Alan Simpson received top billing in the most serious attempt at bipartisan fiscal reform of the modern era, the Simpson-Bowles commission, the very epitome of compromise. So who better to ask than the former Republican senator from Wyoming about how the GOP should wield control of the Senate?
When we spoke just days before the election, Simpson told me his party’s victory could be a “wonderful opportunity for the complete rebirth of the Republican Party.” At the same time, he worries that the party might blow it.
“My view is that they’re going to have to govern. … I would think that the object of the game is not to see how much they can punish (President) Obama and twist him in a knot. The object of the game is to make Republicans look like they can govern instead of just saying no and … giving each other the purity test,” he said.
Simpson’s sentiments were echoed by another Republican Party elder with whom I spoke, Neil Newhouse, who was Mitt Romney’s principal pollster in 2012.
“Winning the Senate doesn’t guarantee that we’re going to do the right thing with it,” he told me on Election Day. “It’s like the barking dog that chases the car and finally catches it: Now what do you do with it? … We’ve got to help move the country forward and we’re going to have to work with President Obama in the middle. You know, he’s going to have to move, (and) we’re going to have to move a little bit to get stuff done for the country. Because what you’re hearing from voters is the complete frustration they have with the dysfunction coming out of Washington, D.C.”
Simpson’s and Newhouse’s suggestion that the GOP remove compromise from its version of George Carlin’s list of dirty words would earn plaudits with the public. Just four years ago, at the 2010 midterm, polling by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found that only 34 percent of the public favored those willing to compromise, compared with 57 percent who preferred standing on principle. Today, support for deal-makers has risen to 50 percent, and approval of inflexibility has declined to 42 percent. And guess what ranked behind jobs as the second-most important issue in voters’ minds? Gridlock.
The day after a sweeping victory, presumed future Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seemed to understand: “When the American people choose divided government, I don’t think it means they don’t want us to do anything. I think it means they want us to look for areas of agreement.” Saying it is one thing, but following through is quite another, especially when high-profile Senate victors such as Iowa’s Joni Ernst were elected based on pledges to dismantle the Obama legacy.
One early indicator of whether the GOP-controlled Senate will emulate the obstinacy of the GOP-controlled House or pursue a more compromising path will be the number of votes the Senate schedules to outright repeal Obamacare, knowing that such a move faces a sure presidential veto. Ernst and her brethren have certainly earned the right to hold such a vote, but will hopefully have the sense to refrain from doing it 40 times over. The president said that if McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner put forth improvements to the Affordable Care Act, “I’m going to be very open and receptive to hearing those ideas.” And he should be held to that pledge.
It’s not only Republicans who need to compromise. Should the GOP wisely detach from the party of no, it will be Obama who needs to meet them halfway in order to, as he puts it, “get stuff done.” Like McConnell, he was singing “Kumbaya” the day after he’d received another shellacking, even if he wasn’t prepared to call it that. (“I’m eager to work with the new Congress to make the next two years as productive as possible,” Obama said. “I’m committed to making sure that I measure ideas not by whether they are from Democrats or Republicans, but whether they work for the American people.”)
There would seem to be room for enough give on each side to enact laws on infrastructure improvement, international trade agreements, prison reform, and maybe National Security Agency oversight.
At the same time, Obama and McConnell have already served notice that they will not retreat on such matters of priority as immigration. And therein lies the brinkmanship that is already underway and the potential for confrontation in the near future. Note that though the president on Wednesday said he heard the message of those who voted, he was quick to say: “To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too.”
That could only have been a reassurance to members of his base that, despite the lackadaisical turnout, he had their back.
McConnell, too, had a message beyond the happy talk. When asked about the prospect of the president’s taking executive action on immigration, he said that would be like “waving a red flag in front of a bull.”
I asked Norman Ornstein, an author and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who studies polarization, what the future might hold for immigration given the competing priorities. Ornstein suggested Obama take executive action during the lame-duck term, but with a delayed implementation date, giving Republican legislators the opportunity to put on the president’s desk a concrete alternative that could replace and supplant his action.
That sounds like a road map for the future. Of course, whether it is compromise or confrontation will be in the eyes of the beholder.