Otto von Bismarck never said, “Politics is the art of compromise.”
His actual statement conveyed a similar, but not identical, sentiment: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.”
However, the first statement, often misattributed to Bismarck, is no less true for having failed to cross the German chancellor’s lips.
The late philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain argued the centrality of compromise: “Compromise is not a mediocre way to do politics; it is … the only way to do democratic politics.”
Both parties used to understand that. Democrats still do.
In crafting the Affordable Care Act, hundreds of Republican amendments were offered and scores accepted. More important than the mere count, the final bill reflected core Republican ideas from the presence of an individual mandate to the absence of a public option.
All told, House and Senate Democrats held nearly 30 hearings on the bill before it was voted on.
House Republicans held no hearings on their plan, and Senate Republicans plan a similarly secretive backroom approach. No Democratic amendments have been, or will be, welcomed.
In short, there is no appetite, nor even a forum, for compromise.
Republicans’ inability to work with Democrats, or even each other, to achieve the “possible” is evident across their flagging agenda.
Tax and budget bills that don’t yet exist are on life support because GOP lawmakers can’t agree with each other on the basics.
No doubt part of the pathology resides in Republican members of both Houses. But their co-partisans across the country certainly share the pathogen.
In a survey we conducted, 69 percent of those who voted for Republicans for Congress admired “political leaders who stick to their positions” over those “who make compromises.” Just 31 percent preferred leaders willing to make compromises.
Voters who supported Democrats presented nearly a mirror image. Sixty-seven percent admired leaders who make compromises, while just 33 percent were inclined toward those who stick to their positions.
These radically different views are born in part of different psychologies and in part of different experiences.
Numerous studies in psychology demonstrate compromise is more difficult when issues are seen in moral terms.
When one side wants to give people a 10 percent tax cut, while the other prefers a 20 percent reduction, negotiations may be tough, but it is easy to see how people of good will can get there.
When one side thinks abortion is murder and the other views it as a basic human right, compromise is clearly more difficult.
Achieving compromise is more arduous for Republicans, in part because they are more likely to see more issues in moral terms.
In addition to this psychological barrier, Republicans’ interpretation of their own recent experience also militates against compromise.
Right or wrong, fair or unfair, rank-and-file GOPers accused their leaders of being too forthcoming in dealing with President Obama. In our poll, 76 percent of Republican voters felt Republicans in Congress compromised with President Obama too often, with 59 percent saying it was “much too often.”
GOP voters felt they handed their party complete control of both Houses of Congress in 2014, and yet, by 2016, ObamaCare
was still in place, the debt limit was increasing and terrorists were still rearing their ugly heads. This, they reasoned, could only be the result of untoward compromises by their party.
The result: Republican voters felt betrayed by their leaders. In our survey, 66 percent of GOP voters said their politicians had “betrayed” them.
By contrast, fewer than half as many Democrats harbored such feelings about their own leaders.
Elected Republicans are loathe to place themselves in their supporters’ crosshairs again.
Instead of making politics Bismarck’s “art of the possible,” Republicans have transformed it into Quixote’s “impossible dream.”
Republicans may be willing to march the country into hell for their heavenly cause, but most Americans prefer compromise for the sake of progress.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic Leaders for over 20 years.