DNA of the tea partiers.
Most of us will find things to hate in the details, but there is something very good about all this from 30,000 feet. The uncompromising, radical tea partiers just lost a bunch of clout. A group of responsible Republicans who want to actually govern needed to join forces with a Democratic minority in the House to get something done.
The same thing could play out here in Wisconsin. When the legislature reconvenes, Republicans will hold an overwhelming majority in the Assembly (60-39) and a strong majority in the State Senate (18-15). But here's the thing: With extremist tea partiers making up a large part of each majority caucus, the GOP is not likely to have the votes to pass a budget that contains even the whisper of a tax increase. And more than a whisper will be needed to fix the state's transportation infrastructure problems.
This could lead to a co-governing situation where state Democrats, even in their deep minority status, may be real players after all. By being rigid, the tea party is forcing responsible Republicans to work around them and it is driving their party, not to the right, but into the arms of Democrats.