It's a commonplace to argue that the battle for helth care reform has not been an especially edifying time for American politics. And granted, there's been plenty of craziness and a degree of legislative jiggery-pokery that has not done much to increase the public's faith in Congress. But this misses the point. I think.
Washington is a place of sweaty knavery but it's also home to an almost touching measure of idealism. The Tea Partiers have their kooky side but, as Matt Steinglass points out, they're quintessentially American. More significantly their protests - regardless of what one thinks of the merit of their cause - remind one that the arguments over what sort of country America has been, is and should be in the future never quite end. The American Idea is always up for grabs.
That is, there's a vitality about American public discourse that is, in the end, an optimistic demonstration of faith in the power of politics and, more generally, human endeavour. Towards a more perfect union for sure, but what kind of union?
All that helps contribute to the grand guignol aspect of American politics that makes it such compelling viewing for the rest of us. This, I think, is an aspect of American leadership that is sometimes overlooked. For all the talk of relative decline in the 21st century it's going to be a long time before Chinese politics becomes as interesting to the lay follower, far less surpasses the fascination of the still-running great American experiment. Language and culture and history explain much of that, but not all of it.
There was another rally in Washington on Sunday that helps illustrate the point. Thousands marched on the Mall to call for Congress to act on immigration reform. Again, your views of the merits of the discussion matter less than the vibrancy of the argument itself. Here too we witness the United States - half a continent! - wrestling with real and big ideas about what it means to be an American and what it may mean in the future.
Lobbying has a bad reputation, but these thousands, like those protesting against health-care reform were there to petition Congress too, reminding the legislature that the people are out there and demanding that their voices be heard. They were, in that sense, testifying before Congress too and, for all that their faith may be disappointed, exercising their republican right to a hearing.
That's America for you: a great seething mass of humanity in all its sillyness and occasional nobility. A place where, at its best, all things do remain possible and a country which refuses, psychologically speaking, to accept the closing of the frontier. That's the America that matters and, I trust, the America that will endure.
So, sure, you could look at a year of grinding health-care debate, some of it tedious and some of it ridiculous, and complain that this shows how broken American politics is. But I think it may actually be the other way round: the system is neither irretrievably nor fundamentally broken and the United States, by dint of history and diversity, remains the great experimental, democratic melting pot.
The sad day - the day when we'll know something really has changed - is when big stuff happens in Congress and no-one cares. Happily that prospect still seems some way off.