The prospects for the ‘politics of compromise’

THE PROSPECTS FOR THE ‘POLITICS OF COMPROMISE’…. Looking back over the last two years, meaningful talks between Democratic and Republican leaders have been rare. When they’ve occurred, the talks have generally gone poorly, reinforcing the notion that the differences between the parties are just so enormous, finding areas of agreement and building consensus just isn’t possible, and won’t be for a long while.

But, whether one approves of the tax deal or not, it was the result of constructive bipartisan talks. Ezra Klein noted this morning that this development, in and of itself, represents a fairly significant shift in how the contemporary political world is expected to operate.

I’ll admit it: I didn’t think they had it in them. A temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts? Sure, they could manage that. Fear is a powerful motivator in Washington, and nothing scares politicians like the threat of a tax hike on their constituents. But an actual, negotiated deal, in which the two parties sit in a room and give things up, and compromise on positions they’d taken in public, and walk out with a deal that accomplishes more than was strictly necessary? I didn’t see that one coming. […]

In reality, the politics of the compromise might mean more to the market than the specifics of the policy: The two parties actually have the ability to sit in a room and come to a compromise. That has implications far beyond yesterday’s tax cut deal. It suggests that we may see more get done in the next two years than many of us thought, and there’ll be more capacity to respond to crises than some feared.

That’s an entirely fair argument, and I genuinely hope it’s correct. I remain a little skeptical, though.

To be sure, the deal announced late yesterday is the first time President Obama’s team and Republican leaders sat in a room, made concessions they didn’t want to make, and reached an agreement in which both sides got some of what they wanted. Putting aside whether that agreement has merit, the fact that they were able to reach a deal at all seems like something of a breakthrough.

But the trick of negotiations is, they’re easier to reach when both sides really want something. In this case, congressional Republican really wanted at least an extension of tax breaks for the wealthy. This put them in a negotiating mood — the president stood between them and their top goal, so they had to go talk to him and see if they could live with his terms.

Looking ahead, Ezra suggests we may see this dynamic — Obama and Republicans, working on finding common ground — more than expected over the next two years. Perhaps, but the uncomfortable truth is, I’m not sure Republicans actually want anything else badly enough to actually sit at the negotiating table. Their to-do list is exceedingly short, and an extension of all Bush-era tax rates largely completes the GOP agenda.

Next year, I suspect the president would like to see Congress tackle issues like immigration reform and energy policy, among other things, but for Republicans, failure on these and other issues is certainly an option. If party leaders chatted with Obama and congressional Dems, and the GOP didn’t care for the Democratic ideas, they could just walk away. Success might be nice, but it may not be enough for Boehner, McConnell, and their cohorts to actually start making concessions.

The point is, tax cuts are unique in the GOP worldview. Republicans were willing to make a deal on this issue because the policy at stake was extremely important to them. Will they consider being equally constructive the next time there’s a policy debate, and the outcome is largely irrelevant to them? I have my doubts.