WASHINGTON -- Here's the real question this election season: Why would Barack Obama or Mitt Romney want to be president in 2013?
As annoyingly riveting as the 2012 election season is, it is only a preview of and staging area for the real political circus to come.
It is a prelude to Armageddon.
It will arrive in two parts. The first is the lame duck session of the 112th Congress, which will convene some time after Election Day. The second will be the early months of the 113th Congress, starting in January 2013.
Simply put, if Congress can't get its act together in those two moments, being in the White House will be an unpleasant experience for either the current president or Romney.
Some economists see another recession looming -- even without the approaching U.S. budget crisis. Automatic tax increases and spending cuts could quickly drain hundreds of billions from the American economy, pushing us back into recession and the world into a tailspin that may make 2008 look tame.
This election is unlike any other in recent memory. Despite a lot of huffing and puffing, it is not about grand ideological conflict in America. It is not about a clash of civilizations or governmental philosophies abroad.
It is more prosaic, but in its own way more urgent. On one level, it is merely an actuarial, parliamentary-style election focused on the legislature rather than (in American style) the saga of the chief executive. It is about who will have the upper hand in Congress in the ongoing struggle to reduce the U.S. debt and annual budget deficits by changing the tax code, reforming (i.e., limiting) entitlements and cutting other spending.
But on a deeper level, it is about the viability of our democracy to make sensible economic decisions.
When Congress is involved, I always call the man in Washington who knows the most about how it does or does not work. I am speaking, of course, of Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. Here is what we discussed.
If present electoral trends continue, it looks as if Obama will be reelected, the Democrats will keep a slim hold on the Senate, and the Republicans will hold the House, perhaps barely. That would be a partial reversal -- but not full repudiation -- of the GOP's Tea Party-infused surge in 2010.
In other words, the result would be pretty much of a push: a $3 billion to $5 billion election in which very little is actually decided in fiscal terms.
Then we run smack into what is now called the dreaded "fiscal cliff." It was created in two parts.
One part, the Budget Control Act of 2011, is a piece of chainsaw legislation that now requires $500 billion in cuts to defense spending and another $500 billion in cuts to non-defense programs, other than entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, over the next 10 years. The other part is the expiration of the Bush-era (and Obama-era) tax cuts, as well as the expiration of other tax-cut provisions.
If those two things happen at the same time, as they are scheduled to do at the beginning of January, the results would be, to use Ross Perot's term, a "giant sucking sound" -- in this case of stimulus being removed from the American economy all at once. That, in turn, could put a catastrophic damper on prospects of growth in the U.S. and the world.
To keep the tax cuts from expiring, Congress has to pass a new law. To keep the chainsaw from cutting, Congress has to agree on an equivalent amount of budget savings, from spending cuts or tax increases.
(Congress, before it left town for the election season, passed a six-month extension of this year's current spending levels, but that move did not override the Budget Control Act's power and provisions.)
So what happens if the election results are as they seem likely to be, and the cliff looms?
Ornstein, co-author of a gloomy bestseller on Congress called "It's Worse Than it Looks," gave me three scenarios for the lame duck session and what follows. (Ornstein always has scenarios.)
They punt: "Congress extents the Bush-Obama tax cuts for six months and pushes the effective date of the Budget Control Act back six months. That would put the whole thing into the new Congress," he said.
They fail: Democrats hold out for better numbers in the new Congress. Recalcitrant Tea Party types decide that they were insufficiently obstructionist. Some Democrats are quite happy to see the tax cuts expire, and take their chances of amending the Budget Control Act later. In other words, we go over the fiscal cliff with no hang glider.
They deal: Either in the lame duck session or early in the new Congress, the "dealmakers" prevail. The Democrats' leverage is that they can let the tax cuts expire, and then immediately offer a new bill that would restore all of the tax cuts except those for millionaires -- and dare the GOP to vote against that new measure. At the same time, the president would offer some entitlement cuts -- not everything the Tea Party might want, but enough to get the business community (read the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) to lean on the renegades. In Ornstein's view, the GOP leaders in the Senate and House may be willing to deal, but it will be up to the business community to close the sale with the rejectionists.
Ornstein said he doesn't expect a sudden wave of statesmanship and bipartisanship to suddenly overtake the ruins of the divided Congress, but he expresses some hope.
"There may enough forces pushing a deal that it will actually happen," he said.
But he didn't sound too sure.
For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.