Watching what’s been going on in Congress during the lame-duck session is like watching the proverbial train wreck.

It’s horrible, but you can’t tear your gaze away because the flaming wreckage and flying body parts rivet your attention to the havoc taking place right before your eyes.

One thing we shouldn’t be, however, is surprised.

We have collectively elected people to Congress who reflect nearly diametrically opposed viewpoints on issues of public policy. Expecting “bipartisanship” out of that crowd is like expecting Batman and the Joker to agree on a program of municipal betterment for Gotham City. Their basic goals are simply incompatible.

But the cause isn’t them, it’s us. We are conservatives who like limited government, liberals who like an expansive one, and people in the middle who go one way or the other depending on which one of the parties messed up last. We elect people who reflect us, and we are divided.

The most motivated people in politics are devoted to one or the other of two major worldviews (dare I say “ideologies”?) driving public policy partisans from both sides of the divide.

It is only because of the pressures driving politicians that we are seeing what is going on in D.C. this month, at both the macro and micro political and policy levels.

Politically, it’s interesting to see what’s being said about President Obama’s efforts to get his tax rate/unemployment extension/payroll tax cut package across to his own party.

Conservatives are saying his agreement to continue current tax rates (with some adjustments) for two years and extending unemployment benefits for 13 months (without funding it from current income) will significantly increase his chances of re-election in 2012.

That’s because 1) he has shown he is not a prisoner of the ideological left, and 2) keeping lower tax rates will boost the economy prior to the vote, thus supporting the incumbent in his quest for a second term.

Not all on the right concur. A few Republicans in Congress oppose the agreement because it contains spending hikes, not the cuts they correctly regard as essential to get back on the right fiscal track. Most others, however, say the party should take what it can get now and worry about cuts later.

But on the left, “progressives” are livid at what they see as a betrayal of one of their most precious policies, class warfare, aka “soak the rich.”

It’s still unknown exactly how many House and Senate Democrats would let present income tax rates expire at the end of the year as they are scheduled to do, returning to much higher rates across the board in 2011, but the number is not small, and it is not guaranteed that Obama can persuade enough of them to buy into his agreement to get it passed.

And they are saying that the president’s “cave-in” means he will have a much harder time being re-elected, because he has “betrayed his base.”

Since Obama cannot be both helped and harmed (in overall terms) by his action when 2012 rolls around, which side has the better argument?

Call me crazy, but it would seem more than obvious that if every taxpayer’s rates go up by thousands of dollars a year in January, the party now in control of both houses of Congress and the presidency will not escape being blamed for it.

That’s true even if Congress, pressed by a new GOP majority in the House and a stronger minority in the Senate, moves to restore the lower rates as quickly as possible.

Withholding will still skyrocket for an indefinite time, and people looking to file their 1040s will confront an IRS bureaucracy that is just as confused as its taxpaying clientele.

So, failing to adopt this package would be a disaster for Democrats — and yet, no one knows whether enough of them will buy into it to gain a majority in Congress.

At midday Thursday, the House Democratic caucus approved by a voice vote a resolution not to bring the package to the floor. If that holds, or if the package is defeated if it gets to the floor, that will cement the Democrats as the party of substantially higher taxes.

And it will allow Republicans to position themselves as the saviors of the average taxpayer when the new year rolls around.

On the other hand, a two-year extension will put the issue squarely in the middle of the next presidential campaign, which the GOP thinks can’t help but work to its advantage.

From the conservatives’ perspective, this is a win-win situation — which is the political reason Democrats are dragging their heels.

That isn’t likely to be persuasive to the public at large, however, including the independents the Democrats already angered enough to lose the House in a 63-seat rout Nov. 2.

With opinion polls showing 40 percent of Americans calling themselves “conservative” to only 20 percent “liberal,” the idea that we can tax and spend our way out of current problems doesn’t look like a winner.

Cartoonist Michael Ramirez of Investors’ Business Daily showed the true situation in a panel this week depicting the chairmen of the deficit commission saying, “It’s very difficult” and “It’s very complicated” — next to a baby in a high chair saying, “Cut spending.”

If the Republicans can stay on that message (something that remains to be seen), the “party of no” can end up on top of the heap in the next election.

Of course, winning is only the curtain-raiser. What happens after that is what counts.

M.D. Harmon is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6482 or at:

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