WASHINGTON -- These days, it sounds like an improbable fairy tale: politicians with deeply differing visions of America setting aside disagreements to reach a grand compromise on a critical issue.
That's exactly what happened in 1790, when the Founding Fathers overlooked their parochial interests -- and defied their staunchest backers -- by agreeing, for the good of the fledgling union, to put America's capital in a neutral place along the Potomac River.
Would the same outcome happen today? Fat chance.
In this polarized and partisan era, Washington careens from one crisis to the next even as the country faces huge problems that threaten its standing in the world. With power divided on Capitol Hill, bipartisan solutions are necessary. And yet, while both Democrats and Republicans talk a lot about compromise -- a cross-the-aisle, solutions-driven approach -- few seem willing to give ground to fix what ails the nation.
The latest example is the stalemate over deep budget cuts set to take effect Friday, absent a bipartisan deal. The cuts likely will inconvenience average Americans and may slow the nation's fragile economic recovery. Both sides are dug in on their ideological positions. President Barack Obama and his Democrats want more tax increases, while Republicans demand more spending cuts.
This is the fifth fiscal standoff since this period of divided government began in 2011, when Republicans took over the House while Democrats continued to control the Senate. In the other cases, both sides reached mini-deals to avert immediate crisis -- only to ignore the larger issues. Skyrocketing debt and persistent deficits. Rampant waste, fraud and abuse. Budget-busting Social Security and Medicare programs.
Why does Washington get so caught up this cycle of panic -- whether manufactured or real -- only to ultimately put a Band-Aid on the country's biggest gushers without ever mending the underlying wounds?
Politicians have little incentive to take the risk of working with the opposing party to reach solutions that will fundamentally fix a problem. They operate in a system that makes it hard to roll the dice because they're putting their own jobs on the line. Robust Republican and Democratic parties -- and their conservative and liberal activists, whose voices drown out the centrist Americans seeking remedies -- usually rebuke them rather than reward them.
The Democratic and Republican parties are strong, and they probably won't face serious threats from third parties in the near future. They certainly won't eliminate gerrymandering unless voters force it.
So maybe it's time for something radical, or at least radically reasonable. Maybe this is the moment for a few of the frustrated Americans in the middle -- many of whom reject the extremes, complain about stalemate and fear for the nation's future -- to take a risk.
What if they stepped forward as candidates with a promise that they'll do only what they think will solve the country's big problems, regardless of what it could mean for their political careers? What if they rejected the strict adherence to orthodoxy that party bosses demand? What if they promised to only serve one term, choosing explicitly to put the country's future over their own?
And then, by not going to Congress primarily to get re-elected, they just might end up with a surprising reward: getting re-elected.
Wouldn't the country -- not to mention this supposedly neutral city on the banks of the Potomac -- be better for it?
Liz Sidoti is the national politics editor for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/lsidoti