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Political Compromise? So Last Century. It's Now Winner-Take-All

By Joe Rothstein — April 11, 2018

In 2008, Barack Obama campaigned for the White House with a message of hope and change. The hope was that he could end a Washington political stalemate that had crippled the workings of the federal government for years, and that by being an honest broker of competing political views, he could help restore a more productive bi-partisan legislative environment.

Confronted with the worst economic conditions any U.S. president since FDR had faced, Obama reached across the political aisle trying to find solutions acceptable to both Democrats and Republicans. Only three Republican senators voted for the stimulus bill. One of them, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was so maligned afterward that he had to leave the Republican Party. Another, Maine’s Olympia Snow, didn’t run for reelection.

Intent on resolving longstanding problems with the U.S. health system, Obama adopted a conservative private insurance plan that already had been successfully field tested in Massachusetts by then Republican Governor Mitt Romney. It was a plan he believed would be acceptable to Republicans, even though it didn't go as far toward universal health care than Democrats wanted. Not a single Republican senator crossed over to vote for it.

In both instances, conservative media had so inflamed a significant number of Republican voters that GOP legislators knew it was politically perilous to compromise with Democrats. They didn’t.

For a ground level view of how toxic Republican politics have become, take a look at Elkhart, Indiana.

When Obama entered the White House in 2008, Elkhart’s unemployment rate was 22%. When Obama left, eight years later, Elkhart was experiencing nearly full employment, 3.9%. No city in America received more attention from Obama than Elkhart. It was the first city he visited after becoming President. He returned multiple times as federal funding poured in to fuel Elkhart’s recovery.

That worked out well for Elkhart. But for Obama? Obama’s percentage of Elkhart’s vote dropped 8 points between his first and second elections. And in a spate of follow up media describing Elkhart’s remarkable economic turnaround, Obama got scant credit from those who were interviewed. Two-thirds of Elkhart’s voters cast votes for Donald Trump.

There’s a reason I’m juxtaposing the Elkhart story with how fiercely Republicans in Congress fought Obama. Elkhart demonstrates how hard it is for people with strong beliefs to accept facts that conflict with those beliefs. Elkhart has a long history of supporting Republican candidates. Giving credit to a Democrat, even though he literally helped save their jobs and local economy, was at odds with the world view long held by the majority of Elkhart's voters.

In a series of experiments by Dartmouth College professor Brendan Nyhan and University of Exeter professor Jason Reifler, (and as reported in the January, 2017 Scientific American magazine) the researchers identify what they call the backfire effect “in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question” because it threatens their worldview or self-concept.

One example in their study was a series of newspaper articles that "confirmed" that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The articles were fake. When given a corrective article, those who opposed the war readily accepted the new information. Those who supported the war argued that this only proved that Saddam Hussein hid the weapons where they could not be found, or destroyed them. Corrective facts only made war supporters dig in harder to preserve their preconceived view of reality.

Iraqi WMDs are no longer an issue. But many other Obama-era issues are. Obamacare remains a live wire. So is climate change, and immigration, among others. These and many other policy questions should have been dealt with years ago through reasonable negotiation. But the longer the public debate goes on the more entrenched each side's worldviews become.

What’s the answer? Republican legislators seem to have found it. Forget compromise. Dig in your heels and don’t fill a Supreme Court vacancy until you have the votes. Then, abandon the 60-vote rule that both sides have respected for decades and force your will on the other side. Tax cuts? Forget hearings. Forget the rules. Maybe you only have 51 Senate votes, but those 51 votes give you 100% of the power.

While Democrats may not like the result of this new winner-take-all approach, it does have the virtue of actually getting things done. And if Democrats take control of either one or both houses of Congress in November, the message should not be ignored.

Given the temper of the Republican “base” these days, the willingness of Republican legislators to feed it, and their unwillingness to defy it, Democrats have no choice but to ram a progressive agenda through any way they can.

This unfortunate fact of legislative life will continue until 1) moderate Republican voters manage to vote out the no-compromise extremists who now serve under the GOP banner, signaling that it’s once again okay for Republican legislators to talk with Democrats, or 2) so many Democrats get elected that the Republican caucus in Congress becomes irrelevant.

"In politics," John Kennedy used to say, "nobody gets everything, nobody gets nothing, and everybody gets something."

That’s the way it used to work.

Now, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s view prevails, a view best summed up before President Obama was even inaugurated: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

More important than ending the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. More important than helping 50 million Americans who lacked health insurance. More important than anything than .... political power.

That’s our current political reality. Democrats, if in November you get the high cards in that game, you gotta use them.

Joe Rothstein is editor of U.S. Politics Today. His career in politics spans 35 years, as a strategist and media producer in more than 200 campaigns for political office and for many political causes. He was a pioneer in professional political consulting and one of the founding members of the American Association of Political Consultants. During his career Mr. Rothstein has served as editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News and adjunct professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He has a master's degree in journalism from UCLA.