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Know Nothings and the Death of Political Compromise

Feb28

President Ronald Reagan often compared leaders of the Soviet Union to the movie producers against whom he once bargained as president of the Screen Actors Guild. That early experience, Reagan told serial biographer Lou Cannon, was where he “learned to negotiate.”

“The purpose of a negotiation,” Reagan added, “is to get an agreement.”

What a quaint notion.

The conversation, related by Cannon during a forum sponsored by UC Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project last week, illuminates a fundamental difference in the Manichaeistic politics of millennial conservative leaders, who endlessly exalted the former president during recent celebrations of his centennial, and the real-life record of Reagan himself.

From his days as California’s governor, when he backed what was then the largest tax increase in state history as part of a bipartisan budget agreement, to the world-changing agreements on nuclear arms reduction he forged with Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan managed to maintain his commitment to his  conservative principles while finding ways to cut acceptable deals with Democrats in the Legislature and the Congress.

His approach contrasts with the current crop of ideologues, from Washington to Wisconsin and Sacramento, who sneer at the concept of compromise and dismiss the idea of negotiation, the twin foundations of governance that have long made representative democracy work.

“While Reagan tried to stuff everything he heard or read into the view of the world he had brought with him to Washington, he appreciated the value of compromise and negotiation,” Cannon wrote in “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime,” his seminal biography.

“And on nearly all issues, Reagan was simultaneously an ideologue and a pragmatist. He complained to aides that true believers on the Republican right…preferred to ‘go off the cliff with all flags flying,’ rather than take half a loaf and come back for more, as Reagan believed liberals had been doing since the days of the New Deal.”

The Wisconsin con: Compare this attitude to that of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who’s become an instant hero to the mossback crowd with his political jihad against the right of public employees to engage in collective bargaining. In a taped conversation with a person he believed to be his right-wing patron David Koch (who was actually an alternative newspaper editor who punked the governor and his staff), Walker offered a candid look at his crude and autocratic theory idea of governing.

At one point, for example, he expressed contempt for the moderate Democratic leader of the Wisconsin senate, who has reached out to Walker in an attempt to settle the partisan deadlock over unions, saying the senator is “pretty reasonable, but he’s not one of us…He’s just trying to get something done. . . .He’s just a pragmatist.” Perish the thought.

“I don’t budge,” Walker then told the liberal journalist posing as Koch; he added, in what he believed was a private conversation, that while he might publicly pretend to be open to compromise discussions with Democrats, he would do so only as a way to con them: “I’m not negotiating,” he said.

A Capitol caucus of sheep: These rabid sentiments echo in Sacramento, where 30 Republican legislators last week announced a so-called “Taxpayers Caucus.” At a time when even Republican-tilted business organizations in the state back Jerry Brown’s deficit plan to allow voters to decide whether to extend $12 billion in temporary higher taxes and fees, membership in this Know Nothing caucus requires a blood oath to obstruct all bids to put the measure on the ballot.

It is instructive that the leader of this cadre is right-wing senator Tony Strickland, R-Moorpark.

Running in one of the few competitive districts in the state, Strickland in 2008 defeated Hannah Beth Jackson, an extremely liberal former Assembly member, by exactly 857 votes out of more 415,000 cast; rather than moderating his personal ideology to reflect the broad range of views held by his constituents, however, Landslide Tony chooses to grovel at the feet of Grover Norquist, the Washington-based anti-government extremist who threatens with retribution any Republican who votes to put Brown’s tax plan before voters.

While Strickland and his reckless brethren try to gussy up their stance as a matter of conservative principle, it rests instead on a set of intellectually dishonest and purely partisan canards and deceits.

Decrying Brown’s budget plan, GOP legislators refuse to put forth one of their own, placing partisan gamesmanship ahead of governance in the full knowledge that attaching numbers and detail to their worn-out rhetoric would prove the absurdity of their call for an all-cuts budget.

Rejecting reality, the poseurs pretend that the $85 billion budget is filled with vast amounts of wasteful discretionary spending, knowing that the state’s money overwhelmingly goes to K-12 schools, higher education and health programs, expenditures that enjoy widespread public support and which they lack the courage to openly and specifically oppose.

