18 December 2015

The dirtiest word in American politics is “compromise”


What’s the dirtiest word in Republican politics? Obama? Or Clinton? Both, possibly. But “compromise” would be pretty near the top of any list of objectionable ideas.

The idea that anyone should reach across the aisle and work with someone from the other political party has become increasingly unusual in Washington politics. It’s become unusual because very few of a politician’s natural supporters favour it.

A bumper sticker bearing the letters “DADDD” was recently spotted in Washington. It stood for “Dads Against Daughters Dating Democrats”. Fifty years ago only 5% of Republican parents would object to their children marrying a Democrat. Today, 49% would be unhappy. And, almost as bad on the other side, 33% of Democrats would object to their offspring getting hitched to a Republican. Research by Stanford found that political hatred is now a much bigger factor than racial animosity. In 1994 16% of Republicans had a “very unfavourable” view of the Democrats but that had increased to 43% by last year. The number of Democrats feeling the same toward Republicans jumped from 16% to 38% over the same period. George W Bush’s presidency helped turn Democrats against Republicans and, despite much promise, Obama’s no-compromise presidency (especially from 2008 to 2010 when Democrats had a lock on Washington) has done the same to Republican attitudes towards Democrats.

One politician who has had a bruising education in this reality is presidential hopeful and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Two years ago he was part of the “Group of Eight” – four Republican Senators and four Democrats – that tried and failed to deliver comprehensive immigration reform. The efforts made him a target of Tea Party anger. The always charming TV host Glenn Beck called Rubio a “dirtbag” and “piece of garbage”.  Protestors outside the Capitol in Washington held up banners attacking Rubio as “Obama’s Idiot”. The National Review magazine, founded by William Buckley sixty years ago, called the whole project “Rubio’s folly” on its cover. And, now, in the middle of the race for the Republican nomination Rubio is being assailed by his fellow Republican Senator and Cuban American, Ted Cruz for working with Democrats to find a solution to the mess that is America’s immigration system.

The Group of Eight’s “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013” was a comprehensive reform that contained something for everyone – to like and dislike – or even to love and loathe. In summary: it offered (1) a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, provided that they had not committed any criminal offences; (2) 40,000 new border patrol officers and a border fence; and (3) a new points-based system for meeting the needs of business – reversing the current bias in the system towards family ties over marketable skills. Some estimates suggested it would bring in $275bn of revenue over a decade as illegals left the shadow economy. The draft legislation passed the Senate by 68 to 32 votes but failed in the House of Representatives.

Rubio backed it because he wanted to present himself as a dealmaker but he also understood that his party had (and has) a problem with Hispanic Americans. Mitt Romney lost the presidency in 2012 because he couldn’t win Hispanic voters. He won only 23% – a sharp contrast with the 35% won by George W Bush in 2000 and the 44% secured by Bush in 2004.

It would be wrong to assume that immigration is the top concern of Hispanic Americans. At the time of the immigration bill it was “extremely important” to 34% of Hispanic voters – fifth in a list, behind education; jobs and the economy; healthcare; and the deficit. But – come the general election next November – an anti-immigration stance won’t help any Republican nominee get into the White House.

Rubio knew from the very beginning that supporting an earned amnesty for illegal immigrants would hurt him with many Republican voters. At the time he noted that “many conservative commentators and leaders, people who I deeply respect and with whom I agree on virtually every other issue, are disappointed about my involvement in this debate.” But I wonder if he knew how much trouble it would cause him? Republican primary voters are currently rallying to the much less telegenic Ted Cruz because they like his no-compromising purity on issues like immigration.

Rubio has shifted position over the last couple of years. Although he still supports a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants he now argues that the border has to be secured first. Only “once people see that you’ve done it and illegal immigration is under control,” he says, “then I think they’ll be willing to talk about what we do next.” Additional to the 2013 proposal Rubio also now insists on an English language test as an essential part of the citizenship process. These are all reasonable positions but unless the Republicans win every arm of government – the White House, Senate and House of Representatives – the Democrats won’t give them the green light without something big in return.

If Rubio falls behind Cruz now in the Republican nomination process – despite being the most electable Republican in a general election – every future Republican wannabe will have learnt the lesson: don’t reach out, don’t give-and-take, don’t do anything to upset your party’s core supporters and donors. If he succeeds, perhaps there’s hope?

The Democrats are heading in the same direction, of course. The power of the Bernie Sanders insurgency proves that – and the way that he’s dragged Hillary Clinton towards him and to the Left. You also see the rise of Democrats like Congressman, Alan Grayson of Florida. He has Tweeted that the Republican health-care plan adds up to “die quickly”. He has called Republicans “knuckle-dragging Neanderthals,” “unscrupulous” and “The Selfish Party”. This talk is set to make him his Florida party’s next candidate for the US Senate and is an echo of the angry “netroots” that grew up on the Left during the Iraq war around websites like the Daily Kos and the MoveOn organisation.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, gave a TED talk in which he talked about the different moral stories of liberals and conservatives. An ideological and moral divide is producing a different view of economics and history, too. The partisanship problem that has produced gridlock in American politics ain’t going to go away anytime soon. It has deep and deepening roots.

Tim Montgomerie is a columnist for the The Times, a Senior Fellow at Legatum Institute and co-founder of the new website The Good Right. His “reform of capitalism” report for the Legatum Institute was published on 4th November.