Millions of Americans watched the presidential candidates' debate Wednesday, but it wasn't the most important political event of this election cycle.
No, much more important political mash-ups have quietly been taking place over the last few weeks in small conference rooms, private offices and political hideaways far from the spotlight.
These sessions, outlined in general terms by Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee at a meeting with The Commercial Appeal editorial board last week and then explained in a New York Times story a day later, offer up a hopeful picture of how politics can — and must — work in the months ahead.
In essence, about 20 Republicans and Democrats have been coming together in an effort to keep America from going over the "fiscal cliff." Whether we Americans go sailing off that cliff early next year likely will decide whether this nation plunges back into a recession or rockets ahead to new economic heights.
The issue boils down to this: Because Congress couldn't agree in the last four years on any package of spending cuts and tax increases to address the huge federal deficit, it established a supposedly unbendable set of rules that automatically impose both deep spending cuts and steep tax increases come January.
Unless Congress can devise some plan to address the national budget problems, we all will go off the fiscal cliff of both tax increases and draconian federal budget cuts.
How high a cliff is it?
The nonprofit Tax Policy Center concluded recently that an average middle-class household earning about $60,000 a year would owe about $2,000 more in federal taxes in 2013 if Congress can't steer the nation in a new direction.
On the automatic expense reduction side, known as sequestration, going over the fiscal cliff would mean automatic cuts to the defense budget of $30 billion, cuts to Medicare payments to doctors of $5 billion, and another $30 billion in cuts to a variety of federal programs and agencies — including the Food and Drug Administration, which approves new drugs and monitors food safety, and the National Institutes of Health, which is the primary source of funding for medical research.
The stark reality of a substantial tax hike and big cuts in federal services that are triggered by the inability of Congress to think up anything better helps explain why the public's approval of Congress is at an all-time low.
But here's some encouraging news.
Tennessee's two U.S. senators are quietly, fervently trying to keep the country from going off that cliff.
"We've been meeting, a group of 15 to 20 senators from both sides of the aisle, to try to get a plan together that could pass after the election," Corker explained while visiting the newspaper. "And I'm optimistic."
Corker could not share every detail, but his outline of what is going on now in the Senate looks like this. The middle-ground senators, meaning those who aren't on the far right or the far left fringe of the Republican or Democratic caucuses, understand that solving the nation's debt problem will require both spending cuts and revenue increases.
"In fact, I'd say a majority of Republicans in the Senate are willing to put more revenues on the table — if we can actually come up with a plan that will cut federal expenses, too," Corker said.
And he noted that most Democratic senators are open to spending cuts — provided the key social services like Medicare and Social Security can continue for those who rely on them.
Both Corker and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander are key players in this save-America-from-the-cliff discussion. They are talking to the Senate Democrats. They are open to some level of compromise and debate on tax increases and spending cuts.
They are looking at all kinds of plans, from those proposed by Alice Rivlin, who was President Bill Clinton's director of management and budget, to the recommendations of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, who put together a budget-balancing plan for President Barack Obama, to the ideas of Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.
The two Tennessee senators have become experts on where our government's dollars go, and what needs to change to keep this country from going bankrupt.
Perhaps most important, they are trying to reshape the politics of Washington so that a do-nothing Congress will get off the dime and do something critically important to the future of this country.
"We've got to get some agreement on both sides of the aisle," Corker explained. "And I think we can do it right after the election."
At a time when the nation's political climate seems so poisonous, these are encouraging words from Tennessee.