Dick Polman: Now begins the spin

OK, so now what happens?

The midterm electorate has voted for divided government, in the apparent belief that each party can check and balance the other, in the apparent hope that both parties can somehow work together to cure the economy and other serious ills.

Fat chance. You know those summer movies where rival robots smash each other to smithereens while laying waste to vast stretches of urban real estate? The next two years in Washington are likely to be something like that.

On occasion, divided government has worked. Forty years ago, Richard Nixon worked with a Democratic Congress to enact historic measures, such as environmental protection and legal aid for the poor. In the mid-1980s, Ronald Reagan worked with a Democratic Congress to overhaul the tax code. And after Bill Clinton was waxed in the 1994 midterms, he eventually found ways to work with his Republican Congress, signing historic welfare reform and balancing the budget.

But the air is so much more poisonous today. President Obama faces the prospect of offering his hand to an emboldened Republican opposition that would prefer to devour an entire limb.

The new GOP, leaning further rightward with tea-party fervor, has offered few specifics about what it wants to do. But it knows exactly what it wants to undo — namely, health-care reform, and whatever else the Democrats have done these last two years. Most important, it wants to undo Obama’s career; as Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell declared shortly before the election, “The most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Wait … this is “the most important thing”? I would think that a substantive policy achievement, forged on common ground, would be the most important thing. But any policy achievement first requires compromise, and the ascendant tea-party faction views compromise as akin to a white flag of surrender. As Mike Pence, a high-profile House Republican who already sees himself as presidential timber, told a conservative talk show host the other day, “There will be no compromise … and if I haven’t been clear enough yet, let me say it again: No compromise.”

I find this attitude a tad odd, given the fact that our entire democratic system is built on compromise. The U.S. Constitution — which the tea partyers profess to revere and vow to defend — is actually a monument to compromise. Thanks to the Founding Fathers, compromise is a baseline American concept.

In fact, the autumn ’10 polls repeatedly found landslide majority support for compromise. A Bloomberg survey asked the question, “If Republicans win control of Congress, what do you want to happen — do you want the parties to stick to their principles even if it means gridlock and nothing gets done, or do you want the parties to work together even if it means compromising some principles?” The response: Eighty percent wanted the parties to “work together.”

A CBS-New York Times survey asked two variations of that same question, and got nearly identical results.
Most Americans are not ideologues. They are pragmatists who fixate on results. Whatever works is fine with them. The problem, however, is that the ’10 midterms will leave Washington more ideologically polarized than ever.

Even as the Republicans are prodded rightward by the tea partyers, the Democrats across the aisle will be leaning further leftward. Vast numbers of moderate House Democrats went down on Tuesday when their swing districts turned against them; most of the survivors are liberals from safe districts. They’ll also be averse to compromise (saying no to cost savings in future Social Security benefits), and they’re likely to get on Obama’s case if he tries.

All of which brings to mind the poetry of William Butler Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre…
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.


It might be possible for Obama and the new House Republican leaders to meet in the center on a few choice issues — free trade, an update of No Child Left Behind, money for the troops, alternative-energy development — but that’s not the stuff that quickens the partisan pulse. We all know what does.

What will happen, for instance, if Republican leaders agree to cut a deal with Obama for a new budget that fails to radically slash the federal safety net? Or if they agree next spring, out of basic necessity, to raise the federal debt ceiling? Will the newly elected tea partyers denounce such deals as unacceptable, and insist that, in the spirit of “no compromise,” the government should be shut down — a la Newt Gingrich’s ill-fated tactic of 1995? John Boehner, the presumed new House speaker, might wind up pining for the days when he wiped down his father’s tavern.

So we can likely gird ourselves for two years of relentless message spin, with each side blaming the other for whatever is not getting done. Each side will claim to be acting on behalf of “the American people,” with sufficient cherry-picked poll data to make a case on the cable TV shoutfests.

And each will do so with 2012 in mind. Obama could take a page from Harry Truman circa 1948 and try to campaign against “the do-nothing Congress” (or perhaps “the un-do Congress”); and on the Republican side, McConnell has already bared the strategy: “Our single biggest political goal is to give our nominee for president the maximum opportunity to be successful.”

I wonder: What would George Washington say about this constant smashmouth roundelay? But we know the answer. In his 1797 farewell address, he warned against “the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction … the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge” which “agitates the community” and “kindles the animosity of one part against another.”

He warned that “the strongest passions of the human mind … in its greatest rankness” are truly our “worst enemy.”
And yet, despite our ever-polarized animosities, here we are two centuries later. As a Philly cabbie, a Russian emigre, once told me, “America has lots of grievances, and it’s a jungle — but it’s a jungle with air-conditioning.” I knew there was an upside.

E-mail Dick Polman at dpolman@phillynews.com.