Putting ideology over rational debate, they fear California’s voters, mindful that an election testing the popularity of their no-taxes-ever policies may  reveal the emptiness of their politics. Chronicler John Diaz offers a trenchant summary of their puerility:

The governor, who relishes intellectual interchange, confronted Republicans last week in a highly unusual appearance before a budget conference committee. As is often the case with Brown, he mixed humor and in-your-face persuasion in searching for common ground with his adversaries.

“Pledges are interesting, they make good theater,” Brown told legislators. “But the fact is we have to have a plan, we need a solution, and for those who say they don’t want to vote, then why are you here?”

Good question: Why are they here, collecting their nearly six-figure salaries plus per diem, if they consider the state’s predicament the other party’s problem and none of their concern?

The great exception, again: In a recent national poll, the Pew Research Center reported results that at first glance seem to give an edge to kneejerk hardliners. By 49-42%, the findings showed, Americans favor “political leaders who stick to their position without compromise” over those “who make compromises with someone they disagree with.”

But in this matter, as in many others, California goes its own way, as gauged by a Los Angeles Times/University of Southern California poll taken during last fall’s campaign for governor. As we reported then, the survey:

…offers a glimmer of hope for California, finding that voters by a 2-1 margin say they’d prefer a governor “who can work effectively with others across party lines” to one who “is single-minded and will fight for what he or she thinks is correct.”

Democrats, moderates and liberals are most in favor of a governor who works with the opposition, but even Republicans and conservatives would rather have a governor who can work effectively across party lines.

The problem in Sacramento, however, has not been finding a governor who will work across party lines; the problem is finding enough legislators who will work with the governor.

How Brown is like Reagan: At a time when Brown is offering to compromise with Republicans on big issues they purport to care about, from pension reform to business regulation and a state spending cap, it defies common sense for the GOP to turn away from Reagan-style negotiated agreements. Cannon again:

Reagan did not fit the neat ideological stereotype that was presented in alternative forms by movement conservatives and liberal activists…

“He liked to see the people around him work towards an acceptable compromise, said White House cabinet secretary Craig Fuller. “Both words are important. Acceptable in a sense that it met his criteria, narrow as they might be. Compromise in that nobody got exactly what they wanted, but nobody lost.”

Like Reagan, Brown is at heart a traditionalist, embracing the old-school belief that politics is the art of the possible, fueled by negotiations in the service of finding agreement. That is why Brown keeps expecting Republicans to want to negotiate for things they want in exchange for things he wants. But the vast majority of the GOP minority doesn’t want to negotiate, because they don’t want an agreement.

Brown’s focused and patient efforts to craft a budget deal belie the  decades-old rap on him as too heedless and flaky for the painstakingly hard work of governing. He can only hope, however, that amid all the posing, grandstanding and strutting in the Republican caucus, there are at least a couple of grown-ups with the backbone to stand up and help him do the job.

Recommended reading:

Timesman Frank Rich offers a national perspective on the rejection of compromise and negotiation.

Dana Milbank of the Washpost looks more deeply at the Khaddafi-like views of Scott Walker. 

Dan Morain has an excellent take on the goofball Taxpayers Caucus.

Steve Harmon exposes the urban legend of Republicans being politically destroyed for backing tax increases.


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There are 3 comments for this post

  1. avatar tonyseton says:

    Excellent piece, thank you. It ties in with the failure of the GOP members of teh FEC to require that big money behind campaign commercials be identified. All of these faux onservatives should be charged with sedition.

  2. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    I’m with Milbank for a change. I’ve been saying for a week that Walker reminds me of Khaddafi in his stubbornness, and his lack of connection to reality too.

    And I certainly agree with Calbuzz that all the folks in Sacramento who won’t vote on stuff are not doing their job. In Wisconsin, I hear that can get your pay docked. Maybe we should try that. They’re also doing their constituents a disservice. Voters need to know who’s in favor of closing every junior college in the state and doubling UC fees–again–rather than cross Grover Norquist. Last time I checked, Mr. Norquist wasn’t even registered to vote in California!

  3. avatar chuckmcfadden says:

    Yes, but…any Republican who shows signs of being reasonable will face a hurricane of condemnation from Republicans back in the district. That’s how Republican voters have been trained by Grover Norquist et al. So it’s a question of whether they want to commit suicide or not. Maybe Jerry can promise the few needed judgeships, or something.

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