Shortly after the Republican gains in 2010, a tea party-backed senator was telling me his legislative goals, starting with a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget that would limit spending to 18 percent of gross domestic product.
How likely was that (terrible, in my view) idea to pass Congress, I asked.
Not very, the senator acknowledged. “Which is why we need a mandate election in 2012,” he said.
And how likely was that? Not very, he admitted again. But he had no Plan B — and certainly no willingness to compromise in the meantime.
I thought about that conversation as I read a comment in The Post last week, in an article by reporters Scott Wilson and Philip Rucker, about President Obama’s determination to ensure the election of a Democratic-controlled Congress in 2014.
“The president understands that to get anything done, he needs a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives,” Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told the reporters. “To have a legacy in 2016, he will need a House majority in 2014, and that work has to start now.”
Are we in for two, or even four, more years of gridlock? When the nation is so polarized, there’s a temptation to perpetually postpone governing until after the next election — or, more accurately, to use government not to solve problems but rather to maneuver for better position in the next elections. “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) famously said in October 2010.
Last week Republican senators blocked confirmation of a well-qualified judicial nominee, extending a debilitating backlog of vacancies. Obama’s former campaign manager is setting up a political organization that promises perpetual campaigning. The president’s cancellation of White House tours has a whiff of “the worse, the better,” allowing bad things to happen for political gain.
But Obama also is reaching out to Republicans in search of a budget deal — now, not in two years. It’s true that appearing open to compromise could help his party in 2014; Republicans naturally will be suspicious of his sudden courtship. But it works both ways: Gearing up to win in 2014 could apply pressure that would encourage congressional progress now — on the budget, immigration or guns.
It’s always complicated, in other words. Even McConnell’s much-vilified statement was not quite as stark as it is remembered. In the same interview with National Journal, the senator said, “I don’t want the president to fail; I want him to change.”
The wait-until-next-cycle sentiment rises when each side convinces itself that the other is outside the mainstream, impossible to work with and possibly deranged. Before his reelection, many Republicans presented Obama as a wild-eyed radical, a European-style socialist who had to be stopped. Today, many Democrats present the opposition as unnaturally extremist, pathologically opposed to progress. The “fever” has to be broken, as Obama said last June.
I agree that the Republican Party has moved far to the right and that too many of its representatives equate compromise with treason. But I also think it would be a mistake to accept that “to get anything done” Obama has to secure majorities in both houses of Congress.
For one thing, the idea that Democrats could impose a Nancy Pelosi agenda on the nation is fanciful. In the most favorable conditions they would be hard-pressed to capture the House, given the red and blue population patterns across the country. They may not hold the Senate, and almost surely not with a 60-vote majority. Even if both chambers are comfortably blue in 2015, the nation will remain sharply divided, with a presidential contest gearing up.
And beyond politics, on many of the biggest challenges you’re going to need ideas from Column A and Column B. The most rational policy position isn’t always in the middle. But you can’t solve the debt challenge without raising more revenue and controlling entitlement costs. You can’t fix immigration unless you provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and establish laws and procedures to discourage future illegal entry.
Eventually, in other words, you’re going to have to wheel and deal and compromise — you’re going to have to govern. It might as well be now.