When Should Democrats Compromise?

NPR’s Rachel Martin conducted an exit interview with Sen. Claire McCaskill, who lost her Missouri Senate seat to Republican Josh Hawley last month. While McCaskill said some things that ring very true—like the fact that Republicans are digging themselves a very deep hole in their defense of Donald Trump—here are the comments that are getting the most attention.

In an interview with Morning Edition host Rachel Martin, McCaskill characterized her loss as a “failure” of the Democratic Party “to gain enough trust with rural Americans,” and she predicted her party will struggle to win other seats as long as President Trump remains in office.

“This demand for purity, this looking down your nose at people who want to compromise, is a recipe for disaster for the Democrats,” she said Thursday in her Capitol Hill office. “Will we ever get to a majority in the Senate again, much less to 60, if we do not have some moderates in our party?”

While she’s right that a Democratic Senate majority will have to include some so-called “moderates,” critiquing her party for not being willing to compromise is both untrue and a deeply troubling statement, given the reality of the Republican Party these days.

It is important to recognize that Democrats have been willing to compromise when doing so would not mean abandoning their primary commitments. For example, they worked tirelessly on a bipartisan compromise to protect DACA recipients, only to be thwarted by Trump’s demand for xenophobic immigration policies in return. The president’s intransigence on those issues was even problematic for a lot of Republicans.

We are about to witness several more examples of the willingness of Democrats to compromise. Many of them have been working with Republicans on the incremental steps included in the latest criminal justice reform legislation. Additionally, there was some good news on the compromises reached on the Farm Bill. Work requirements for food stamp recipients are out and legalization of industrial hemp is in. Both bills are likely to garner a significant number of votes from Democrats. It is even possible that some will vote in favor of Trump’s NAFTA 2.0.

Where Democrats have been unwilling to compromise is on things like tax cuts skewed to benefit the wealthy, the repeal of Obamacare, and confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. As noted above, they were also not willing to sign on to Trump’s xenophobic immigration policies. On all of those things they drew a line—understandably.

McCaskill’s suggestion that Democrats have been unwilling to compromise reeks of the kind of thing we heard from major media outlets during Obama’s presidency when Republican obstructionism was painted as a “both sides are to blame” issue. In both instances, we see an embrace of right wing talking points.

Beyond that, there is very good reason to question the proposition that if Democrats had compromised even more, that would have garnered more votes for McCaskill in rural Missouri. It is pretty clear that she won re-election in 2012 because she faced a horrible candidate in Todd Akin. That was not the case with Josh Hawley, who is young, articulate, and had already won state-wide office as attorney general.

Democrats should stop adopting right wing talking points and continue to embrace compromise when it benefits the American people, not in an attempt to simply score political points.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .