Why Compromise in Washington is so Elusive

As we approach the Fiscal Cliff, or more properly Slope, I thought the Republican negotiating strategy was very revealing. Gerrymandering, the process by which Congressional districts are tortured into shapes that resemble something drawn by a drunk with a permanent marker, are certainly part of the issue. Although the original intention was  to allow for districts that reliably elect minority candidates, the result has been districts that don’t turn over. The strength of incumbency in the House of Representatives has the consequence that general elections matter less than the primary for the dominant party in that district. If a district reliably votes 60% Republican (or Democrat) the winner of the election will be the successful primary candidate from the party that normally prevails. Primaries matter a great deal for the House. Therefore, the failure of House Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B two weeks ago is not an example of Republican self-destruction, but rather of enlightened self-interest.

A House Republican is more concerned about a Tea Party primary challenge than a general election loss to a Democrat, given the polarization of so many districts. Therefore it makes little sense for Republicans to compromise their principles in trying to resolve the fiscal cliff. They have little upside in any case from strong economic growth (it is Obama’s Economy after all) and plenty of downside from a more Conservative challenger.

The New York Times added an interesting perspective to this last week, when they noted that on top of gerrymandering there appears to be a tendency of people to live in districts where their neighbors share similar views. This is not a welcome development for those who believe that compromise is the only solution to America’s fiscal challenges. In fact, further electoral polarization would seem likely to drive even more partisan disagreement in Washington.

This is one reason why optimism about the fiscal future is not warranted. The tight races in elections are steadily diminishing, and we are headed for now in a direction of increasingly shrill disagreements. But under these circumstances one decision does appear illogical. In an era during which both political parties appear to be moving away from one another and towards their base, why would any voter split their vote? For just as President Obama won a renewed mandate from the American people, so did the House Republicans who retained their majority. Some districts, and some voters, clearly split their vote between a Democratic President and a Republican member of the House of Representatives. This happened notably in Florida where Obama barely clinched the state’s electoral college votes with 50.0% while the state chose Republicans for 17 of its 27 members of the House of Representatives.

Clearly a substantial number of voters in Florida split their vote between a Democratic President and a Republican member of the House of Representatives. When Congressional relations were altogether more cordial such as under President Clinton the implicit desire for compromise possibly made sense. But following the last few years who can seriously expect compromise rather than the perpetual stalemate that has brought us to the edge of the Fiscal Cliff? The voters who split their vote don’t really hold a coherent view. The parties are sufficiently far apart that expecting grand compromise appears rather naive.

Instead of blaming Washington, a portion of the problem lies with an electorate that in some cases has failed to carefully consider what type of government they want. As a result, hasty, superficial decision making based on sound bites has brought us the government we deserve, rather than the one we need.

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