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posted: 1/2/2014 5:00 AM

The tale of one city

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"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." So goes the first sentence in "A Tale of Two Cities." It applies to us now. Except, 2013 was the tale of two old dysfunctional political parties in one city, Washington, D.C.

Let's look at the rest of Charles Dickens' famous opening. How much of Washington do you see in this?

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"It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us."

I'm tempted to say we had plenty of foolishness, incredulity, Darkness, despair -- not to mention nothing before us. But, this led me to look for the bright side, to look for wisdom, belief, Light, hope and everything before us. So, let me get the dark side out of the way.

The year 2013 was the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that freed the slaves in the rebellious states, prompting Confederate President Jefferson Davis to admit to a visitor that it had "freed half our slaves." He had it almost right -- the other half were shortly to be free. Emancipation freed everyone, including our Constitution and democratic institutions. We went forward with a new birth of freedom.

This year was also the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, which led directly to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1965. But this was the year when a shadow of darkness fell across many citizens. The Supreme Court struck down a key provision that safeguarded the right to vote. As a result, we get so-called "fraud prevention" ID laws -- whose real purpose is to deny certain broad classes of voters their right to vote. Darkness, indeed.

Washington is one city with two parties, both of which seem increasingly at odds with the rest of the nation. Each is inching further and further toward the extreme. Huddled in the moderate middle, in numbers that are greater than either party's, are independents who can't vote in most primaries. They must select, in many instances, between two candidates, neither of whom they agree with.

The result has been a climate of intolerance that paralyzes congressional action. This Congress was the least productive in history, according to those who keep track of such things. Gun legislation, immigration reform, a farm bill with much needed revisions -- all lie dormant in congressional committees, though each has a majority of popular support.

President Barack Obama saw his "worst of times," with a badly botched health care rollout, topped by shooting himself in the foot with a 98 percent truth, saying that most people could keep their insurance plan. But, 2 percent couldn't, and his failure to mention that up front hurt his credibility.

It was also the best of times: There is an upside to 2013. Since I ended the worst with Obama's self-inflicted blow, let me begin the best with him. President Obama is the only moderate leader in Washington who speaks for all the people. He remains the most trusted, despite the decline he suffered. He's continues to work for change.

Obama has promised to devote the rest of his term to ending income inequality. Thanks to policies over the last 30 years, the top 1 percent has doubled its take of the national earned income, while the remaining 99 percent have lost economic ground. Things will stay this way unless we change the policies that foster inbuilt economic inequality. Now we have a champion for us, who has achieved goals over near impossible odds.

Obamacare is faring much better in public approval, even with the black eye it sported from the rollout. The public is increasingly aware this program not only demonstrably reduces the public debt, but also returns money to most consumers' pockets, making it a big driver of economic equality. Republican establishment leaders have abandoned the effort to repeal Obamacare, meaning we can now focus on tweaking and improving it. But Tea Party Republicans will still howl, and we all know whining is the new sport in Washington.

We had a government shutdown, which may seem odd to put under the category of "the best of times," except the public revulsion over it was so overwhelmingly strong, Congress said, "Yes, sir. Yes, Ma'am." For the first time since April 2009, both the House and the Senate have agreed to a two-year budget, meaning no more shutdowns in the near time. We'll know shortly if everyone will keep their word and put an end to manufactured crisis. I'm optimistic.

I'm cautiously hopeful we are stepping away from the toxic atmosphere -- where the other party never, ever, does anything right -- to a slowly developing air-clearing where we seek mutual agreement where we can and compromise on the rest. Come to think of it, wasn't that what President Obama suggested in the first place?

2014, United Features Syndicate Inc.

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