President Barack Obama told the nation in his July 25 televised speech that Washington “is a city where ‘compromise’ is becoming a dirty word.”
If he’s right and Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on a way out of the impasse over raising the U.S. debt ceiling, there will be plenty of blame to go around.
The ideological purification of the two parties, the public’s demands for painless remedies and the insecurity of party leaders after three elections that shuffled partisan power are all elements that brought Congress, the president and the country to this perilous point.
“If you look at the incentives and disincentives faced by members of Congress, you can see why they do not want to take compromising positions,” said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California in San Diego.
“They are playing to the people who got them there. Those people do want compromise. But by ‘compromise,’ they mean the other side caves in to them,” Jacobson said.
That’s the message Republican House Speaker John Boehner is hearing from his constituents as he tries to pass legislation that will stave off a default on the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt that economists say could diminish America’s standing with investors for decades.
“I’m happy most of the time in gridlock,” said Chris Littleton, a Tea Party member who lives in Boehner’s hometown of West Chester, Ohio. “What’s done in the name of bipartisanship almost always screws the American people.”
Obama and Boehner are not the first to try to map out a bipartisan deficit reduction plan, and history shows it’s not been easy.
The 1997 deal between Democratic President Bill Clinton and then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, only came after government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996. The government was also partially closed in the run-up to passage of Republican President George H.W. Bush’s 1991 deal with a Democratic-controlled Congress that ultimately contributed to his defeat to Clinton a year later.
Even the 1985 showdown between Republican President Ronald Reagan and then-House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, a Massachusetts Democrat, that is now so fondly remembered by many in Washington included its share of tension.
“It’s like high noon at the old corral,” said then-Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, a Kansas Republican, according to a July 27, 1985 report in the Chicago Tribune. “We’re in Dodge City and we’ve got Tip O’Neill on one end of the street and Ronald Reagan on the other. They’re looking at each other trying to decide who is going to blink first.”
This year’s negotiations are different, in part because the Capitol is almost devoid of the Southern Democrats and New England Republicans who easily crossed partisan lines and made such deals possible in the Reagan-O’Neill era.
The seeds of the current showdown were sown more than 20 years ago, when state legislators began using sophisticated computer software to redraw House district lines to maximize partisan advantages.
According to a study done by Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University in Virginia, there were 161 House swing districts in which the 1988 presidential vote split 48% to 52%. After two rounds of redistricting following the 1990 and 2000 censuses, the number of swing districts nationwide had dropped to 91.
Appealing to Base
The creation of safe, partisan seats meant the vast majority of the 435 House members only needed to appeal to their party base to win re-election. As the nation divided along partisan lines, similar dynamics were introduced in the Senate, said former Representative Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who developed bipartisan relationships while serving in the House.
Redistricting didn’t cause “polarization, but in many cases it exacerbates it,” said John C. Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron in Ohio. “This means that there’s less and less room for compromise.”
The 2009 rise of the Tea Party movement, which objected to the growth in federal spending and the reach of the health-care overhaul Obama shepherded into law, accelerated these trends. And in 2010, Tea Party activists focused on party primaries to press for ideological conformity.
In Utah, incumbent Senator Bob Bennett was denied re-nomination at the state Republican convention. In Alaska, Joe Miller knocked off incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary. Similar upsets in Senate Republican primaries occurred in Nevada, Colorado and Delaware.
While Murkowski retained her seat by running as an independent and the Republican nominees in Nevada, Colorado and Delaware lost to Democratic opponents in the 2010 midterms, roughly 30 candidates with Tea Party backing captured House seats.
Those new House members and their supporters have been among the most skeptical and suspicious of the negotiations between Boehner and Obama to achieve a deficit-reduction package that would pave the way for increasing the debt limit.
Littleton, 32, is a communications consultant who helped found the Ohio Liberty Council, an umbrella organization of Tea Party groups in Ohio. In an interview, he said default is being used as a “scare tactic,” and the government will find the cash to pay its debts.
Any deal to raise the debt ceiling should include long-term moves to cap spending and lower the nation’s deficit and debt, he said. Anything short of that means “compromise” and “bipartisanship” are hurting the nation, he said.
Tea Party Rally
Ohio Tea Party supporters rallied July 25 at Boehner’s West Chester office “to encourage the speaker to stand strong on the debt-ceiling negotiations,” according to a press statement.
As the 2012 election cycle begins, Senators Richard Lugar of Indiana, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Orrin Hatch of Utah already face challenges in their Republican primaries by candidates backed by Tea Party groups.
“I think the Tea Party has been absolutely critical in getting the debate turned around in Washington,” said Sal Russo, a former aide to Reagan and co-founder of the Tea Party Express. “I think people understand what the message is and it is as strong today as it was in 2010 and will be in 2012 if Congress doesn’t demonstrate they are going to act responsibly.”
Democratic activists are also trying to impose ideological discipline in the debt talks.
In 2010, Arkansas Senator Blanche Lambert Lincoln drew a Democratic primary challenger after MoveOn.org, an online activist group, and other organizations concluded she wasn’t fighting hard enough to insert a public option in the health-care overhaul. Lincoln survived, but lost in the general election.
MoveOn and Washington-based groups The Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America are now warning Democrats that cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits could lead to primary challenges for Democrats next year.
“In the House, this debate right now is separating the real Democrats from the fake Democrats,” said Adam Green, founder of PCCC. “Any Democrat who would be willing to slash” those benefits, “is willing to flush the Democratic legacy down the drain.”
In a warning to Obama, the PCCC delivered to his Chicago re-election headquarters online petitions signed by 201,000 Democratic activists pledging not to work or donate to his campaign if he agrees to entitlement benefit cuts.
According to Green, the petition signers gave more than $17 million collectively to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and donated 2.5 million volunteer hours.
Green and his allies also intend to challenge any “corporate Democrats” in primary races for House seats won by the Tea Party Republicans in swing districts in 2010.
Beyond the activists, voters routinely say they want the parties to work with one another. “They’re too polarized,” said Ruben Owen, 23, an independent voter and Ohio National Guard member from Cincinnati. “They have a fixed set of beliefs about every set of issues.”
Still, voters have played a part in the polarization of Washington by sending conflicting messages about what they want their elected leaders to do.
In national polls, majorities of Americans routinely say they want to see the national debt reduced, their taxes lowered, and their entitlement programs protected or strengthened -- contradictory goals.
In a June Bloomberg News poll, 61 percent of respondents said they aren’t willing to pay more taxes to reduce the deficit. In the same poll, 49 percent said they were more worried about Republicans taking control of Congress and cutting entitlement programs, compared with 40 percent who were worried about the Democrats continuing the status quo.
While those sentiments don’t provide a roadmap for action in Washington, they deliver fresh data-points that partisans can use to justify digging-in on their favored policy.
And they now have media outlets and web sites to reinforce their positions and share them with the public through partisan-leaning television talk shows and directly through online communications.
The leadership in the House, Senate and White House also played their parts in the process.
After being buffeted by three election cycles that left neither party securely in control, lawmakers are flinching from bold action, said former House member Davis.
“Right now, it’s hard for people to rise above that,” he said.