In her present campaign for the U.S. Senate, the Republican candidate Linda Lingle stresses moderation and bipartisanship. “I am running for the U.S. Senate,” she said in a recent press release, “because we need to stop creating congressional gridlock which then becomes crises. We need to start crafting common-sense solutions. And we need to find reasonable compromises.”
A nice sentiment. Who could be against common sense? It’s also a good campaign strategy given the state of the Republican Party in Hawaii. But it’s wishful thinking, and, worse, it is contrary to what nowadays it takes to be an effective U.S. senator. The newly elected senator from Hawaii, whether he or she is a Democrat or Republican, will be effective if he or she is an across the aisle compromiser because there is no longer room for moderates in the U.S. Senate. Most have retired. They are a dying breed, literally. Older senators are much more likely to be moderates than are younger senators. A moderate U.S. senator from either party is now much more likely to be an isolate than a dealmaker.
Obviously there is gridlock in D.C., but in today’s political environment, bi-partisanship is not a feasible way to end it. Compromise may be the preferred solution for editorial writers and good government groups who wonder why legislators can’t put there differences aside to do what is in the country’s best interest, but this is not possible because, as Alan I. Abramowitz shows in his powerful new book The Polarized Public?, “Democrats and Republicans profoundly disagree on what is the best interest of the country.”
There is some disagreement among political analysts about why this is the case. Some, like Abramowitz, argue that it is not just Congress but the public as a whole that has become polarized. It is part of a trend that began to develop at least thirty years ago and is certain to continue. Today the public as a whole is more likely to take rigid ideological positions than it was in the past. Public opinion surveys show that fewer and fewer people take moderate positions on key issues. What’s more, a political sorting has taken place. The number of conservatives who call themselves Democrats has dwindled, as has the number of liberals who call themselves Republicans. As a result, the differences between the two political parties are more apparent, which of course increases polarization. There is an increasing chasm between Democrats and Republicans in regard to church attendance, which has become one of the key predictors of how a person will vote. Polls show that on at least two hot button issues, abortion and health care, there are huge differences between people who call themselves Democrats and those who consider themselves Republicans.
People who are the most politically active and aware have always been more likely to have well developed and pretty rigid political positions. People who give money to and campaign for Republican candidates are typically more likely to be strong conservatives while similar Democratic activists are more likely to be strongly liberal. This polarization has also increased. Congress’s polarization reflects the public’s polarization.
Although other analysts say that the public is not as polarized as Abramowtiz claims, all the analysts among political experts agree that in Congress right now is more divided than it has been in many years, that this polarization will increase no matter who is elected president in 2012, and that the institutional rules in Congress, like the Senate’s filibuster rule, that increase gridlock are not going away.
(Before I continue let’s do a little thought experiment here. It is a pretty good guess that those of you reading this article are more likely to be politically active in the way I just described it. Let’s take one issue, health care. In particular, Obama Care, officially the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act(PPACA). When you complain about the gridlock in Washington, do you mean that you would be willing to compromise on that law’s basic provisions — the individual mandate for instance — or do you mean that the opposition should show common sense and cave? )
Then why run as a compromiser? Two reasons. One is that compromise appeals to our aspirations for civility and tolerance. After all, one of the most important lessons that we try to teach our kids is the importance of cooperating with others. The second reason is that it makes good political sense for Lingle to run as a moderate because her Republican base is so small, and groups like evangelicals and the tea party are weak here compared to most of the rest of the U.S. She has no challengers from the right, the state Republican apparatus is firmly in her control, and regardless of her moderate political stances, the national Republicans will be delighted if she wins because a seat that has been safely Democratic for years, in President Obama’s home state yet, would now be held by a Republican. These Republican leaders and fundraisers are fine with her running as a common sense compromiser because it could mean a win and because they understand how, whatever her inclinations, once she is in the Senate, Lingle will have little choice but to follow the highly disciplined, strongly unified and increasingly conservative Republican line.
Health care is a good example. Mere minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionally of the Obama health care act, Mitt Romney called for the act’s total repeal and said it was going to be one of the defining issues of the 2012 presidential campaign. Republican congressional leaders quickly followed with a pledge to try to repeal the law immediately.
In contrast, here is what Lingle had to say about the court decision:
“This is not the end, but the beginning of what can and should be a healthy, productive and successful revamping of medical care access for the people of Hawaii and the nation….Beginning in January, the next Congress must address what the PPACA ignored….We need to seriously consider these issues if we are to truly meet the health care needs of our country, without pushing it further into debt.” Her responses are flexible, neutral, technocratic responses.
And here is what she did not say: “PPACA is fundamentally flawed; fiscally irresponsible; a threat to individual liberty; a usurpation of power; a budget buster; and needs to be tossed out altogether,” all of which are part of the standard Republican position.
So a freshman senator with flexible, vaguely neutral views on health care comes to D.C. to face a solid phalanx of unified, uncompromising, conservative legislators and a group of Democrats whose uncompromising views are diametrically different. Certainly in that case Lingle, or anyone else in that situation, will vote the party line. What’s the alternative? Taking retirement after six weeks? Wasting a lot of time trying to find like-minded Democrats, in that charged environment? How well has that worked on health care, the stimulus package, or the debt ceiling?
The impossibility of bi-partisanship applies to every other candidate running for this Senate seat. In fact both of the leading Democratic candidates for the Hawaii seat, Ed Case and Mazie Hirono, make claims about ending the gridlock and cleaning up in Washington. They will have the same resistance that Lingle will. Compromise is off the table. There is little opportunity and few rewards for trying to make that happen. This is so not because legislators are venal, nasty, vindictive, or ill tempered but because Congress and to a great extent the public are divided in fundamental and important ways that make compromise not just hard to achieve but undesirable. If you don’t think so, reflect back on your own responses to that thought experiment about your views on health care.
About the author: Neal Milner is Professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He is also a political analyst. He headed the UH Manoa Ombuds Office from its beginning in 2006 until the office was shut down in 2009.