The recent primary victory by Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock over Senator Dick Lugar should send greater shock waves through Washington than merely the one Senate seat now potentially up for grabs. As Mourdock told Jennifer Steinhauer of the New York Times, "This is a historic time, and the most powerful people in both parties are so opposed to one another that one side simply has to win out over the other."
Evidently, Tea Party-backed candidates will be continuing their war against the politics of compromise. A year ago, the Pew Research Center asked adults when it came to raising the debt ceiling, did they think it was better for politicians to "stand by their principles" or "be willing to compromise." Among Republicans and Republican leaners, those who were supporters of the Tea Party broke 53 percent to 42 percent against compromise, while non-Tea Party Republicans supported compromise 66 percent to 24 percent.
Three new books describe the state and causes of the polarized stalemate in Washington, presenting abundant evidence that, while Obama hoped for bipartisan change, the Republicans stonewalled him. David Corn's Showdown details the deliberations inside Obama's White House as the President struggled to establish "post-partisan politics" by reaching out to Capitol Hill Republicans on a host of issues including reauthorizing the Bush tax cuts. Meanwhile, in Do Not Ask What Good We Do, Robert Draper describes how, on the other side of the aisle, 15 important Republican congressmen and senators gathered on the very night Obama was inaugurated and plotted to bring him down by opposing him at every turn. Finally, in It's Even Worse Than it Looks, two highly regarded political scientists -- Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein -- provide even more factual evidence supporting Draper's argument of Republican intransigence.
But, does Mourdock have a point? Should American officials really govern through bipartisan compromises? Sure, stalemate is bad for the country; problems unaddressed fester and grow inconceivably worse, particularly those of fiscal solvency. While gridlock can be broken by cross party bargaining and compromise, American history also has examples of Mourdock's winner-takes-all mindset.
In the 1930's, Franklin Roosevelt took advantage of the depression by being far more aggressive in confronting his opposition than Obama has been. He consolidated the Democrats as a majority coalition that arguably lasted until 1978 when a group of young Turks at the American Conservative Union decided that they were no longer content with being in the minority and began using negative advertising to bring down Democratic senators. Walter Dean Burnham's theory of "critical elections" cites three other elections -- 1896, 1860 and 1828 -- when major shifts in voting patterns produced a durable arrangement of power arrayed as a majority party and a loyal opposition. They are like the bright sun shining and the pale moon reflecting, each lighting a different path. Disagreements exist between the parties to be sure, but as each accepts its status, the majority is able to draw good ideas from the minority without fear that sharing the credit will lead the voters to overturn the natural order of things in the next election.
There have been cycles of extreme partisanship before, the last being the McCarthy era when a combination of an external threat from the Soviet Union and leadership from President Eisenhower smothered the vitriol. But, if the abyss of a financial collapse and a second depression didn't provide enough of an existential threat, it's hard to see what would. In sum, with such massive problems facing the nation over the next five years, I'd prefer a strategy of compromise. But, we must admit that neither party seems ready to stop fighting vigorously to get into the majority even if only for a temporary ride. One alone can't tango. Thus, Mourdock's argument has a certain attraction for me, that is, as long as it's the Democrats that win. The Republicans don't deserve it.
F. Christopher Arterton is Professor of Political Management at the George Washington University, where he directs the POLITICO--George Washington University Battleground Poll. He was the Founding Dean of GW's Graduate School of Political Management.