The post mortem of the 2010 mid-term elections seemed to have been written before the event. Rather than reviewing the cause of the outcome of Nov. 2nd we will immediately set about assessing the political landscape for the war that will surely begin on Nov. 3rd. Intense viewing of the political pundits in the hours leading up to the election produced at least one point of agreement regardless of the point on the political spectrum that one may assign the commentator – that is that we have rarely in any of our lifetimes been so politically polarized.
As a way of setting the stage it would be instructive to review the consensus of analysts whose opinions are those upon which such predictions of partisan intractability are based. The projections for the number of seats in the United States House of Representatives transitioning from Democratic into Republican hands ranged from 49 to 62 with many more being “in play.” Only 39 seats were needed by the Republicans to put them into the majority. In the Senate, with the Republicans needing 10 seats to assure a majority the predictions were that six to eight seats would change parties. With president Obama still occupying the White House, holding veto pen at the ready, the promise of intense “gridlock” appears likely to be fulfilled.
What, then, will the next two years look like? If Republicans are to be taken at their word the GOP will be in an all-out full court press to make Obama a one-term President. In the Oct. 23, 2010, issue of the National Journal, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell states that, “Our single biggest political goal is to give our nominee for President the maximum opportunity to be successful.” Often such political goals are at odds with potential compromises on policies necessary to put the nation in the most favorable position.
In addition to McConnell’s statement, numerous other Republican leaders have vowed that there will be no compromises of any sort, and they credit their reading of the sentiments of the American people as undergirding such a firm stance. To be certain, these sentiments are just as salient in the Democratic camp. They are simply obscured by the absence of the anticipatory euphoria that is unmistakable in the Republican run-up to the November Election Day events.
So where does that leave those of us who share a number of profound concerns about where the country is headed? The expiration of the Bush tax cuts looms a scant eight weeks away, and there is no opportunity for changing the direction of this policy that was set in motion ten years ago without compromise. There are calls for the repeal of President Obama’s healthcare legislation and failing that for “defunding” of significant parts of it. The option of fixing some of the more objectionable parts can only be exercised with compromise across party lines. The war in Afghanistan continues unabated, and one senses that before long the public will demand an end to that war that may only be achieved based on compromise. The federal deficit and the national debt continue to escalate in lofty denominations to which most of us have no way of relating. What mix of revenues and spending cuts will have meaningful effects in getting this situation under control? The final decision on the route to take may only be discovered through debate, negotiation, and compromise. The list could go on.
The prediction heard most often today is that compromise will be virtually impossible to come by. When government can enact nothing, this is what is meant by “gridlock.” Conservative thinker and commentator George Will lauds gridlock as an advantageous position made possible by our form of government. He reasons that separation of powers, checks and balances and a bicameral Congress work in the people’s behalf to hold the actions of government at bay. Others, however, are deeply troubled that government cannot react to the crucial and legitimate needs of its constituents. This difference of opinion threatens to go far beyond a competition of ideas and become a permanently simmering animosity of a personal nature. Hence, one side not only abhors the ideas of the other, but that disdain extends to the bearer of those ideas. This is certainly what James Madison must have had in mind in the “Federalist Papers Number 10” when he lamented the evolution of factions in the fledgling American government. He warned against “leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power…as they have divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”
From the outset this, our unique system of government, has been built on compromise at every turn. There is no denying that when compromise cannot be reached, matters must be set aside for another day. It is also true that Republicans should be allowed a moment to celebrate a victory built on effort and organization. Then, hopefully both Republicans and Democrats settle in to conducting the people’s business. There are perhaps more folks who agree with James Madison than either party may realize.
Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.