This is a peculiar season in American politics. The big game is over, the score is in the record book, yet there are more innings to be played. A lame-duck Congress and an exhausted president cannot leave the field.
This is the eighth time since the Nixon years Congress has gone into overtime to address pressing budget issues. Each time the crisis was described as the worst ever, though rarely has that been true. But with so much at stake, so much contention in the political system and so few easy options, it may actually be the case this time.
Yet there is a sense of unreality surrounding the pas de deux in which the principals are engaged, much like the ones the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy are undertaking in holiday productions of "The Nutcracker" this month.
For now, the White House and the Republican House are playing to the wrong audience. They are behaving as if they are trying to win an election rather than sculpt a solution. The beginning of wisdom in this crisis is that neither side should win. The goal is political resolution, not political absolution.
Maybe this is the time to take a deep breath and dig deep into the fiscal Cliff Notes, using this sober time of reckoning to take on the vital national questions we almost always skirt. For we need to recognize that even after the election, the big national questions have not been answered. In fact, they have not been asked. Since this is going to be a wrenching season anyway, here are some questions we would prefer to evade but shouldn't:
• Should the budget be framed as a moral balance sheet or a financial balance sheet?
This question prompts important debates about income inequality, social mobility, financial rectitude and national economic health. The greatest dodge in American civic life is the facile view that good economics are good politics. How do we know that will be true in the current case -- not a garden-variety contretemps but a raging crisis -- even in the unlikely event that it was true in the past?
Elements in both parties believe the tax system should be an expression of American values, but they have vastly different values. Some liberals believe -- though they deny this is their view -- that the purpose of the tax system is primarily to foster fairness. Some conservatives believe -- they're in denial, too -- that the tax system should be designed only to create jobs and foster entrepreneurship. Again, neither side should win, or lose, completely.
• Is the tax system designed to raise revenue or shape economic behavior?
This question is seldom raised, never answered, in part because the pugilists want to answer one way some of the time, the other way the rest of the time.
Some want to use the tax code to shape behavior, whether to conserve energy or encourage home ownership, almost always with phony arguments that distort the economy but please powerful interest groups. Others want to use the tax system to spur growth or, while lowering rates, to promote freedom -- although four of the five nations with the highest tax rates as a percentage of income (Belgium, Germany, France and Sweden) arguably are as free as we are.
• Have the legal definition of "entitlements" and the popular meaning of the word been so confused that we are on a path to economic disaster?
Tens of millions of aged and infirm Americans are legally entitled to Social Security and Medicare benefits as currently constituted. But just because these social benefits are called "entitlements," does that mean everyone has to be entitled to them or that they have to be distributed at current levels, even if the ratio of money being diverted into the system already is out of whack with the money pouring out of it?
Medicare has not strayed much from its 1965 moorings. And it is not surprising that, with the population aging and medicine advancing, Medicare costs are growing. But these costs can be contained -- by adjusting reimbursement formulas and eligibility requirements. Changing conditions require changed regulations.
Social Security is a slightly different matter, though Democrats are chary of acknowledging that. Its role in American life has changed substantially since 1935. It was designed as an income supplement, not a pension, though today that difference has been lost. During the salad years, the country was happy to ignore that distinction. Now, the notion that Social Security is an entitlement in any way other than in the legal sense needs a full debate.
If nothing else, the country needs to recognize that if it were permissible to enhance these entitlements, as they have been with cost-of-living adjustments, then it's also possible to reduce them.
• Has our political rhetoric so perverted our political system that our words get in the way?
We have just completed a presidential campaign in which the Democrat employed the most virulent class-warfare language of any major-party candidate at least since Franklin Roosevelt, perhaps since William Jennings Bryan. Obama partisans inevitably will argue that the high pitch of the president was promoted by a shocking, dangerous level of income inequality in the country. Perhaps so.
But the Republicans -- especially the new-style, middle-class conservatives, who have nothing in common with the malefactors of great wealth that Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, deplored in 1907 -- aren't the economic royalists that FDR, a Democrat, deplored 29 years later. Barack Obama needs to sound like a president looking for a solution to a crisis, not a candidate seeking votes in a campaign.
Mr. Obama was not alone in excess. His opponents described him as a European social democrat if not an outright socialist, which would be news to real socialists, who would instantly dismiss Mr. Obama as a feckless, spineless moderate with a hopelessly innocuous petit-bourgeois outlook.
So, first step: We need to clean up the language before we can clean up the economic mess. Then tackle these questions.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.