President Obama was thrilled after a key Senate vote strongly endorsed the package of tax cuts and unemployment benefits he had negotiated with congressional Republicans. “This proves,” he said, “that both parties can in fact work together to grow our economy and look out for the American people.”
We certainly hope he’s right. The wide support for this bill provides a welcome respite from the blustery partisanship that has lashed the capital for the past two years. When radio host Rush Limbaugh and labor chief Rich Trumka both hate a compromise, it has to be a good one.
But spending money is the easy part – $858 billion, in this case. The hard part comes next, when Congress and the president must confront a much tougher problem, reining in deficits that threaten to corrode the economy for many years to come. The recovery is too anemic to absorb vigorous deficit-reduction measures right now, but the time for shared sacrifice is coming, and soon.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, has been a fierce foe of bipartisan cooperation, cynically opposing Obama at every turn. He was right, however, when he said after the Senate action: “Today’s vote is a step in the right direction, but it’s only a first step. Unless we use it to pivot to the deficit and the debt, we will have only pushed the larger problem down the road ... It’s time to come together to cut the debt in the same way we have come together to prevent a tax hike.”
That’s easy to say. But as McConnell well knows, any conceivable compromise on the debt will require both sides to move away from long-standing positions. Republicans will have to support “tax hikes,” and Democrats will have to support benefit reductions. There is no other solution.
For now, however, the outburst of reasonableness that seized the Senate – 45 Democrats and 37 Republicans supported the bill – is a good omen this holiday season. For the first time since bipartisan majorities helped rescue the financial system during the final months of the Bush administration, the two parties actually seemed to negotiate in good faith and “look out for the American people,” as the president put it. And that’s clearly what the country wants. In an ABC/Washington Post poll, seven out of 10 rejected the extreme views of Rush and Rich and backed the package.
As the only Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to win two presidential elections, Bill Clinton knows something about gauging public opinion, and he got it right when he said: “A lot of people are giving a sigh of relief that there’s finally been some agreement on something.”
A few days after Clinton’s comment, a new group called No Labels announced its formation. Backed by moderates from both parties, it aims to revitalize the “radical center” as former Republican Rep. Tom Davis put it.
“What strikes me when I leave Washington is the extent to which there’s a huge disconnect between Washington and the rest of the country,” GOP consultant Mark McKinnon, one of the group’s founders, told the Washington Post. “The rest of the country is not hyperpartisan. They say, ‘There’s MoveOn on the left, the tea party on the right, and nothing in the middle for me.’ We’re trying to become a microphone for those voices, to create a system that rewards and gives a shout-out for good behavior.”
That’s a tall order, because the system now rewards bad behavior. How do moderates find a microphone when TV producers, especially on cable, look for the loudest, shrillest voices? How do they restore the word “compromise” to an honorable place in the political lexicon?
The future House speaker, John Boehner, illuminated that precise problem during an interview with Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes.” He would use the phrase “common ground” but not “compromise” and explained: “When you say the word ‘compromise’... a lot of Americans look up and go, ‘Uh-oh, they’re gonna sell me out.’”
First of all, that’s not entirely true – as public support for the tax-and-benefit compromise demonstrates. And to the extent that the word has become toxic, blame Republicans like Boehner, joined by plenty of Democrats, who have been telling voters for years that “compromise” means “sell out.”
It does not. And as Washington enters a new era of shared power, leaders in both parties have an extra obligation to tell voters the truth. The nation’s most serious problems, starting with the deficit, can be solved in only one way: through compromise.
Steve Roberts’ new book, “From Every End of This Earth” (HarperCollins), was published in paperback this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2010, Steven and Cokie Roberts
Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.