Why is it so hard to get a debt limit agreement?

Gridlock is hardly a new Washington phenomenon, yet this year’s drama over raising the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling has defied — many would say rewritten — the rules of Washington give and take.

The process has become unusually ideological, personal and ugly. Going to the brink of chaos is considered a smart political strategy in some circles. So is staging public walkouts of bipartisan negotiations – three times so far by Republicans. Or having a normally cool, press-shy president hold three news conferences in two weeks, deliver a nationally televised address and feud openly with the speaker of the House of Representatives.

Yet this debt struggle is really no surprise to veteran Washington analysts, because it’s the culmination of years of political upheaval.

“The fight over this issue is a symptom of a larger problem,” said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank.

That problem is how the rules of political engagement have changed for the worse. The change was sparked partly by the new media world, where every sentence and procedural vote can trigger a national reaction instantly.

But it’s also shaped by recent events: An increasingly frustrated electorate continues to endure the most sluggish economy in a generation. The conservative movement sees its revolution regaining vigor. The two political parties savor their prospects of winning big in 2012, and see their opponents’ leaders as fragile.

Then too, House districts are designed now to be politically homogenous, so that their representatives can be ideologically rigid and not have to appeal to voters with other views. Lawmakers are often elected without much motivation to reach to the middle. “There is now no overlap ideologically at all between the parties,” Ornstein said.

Similarly, Senate rules make 60 votes necessary to get anything done in the 100-member chamber, giving great leverage to the minority party or even small groups of senators willing to extort concessions from the majority in exchange for their precious votes to amass 60.

Senate Republicans gained six seats in November and now have 47, more than enough to prevent Democrats from gaining the 60 votes needed to get anything done.

In addition, today’s era of “the permanent campaign” gives fundraisers and special interest groups more clout over how lawmakers behave, making compromise difficult.

These developments helped shape the 2010 congressional elections, when Republicans regained firm control of the House and Democrats saw their Senate margin shrink by six.

“That election was one of the most important in American history,” said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and a former Senate aide.

“It was a moment in American life with a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear,” he said, because of the reeling economy and anger over the 2010 health care law, which was seen by many as an already out-of-control, broke government overreaching.

People were still seething that the federal government bailed out big banks while consumers saw their nest eggs shrink.

“We’re still in the backwash of that election,” Baker said.