What 'No Compromise' Politics Does To Governing

The Republican National Convention is postponed today due to weather caused by Tropical Storm Isaac . Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz will deliver a speech at the event. Cruz and several other tea party-backed candidates have staked out positions of "no compromise" on key issues. But how does that sort of campaign rhetoric affect the business of governing?

One week before he won the Republican nomination in the U.S. Senate race, former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz told KUHF's Morning Edition that, if elected, he would not compromise his principles in working with Democrats to address problems like the federal debt.

"Right now, (the way) a Democrat and Republican compromise in Washington or in Austin is they put their arm around each other and say 'I'll spend for your project, if you spend for mine.' And that's how we get a $16 trillion national debt."

But how does taking a hard, no-compromise approach mix with governing?

"In governing, you have to come together, and you have to be able to share the burden."

Brandon Rottinghaus is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston.

"Staking out such positions does create an environment where no one's willing to cross the aisle, and to shake a hand and say 'let's think about this in a bi-partisan fashion.' And that can create a fair amount of gridlock."

The kind of gridlock that plagued the recent debate over raising the debt ceiling — a debate that ended with no real compromise, and is expected to trigger drastic spending cuts. Rottinghaus says both hard-line Republicans and Democrats wanted it that way.

"Nobody has to step up and take the blame and say 'well, it wasn't my decision to cut this particular program.' So, that creates an environment where no one is accountable, and where you've got an environment that is run, more or less, by a kind of top-down approach to cutting spending."

So, how did it get like this? Rottinghaus points to the practice of drawing districts where voters overwhelmingly favor one party.  He says that tends to attract even more people who think along the same rigid ideological lines, which leads to more polarization.

But that's not the only explanation, according to Jon Taylor — the chair of the Political Science department at The University of St. Thomas. He blames decades of other political scientists insisting on greater party discipline. 

"And, now that we've gotten that, everyone complains about it.  And, essentially, we've gotten what we've wanted, and we've discovered 'D'oh!  It's not quite what we wanted.' "

Pitman: "Now, you say that's what political scientists wanted, is that what the general voting public wanted?"

Taylor: "I would say, no, far from it.  I would say the general public is much more hopeful of at least a sense of consensus, a sense of collegiality, to look for pragmatic solutions."

Taylor says hammering away on a theme of "no compromise" may help candidates like Ted Cruz win elections. But it's not all that useful after candidates become actual lawmakers.

"The Mick Jagger approach is probably the best way to describe the way we ought to be pursuing American politics. You can't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need. And, that, to me, is the bottom line with this. You can stake out with the flag that 'I'm never gonna compromise.'  But that's never gonna happen — never, ever gonna happen."

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David Pitman

Local Host, Morning Edition

The one question David hears most often isn't "What is it like to work for an NPR member station?" or "Have you ever met Terry Gross?" (he has)...