I am pleased to report the sighting of an artifact so rarely seen among Democrats that it has become the stuff of legend and conjecture, like Bigfoot or theLoch Ness monster. It is called a spine.
Said spine was briefly glimpsed a little over a week ago at a "jobs summit" in Inglewood, Calif., in the person of Rep. Maxine Waters. "I'm not afraid of anybody," the California Democrat said. "... And as far as I'm concerned, the 'tea party' can go straight to hell."
Her words left the Tea Party Patriots sputtering about the need to play nice. "The president and all leaders of the Democratic Party, who have called for civility in the past, are neglecting to censure their own," the group said, according to The Washington Post. "Is civility only required from their opponents?" Which is funnier than a Bill Cosby monologue, coming from the folks who turned town hall meetings into verbal brawls and threw rocks through windows because they opposed health care reform.
I intend no blanket lionization here of Representative Waters, who is the object of a protracted ethics probe and whom I have for years privately dubbed "Mad Max," in both consternation and admiration of her feistiness. Moreover, as hypocritical and self-serving as the Tea Party Patriots' statement is, it is also correct: Telling people to go to hell is about as uncivil as it gets. I could never, in ordinary times, applaud such conduct.
But no one will ever mistake these for ordinary times.
These are, rather, times in which the nation's civic dialogue, the ordinary political business of give and take, has been made hostage to the whims of a loud, incoherent minority that has used its very extremism as a weapon. Seventy percent of us, according to a Gallup poll, think both tax increases and spending cuts ought to be used to reduce the budget deficit. That reasonable, balanced approach was not a part of the debt ceiling deal because the tea party threatened, credibly, to push the nation into default rather than allow it.
Republicans have been shamefully complaisant toward this behavior, unable to produce a stateswoman — or man — willing to stand up for the simple idea that one should put national welfare above ideological purity.
Democrats have been their usual hapless, communicatively challenged selves, the congressional equivalent of the kid in school who walks around all day with "Kick Me" taped to his back, then wonders why people keep kicking him.
The need for a viable third party has seldom been more apparent. What is lost here, though, is not simply points for a given party but, rather, our very ability to compromise, which is, after all, the soul of politics. Nor, obviously, will Ms. Waters' intemperate remark do anything to bring that ability back.
But it does acknowledge a reality President Barack Obama refuses to accept: Compromise requires a partner. When the other party's bottom line is that you fail, when that is the opponent's prime directive, the most important item on their agenda, then you lack both that partner and any basis for negotiation.
To put that another way: after you have reasoned with the bully, bargained with the bully, tried to appease the bully, sometimes the only remaining option is to punch the bully in the nose.
That's what Maxine Waters did. Good for her.
Leonard Pitts' column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His email is email@example.com.