By JOHN F. HARRIS and JONATHAN ALLEN | 1/30/12 4:52 AM EST Updated: 1/30/12 10:15 AM EST
Every time there is divided government in Washington, there is a revival — among elite journalists, think tank commentators and respectable politicians of all stripes — of a cherished idea about how business should get done in the nation’s capital:

Get the most responsible adults of both parties in one room, shoo away the cameras and microphones, and don’t let the two sides come out until they have cut a deal on the most pressing problem of the day.

Call it the Split the Difference Scenario — a dream of Washington at its civic-minded best that has flourished for decades, even as the reality of Washington became ever more snarling and contentious.

Sometimes, the dream even came true, in iconic closed-door moments: a bipartisan bargain over Social Security in 1983, a high-drama budget summit at Andrews Air Force Base in 1990, a landmark spending accord between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich in 1997.

The striking fact about Washington at the start of 2012 is how many people, in public and private, say they have concluded that the capital is no longer a city of splittable differences.

This sullen judgment is by all evidence driving the political strategy of President Barack Obama, formerly an apostle of a grand bargain to solve the country’s fiscal problems.

He’s being joined by a critical mass of Washington influentials — witnessing the inability of the two parties to find common ground on the budget in 2011 — who are ready to discard the old ideal: Politicians huddling behind closed doors to cut deals is no longer viewed as necessarily even a desirable scenario, much less a plausible one.

“This election is built to have a fight,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican and the House majority whip, told POLITICO. “If you watch from the rise of the tea party [on the right] to the rise of the Occupiers [on the left]—in ’08, our country said they wanted a little more government. In 2010, they said, ‘Whoa, that was too much.’ I think 2012 is going to be the argument for the size and scope of what they want America to be, and that is healthy. We should have the debate of what we want this country to look like.”

The correct response to Washington gridlock, by this reckoning, is not private deal-making but a public clash over core beliefs. Most Republicans don’t believe in raising taxes and would rather fight than split the difference. Most Democrats don’t believe benefits like Medicare should be cut or turned over to the states and are more than ready to take the argument to voters.

Neera Tanden, an influential Democrat who heads the liberal Center for American Progress, echoed McCarthy. “Two different elections point in two different ways, and both sides are arguing over fundamental principles,” she said.

Tanden argues that much of the commentary about Washington incorrectly supposes that it is petty obstacles — political posturing or the tactics of special interest groups — that prevent a return to grand bargains of the Andrews Air Force Base variety. “The debate has become so shrill and partisan people just assume it’s ridiculous,” she said, when the argument is actually over basic questions that may get resolved only when the electorate decides in an emphatic way which side is right.

This analysis is shared by Rahm Emanuel, a veteran of Washington and Obama’s West Wing and now the mayor of Chicago.

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Good to the left and right can agree on something.