Before we make political partisanship a felony, punishable by endless lectures from weather-vane senators and allegedly wise commentators, let’s remember that some choices are real, consequential and mutually exclusive.

I’m not talking about the kind of scorched-earth partisanship that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell espouses — the notion that Republicans should favor anything that’s politically harmful to Democrats, never mind what the impact on the country might be. “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” McConnell said last year, displaying a candor that is all too rare in Washington.

I’m talking about partisanship based on issues, policy options and incompatible philosophies about the nature and purpose of government. Powerful forces are pulling the nation in opposite directions. The danger of too much compromise is that we end up not moving at all.

A classic example is the attempt to restart the economy following the worst downturn since the Great Depression. When Obama took office, the crisis was acute; consumers and businesses were shell-shocked, and there was real danger of a self-reinforcing downward spiral. Any follower of British economist John Maynard Keynes — and Obama was being advised by dedicated Keynesians — had to recommend a very large pulse of government spending.

In the spirit of compromise, however, one-third of the stimulus package put forth by the White House consisted of tax cuts — which a Keynesian would say are much less stimulative than direct government spending. History will note that this nod toward bipartisanship did not inoculate the stimulus from constant criticism by Republicans, despite their eternal love for tax cuts. However, it likely diminished the effectiveness of the stimulus, thus giving Republicans ammunition for their claim that it didn’t work.

We are at a similar juncture right now. Conservatives and progressives should be able to agree that the long-term national debt of $14.3 trillion is a serious problem. Effective solutions, however, do not lend themselves to meet-in-the-middle compromise.

There are basically two ways to reduce the debt as a percentage of GDP: Cut government spending or make the economy grow. The problem is that doing more of one means doing less of the other.

Consumers are still wary of spending — understandable, given unemployment of more than 9 percent and real estate values that have not recovered from the crash. Businesses are sitting on an enormous hoard of cash that they are reluctant to spend — not so much because of uncertainty but because of sluggish demand.

Government, quite rightly, has stepped in to fill the gap. If we cut government spending too much, we pull the rug out from under the recovery — and increase the demand for costly government services such as unemployment insurance. We have to make a decision: Is the most important task right now to grow the economy or to cut spending? If we pretend to do both, we’ll end up doing neither.

This is just a small version of the larger debate about the size and role of government. Real decisions must be made.

Do we want a government that ensures medical care for senior citizens and the poor? According to a recent Washington Post poll, 72 percent of Americans oppose cutting spending on Medicaid as a way to reduce the debt; 54 percent oppose raising the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67.

Do we want a government that provides retirees with an adequate baseline income? Fifty-three percent of Americans oppose changes to Social Security that would reduce the rate at which benefits rise over time, according to the Post poll. These entitlements are sacred cows not just for Democrats but for Republicans as well. Across both parties, Americans would rather see increased taxes on the well-to-do.

Far-right conservatives who harbor a radically different vision — of a much smaller government without the wherewithal to provide this kind of safety net — now control the House of Representatives and the Republican Party. In the debt ceiling debate, they have rejected long-term solutions that have conceded most of what they demand. They want it all.

Progressives who say no — who acknowledge that we must reduce the debt but in ways that do not kill economic growth or gut entitlements — are being partisan for the best possible reason: Much is subject to compromise, but not our future as a great nation.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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