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Friday, November 12, 2010

The Word of the Day is "Compromise"

I'm not going to bother to look it up -- it's just an anecdote anyway -- but after George W. Bush beat John Kerry one sad day, CNN ran a poll asking if people were happy with election results. Surprise, surprise; the poll found that the exact same percentage of people who voted for Bush reported being happy that Bush was reelected. At the time, my response was "well duh!" Basically, when you ask people if they're happy that the person they voted for won, they're going to say yes. And if you ask them if they're happy their candidate lost, they're going to say no. So, I saw this poll as a big waste of time. You really didn't need to be a psychic to know which way it would turn out. About the only good thing I could think of to say about it was that it was obviously accurate.

CBS news has engaged in the same waste of time and it turns out I owe CNN an apology. I didn't have a blog back then, but I talked smack about you CNN guys to my friends. Sorry about that. Because this time, it wasn't a waste of time at all. I suppose there was a chance it wouldn't be then, either. It turns out that after giving Republicans a big day at the polls, we aren't exactly excited about the results.

While 40 percent do say they are pleased by the election outcome, that's a significantly smaller percentage than the 58 percent who were pleased following the 2006 midterm elections.

Americans also don't expect much from those they elected: Forty-one percent predict fewer accomplishments than usual from the new Congress. The percentage who expect more to get done than usual is down from 47 percent after the 2006 midterms to 39 percent today.

I have no earthly idea what to make of this. I could go to a pundit standby -- that voters liked the candidates in their races, while thinking everyone else's was a jerk -- but it's almost certainly wrong to apply a single motive to as diverse a group of people as the voting public. I'm not a big fan of mindreading anyway.

Still, reading through the poll, many of the results are more what you'd expect if Republicans had lost. For example, letting Bush's tax giveaway to the top 2% expire narrowly beats extending them -- 47%-44%. Also, the report tells us, "Seventy-two percent -- including a majority of Republicans -- want Congressional Republicans to compromise, while just 21 percent say they should stick to their positions. And 78 percent say the president should compromise as well, compared to 16 percent who want him to stand his ground." This despite the fact that GOP motto these days is "No Compromise!"

Whatever this poll may or may not tell us about the mindset of voters on election day, it tells us a lot about the mindset afterward. If you've ever wondered what a clear lack of a mandate looks like, you can wonder no more -- you're looking at it. A lot of noise has been made about how expensive Democratic overreach was for them, but -- as things stand right now -- Republicans reaching anywhere but across the aisle will likewise be overreaching. They can't do anything without running counter to public opinion. John Boehner has his work cut out for him. If he delivers on his promises, he's screwed. If he doesn't, he's screwed. John of Orange's days as Speaker of the House aren't going to be easy. There's a lot less golfing in the man's future.

It bothers me that most want to see Obama compromise as well, but the realist in me knows that this is what he'd do anyway. While his own party held majorities in both the House and Senate, he bent over backwards to meet Republicans halfway -- needlessly and to the point where it looked like dithering. President Obama's centrist reflex may be what got him into this mess, but it might also be what gets him out of it. And I say that despite the fact that I'm part of that 16% minority who'd rather see him turn into a Pelosi-like fighter.

The numbers also suggest that when it comes to gridlock -- which nearly everyone expects -- Republicans lose. If the word of the day is "compromise," then lying on your back, waving your arms and legs and screaming "Communist!" isn't going to get the job done.

There's reason to worry about compromise, though, and it has to be played right. People always say they want compromise. It's because people are decent and they want to see everyone get a fair shake. But compromise has two things going against it. First, my definition of compromise is an arrangement where all parties agree to be equally unhappy with the result. I think that's pretty accurate and people don't like to be unhappy. Healthcare reform is a great example of this. Some people think it goes too far, some people think it doesn't go far enough, but almost no one thinks it's exactly what we need. No one is happy with it. Unhappy people tend to vote against their unhappiness.

Second, compromise as a concept is one thing, while compromise as fact is another. Compromise sounds good in theory, but when you want something, you want it. Not half of it. A compromise doesn't feel like a compromise, it feels like a loss. This also makes voters unhappy, with the same result as my previous point. If you doubt either point, I give you Exhibit A: a 2010 electoral sweep that did not go in President Compromise's favor.

Still, it's pretty clear that "compromise" is today's secret word and the person who says it most often will probably win the hundred dollars. It's a stand-alone word; it can't have "no" in front of it. Obama's going to say it most, it may be his only way of going forward and it's in his nature. Meanwhile, Republicans have promised not to say it at all.

To sum it all up, compromise is probably better as a concept than a reality and Republicans have all but guaranteed they'll do everything they can to keep it conceptual. We'll see how that works out for them, but -- for the moment, at least -- it looks like they're handing Obama and the Democrats the advantage.


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