The pol­i­tics of no com­pro­mise

Los Angeles Times - - Op-Ed - Phil Troun­stine and Jerry Roberts Phil Troun­stine and Jerry Roberts write reg­u­larly on pol­i­tics at cal­

In Cal­i­for­nia, and across the nation, those who seek the mid­dle ground are a dis­ap­pear­ing breed.

As earnest pun­dits de­cry the short­age of mod­er­ate cen­trists and be­moan the par­ti­san po­lar­iza­tion af­flict­ing gov­er­nance from Sacra­mento to Washington, most Amer­i­cans now ap­pear to pre­fer stub­born­ness over con­sen­sus.

Vig­or­ous de­bate fol­lowed by prin­ci­pled com­pro­mise — the po­lit­i­cal at­ti­tude and ap­proach that long made rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy work — no longer finds fa­vor among a large plu­ral­ity of vot­ers, ac­cord­ing to a sur­pris­ing new na­tional sur­vey.

The find­ings add yet an­other layer of trou­bling ev­i­dence to sug­gest that the dys­func­tional dy­namic that grips and grid­locks state govern­ment will per­sist, re­gard­less of whether Jerry Brown or Meg Whitman be­comes Cal­i­for­nia’s next gover­nor.

By 49% to 42%, Amer­i­cans fa­vor “po­lit­i­cal lead­ers who stick to their po­si­tion with­out com­pro­mise” over those “who make com­pro­mises with some­one they dis­agree with,” ac­cord­ing to the sur­vey by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter con­ducted for the Na­tional Jour­nal and the So­ci­ety for Hu­man Re­source Man­age­ment.

There are clear dif­fer­ences in the find­ings for the ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties: Democrats em­brace com­pro­mise, 54 to 39%, while Repub­li­cans stand against, by 62% to 33%. Most star­tling, how­ever, is that in­de­pen­dents — whom con­ven­tional wis­dom holds will fa­vor less par­ti­san po­lit­i­cal cen­trism — strongly em­brace the anti-com­pro­mise po­si­tion, 53% to 40%.

“This is fur­ther ev­i­dence that the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere is not merely con­tentious but hos­tile to any hope of ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ments to the many po­lit­i­cal and pol­icy dif­fer­ences that de­fine the cur­rent land­scape,” wrote the Na­tional Jour­nal’s Ma­jor Gar­rett.

“In essence,” he said, the sur­vey “sug­gests a con­fronta­tional mood in the coun­try that may mir­ror the par­ti­san wran­gling in Washington and might even give trumped-up cable TV’s po­lit­i­cal spout-fests some ra­tio­nale for their vein-pop­ping in­ten­sity.”

That’s quite a state­ment, com­ing from the truly fair and bal­anced for­mer po­lit­i­cal re­porter for Fox News, who re­cently fled the hype-par­ti­san cable net­work to re­turn to print jour­nal­ism.

Though the find­ings are na­tional, re­flect­ing the emer­gence of the “tea party” and its pas­sion­ate cel­e­bra­tion of anti-govern­ment in­tran­si­gence, the data also shed light on Sacra­mento’s pol­i­tics of dys­func­tion.

Pop­u­lar op­po­si­tion to the very no­tion of com­pro­mise adds one more con­found­ing en­try to a fa­mil­iar list of struc­tural flaws that un­der­cut gov­er­nance in Cal­i­for­nia: a way­ward ini­tia­tive sys­tem, a boom-and-bust tax­a­tion setup, the Propo­si­tion 13 strait­jacket, a su­per­ma­jor­ity re­quire­ment for pas­sage of a bud­get, plus ger­ry­man­der­ing and term lim­its.

This nexus of po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic fac­tors has eroded the author­ity and ef­fec­tive­ness of his­toric power cen­ters within the state Capi­tol and so en­fee­bled “lead­er­ship” that no one can en­force a deal to forge so­lu­tions to in­tractable pol­icy prob­lems. Just pass­ing a bud­get has be­come a Her­culean chal­lenge.

In the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere, ev­ery law­maker is es­sen­tially an army of one — and none of them need fear the gover­nor, the speaker or any other leader. Ger­ry­man­dered dis­tricts all but guar­an­tee most in­cum­bents re­elec­tion, while term lim­its of­fer a per­verse in­cen­tive for cyn­i­cal self­pro­mo­tion in fur­ther­ance of in­di­vid­ual am­bi­tion over co­op­er­a­tive col­lab­o­ra­tion in ser­vice of the pub­lic in­ter­est.

With ev­ery law­maker es­sen­tially a free agent short-timer seek­ing from his or her first days in Sacra­mento a path­way up the lad­der, it is most of­ten lob­by­ists who re­tain in­sti­tu­tional me­mory and re­main the only long-play­ing ex­perts on com­plex is­sues. That the lat­ter con­trol and di­rect an ob­scene flow of cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions adds a layer of soft cor­rup­tion to the process.

Just as term lim­its, since its 1990 pas­sage, has framed a sys­tem dis­cour­ag­ing com­pro­mise, so the re­draw­ing of po­lit­i­cal bound­aries fol­low­ing the 2000 cen­sus has shaped a po­lit­i­cal process en­cour­ag­ing par­ti­san games­man­ship.

With leg­isla­tive dis­tricts bla­tantly de­signed to en­sure the vic­tory of a Demo­crat in one and a Repub­li­can in an­other, the party pri­mary, not the gen­eral elec­tion, be­came the cru­cial po­lit­i­cal con­test. This process heav­ily fa­vored, al­ter­nately, the most lib­eral or the most con­ser­va­tive ide­o­logue who could mo­ti­vate his party’s base in tra­di­tion­ally low-turnout pri­maries.

Thus the politi­cians ar­riv­ing in Sacra­mento typ­i­cally rep­re­sent the left or right wings of their par­ties. Far from think­ing about the in­ter­ests of Cal­i­for­nia as a whole, their only con­cern is ser­vic­ing their dis­tricts, an ar­range­ment of­fer­ing no in­duce­ment to com­pro­mise on any­thing

Vot­ers have taken steps to re­form this sit­u­a­tion — pass­ing an ini­tia­tive in 2008 to in­stall an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion to over­see reap­por­tion­ment and ap­prov­ing an ini­tia­tive in June that re­duces the im­por­tance of party in pri­mary elec­tions. It is in­struc­tive, how­ever, that Democrats and Repub­li­cans found rare agree­ment in ef­forts to undo both mea­sures, spon­sor­ing a Novem­ber propo­si­tion to seize back the Leg­is­la­ture’s con­trol of re­dis­trict­ing and mount­ing an ag­gres­sive le­gal chal­lenge to the “open pri­mary” plan.

So while Brown’s big idea in the gover­nor’s race has been a prom­ise to sum­mon all 120 leg­is­la­tors im­me­di­ately af­ter the elec­tion and ap­ply sweet rea­son to their bit­ter dif­fer­ences, and Whitman vows she’ll veto most of their bills and lock them in a room un­til she gets her way, the plain fact is that nei­ther will have much of a chance to find com­mon ground with the op­po­si­tion un­less some fun­da­men­tal changes are made.

This will be ex­tremely dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble, at a time when large num­bers of vot­ers equate com­pro­mise with ca­pit­u­la­tion.

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