Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House John Boehner talk to the media about a budget stalemate in April.

Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Toobin is a senior legal analyst for CNN and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, where he covers legal affairs.

Story highlights

Jeffrey Toobin says government is in a fierce, valid debate over its purpose and purview

He says it reflects principled disagreement between parties, not failure of intelligence, energy

He says groups like NoLabels say nonpartisan fixes exist out there, but don't propose them

Toobin: Elections matter; labels matter; in our system, conflict is a feature, not a flaw

CNN  — 

It doesn’t look broken to me.

Rather, government today looks like the focus of a fierce debate over what it stands for and what it can accomplish. Democrats, in rough terms, think the government can be a useful social engine to protect the environment, help the poor and build the economy. Republicans, in similar outline, think the government often does more harm than good, and a less-regulated private sector will help us all more than government programs.

These are profound ideological differences, not a failure of intelligence or energy on either side. But the unwillingness of Democrats and Republicans to agree is often taken as a kind of mindless intransigence rather than principled disagreement.

Take, a high-profile national organization that is trying to organize around what it calls a nonpartisan agenda. In its statement of purpose, NoLabels says, “Our political discourse increasingly offers up cynical, petty partisanship at the expense of practical solutions to the challenges facing our national well-being.”

NoLabels trades on a persistent mythology that “practical solutions” exist somewhere out there, but politicians simply refuse to find or accept them. Not so – as NoLabels itself proves. If these solutions are so apparent, why doesn’t the NoLabels website provide any?

The group proposes to organize members, hold meetings, create chapters and raise money, and it calls on politicians to make “tough choices,” but … to do what? That’s not clear. The NoLabels “declaration” asserts, “We may disagree on issues, but we do so with civility and mutual respect.” That’s dandy, but it’s also vapid.

There are substantive differences between the political parties that involve matters of principle. Abortion either will or will not be legal. Ditto for same-sex marriage. And the differences go well beyond social issues. Taxes on the wealthiest citizens (and everyone else) will go up or down or remain the same. Our troops will or will not return from Afghanistan and Iraq. These issues don’t have “right answers” that are somehow invisible to us now. People with different world views see them differently – and always will.

Of course, politicians should always explore the possibilities for reasonable compromise. Many issues – like taxes and budgets, for example – are amenable to agreements that give something to each side. And it’s not just substance that separates the parties; their tactics are different, too. In the crisis over the raising of the debt ceiling this summer, any realistic assessment of the positions of both parties would conclude that the Democrats compromised their views a lot more than the Republicans.

That’s just a fact, and journalists have the obligation to point out which side is more amenable to compromise. It’s easy for us to fall into the same trap as NoLabels and apportion responsibility mindlessly and equally to both sides. But there are differences between the parties – important differences in both substance and strategy.

Democrats won major victories in the elections of 2006 and 2008, and produced the results you would expect from their party: health care reform, a stimulus program, an automobile industry bailout and an end to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. After the Republican landslide of 2010, tax cuts, deregulation and defunding of Planned Parenthood and National Public Radio moved to the top of the agenda.

Frankly, this is as it should be. Elections matter. Labels matter. Conflict is not a flaw in our system; it’s a feature of it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeffrey Toobin.