Chalk it up as another opportunity not taken, another moment not seized, another chance for leadership allowed to slip away.

Standard & Poor’s decision to downgrade the United States’ credit rating last Friday was unnecessary and unjustified but certainly not unexpected.

America’s leaders could have been and should have been ready for it, prepared to respond in a way that would have reassured the nation and the world, calmed the financial markets and refuted S&P’s fatuous suggestion that the greatest country on earth is so dysfunctional it can’t be trusted to pay its debts.

The country’s political system is dysfunctional, without a doubt — so dysfunctional that long-serving and devoted practitioners of the system, such as U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, have declared it broken.

Snowe said last week that “the art of governing and legislating has been virtually lost.”

But that doesn’t mean we can’t pay our bills. The credit downgrade clearly had more to do with S&P’s self-aggrandizing political agenda than with real concerns about the United States’ creditworthiness.

It was obvious from comments made by S&P spokesmen over the weekend that the bond-rating agency wanted to throw its weight around. In the process, it poked a stick in the collective eye of all the politicians and analysts who criticized its stunning incompetence in the run-up to the financial collapse of 2008, when S&P mindlessly conferred its top credit rating on worthless mortgage securities.

And if we needed further evidence that Standard & Poor’s opinion is less than triple-A in value: When traders bailed out of the stock market on Monday, where did most of them put their money? You guessed it. They bought the very U.S. Treasury bonds that S&P had downgraded three days earlier.

Downgrade or no downgrade, the United States is still the most dependable investment on the planet.

So S&P’s action last week was outrageous, and if U.S. political leaders wanted to blast them for it, they had every right to do so. A joint statement from President Barack Obama and congressional leaders of both parties condemning the credit downgrade might have been well-received by the American people and by investors around the world.

Instead, the president and the leaders of both parties decided to continue and exacerbate the political dysfunction that provoked the downgrade in the first place.

Democrats contemptuously labeled S&P’s action “the tea party downgrade.” Republicans, meanwhile, seemed to almost welcome the downgrade, spinning it as an endorsement of their demands for spending cuts and blaming it entirely on Obama, congressional Democrats and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

At a time when the nation and the world desperately needed a display of unified leadership and bipartisan resolve all we got was another round of name-calling and finger-pointing.

Given the stock market’s downward trend in recent weeks, it may have been impossible to head off Monday’s 634-point implosion of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, but the leaders who might have had a chance to calm the markets after Friday’s news didn’t even try. Obama was missing in action all weekend and the rest made the rounds of TV talk shows, recklessly throwing gasoline on the economic fire.

Even politicians who believed, and rightly so, that S&P’s downgrade was irrelevant to the nation’s fiscal stability had to know there would be ramifications in the financial markets. How difficult would it have been for the president and other leaders to gather at the White House and assure the world that the United States government is committed to finding a bipartisan, long-term solution to its economic problems?

Too difficult, apparently.

Such an encouraging show of unity, after all, would have required all concerned to sacrifice a few moments of political gamesmanship in the service of national leadership.

How silly of us to even suggest the possibility of such sacrifice from cynical, self-serving individuals whose vision for our country’s future begins and ends with the next election.

Sooner or later, though, if we’re to have the remotest chance of solving our problems, at least a few of these leaders will have to make a sacrifice or two. They will have to stop fixating on the next election long enough to make some hard choices, to take some risks to promote the common good.

Our problems are difficult, but not impossible. Solutions will demand thought and courage and compromise. There is still time.

But we can’t help but wonder how many more moments can go unseized before time runs out.

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