Column: In Washington, compromise's embers flicker
Every election year, they become the popular ones, the celebrities with the power to hire or fire politicians. Then, when actual governing begins, they become the forgotten ones - jilted wallflowers watching as the leaders they elected are devoured into a political system dominated by extremes.
These middle-of-the-road American voters feel betrayed, and many grow cynical. Why, they wonder, did they bother to cast ballots at all?
It's always a dramatic fall for the ideological center of the country, independents and moderates in swing-voting states and regions that hold outsized sway in determining the balance of power in Washington. One minute, every candidate promises to represent your interests. The next, freshly elected lawmakers carry the water of their parties' far wings and ignore the wishes of everybody else.
Now, after Republicans and Democrats alike reluctantly shunned their core supporters and reached a bipartisan compromise to avert a fiscal crisis, there's a reasonable question to ask: Did American lawmakers actually - for a moment, at least - listen to the regular Joes and Janes pleading for a gridlocked Washington to get something, anything, done?
Nobody on the spectrum's far ends was truly happy with the "fiscal cliff" accord. Conservatives were apoplectic that Republicans agreed to tax increases on the wealthiest Americans. Liberals complained that President Barack Obama gave in on too much. It was an ugly fight. But, in an often deadlocked capital, the result was attractive: significantly bipartisan votes in both chambers of Congress on a hard-fought and important matter. In modern Washington, that's become almost extinct.
In the end, our political leaders sided not with their party's most passionate backers but with everyone else. The ones who are anything but hard-core partisans. The ones whose voices are usually drowned out by the extremes that drive political discourse. The ones who are desperate for Republicans and Democrats to come together to tackle at least some of our problems.
It's these voters who played a pivotal role in giving Obama a second term while leaving Republicans in power in the House and Obama's fellow Democrats in control of the Senate. These voters chose to keep the same people in charge at a challenging time. These voters overlooked their lack of faith in hyper-partisan Washington ever getting its act together. And these voters sent this crop of leaders back to the capital with an urgent directive: "Work it out!"
Post-election polling seems to concur. One survey from McClatchy/Marist found that a whopping 74 percent of adults thought it was more important for government officials to "compromise to find solutions," rather than "stand on principle even if it means gridlock." Just 21 percent preferred sticking to principles. While Democrats were most strongly in favor of compromise (83 percent), majorities of independents (77 percent) and Republicans (63 percent) agreed.
Within hours of the election, Obama and House Speaker John Boehner - the highest-ranking elected officials in their respective parties - each suggested they got the message, separately signaling a desire to seek bipartisan compromises to fix the nation's ills, starting with our fiscal health. But that was quickly forgotten, and the typical politicking was back.
The legislative debate was initially driven by the bases of the Republican and Democratic parties demanding that any deal to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff" include elements purely in line with their core principles. Weeks of stalemate ensued. But ultimately, after an especially nasty and personal negotiation period, those in positions of power in the White House and Congress chose problem solving for all, rather than party orthodoxy for some.
Compromise is a part of this nation's fabric, as much so as the divisiveness that makes it necessary. From its start, America has seen pragmatic periods with people with dissenting viewpoints coming together to find workable solutions. As recently as the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, the Republican president, and Tip O'Neill, the Democratic House speaker, showed how deals can get done across the aisle. And in 1990, President George H.W. Bush compromised with himself and agreed to the Democratic majority's demands to raise taxes. In doing so, he violated his "read my lips" pledge as a way to reduce the national deficit.
Yet, lately, Washington has become a town of no compromise in a country that wants it.
Republicans and Democrats alike have allowed themselves to be held hostage by their loudest backers, the ones who help them get re-elected. Gerrymandering has exacerbated the problem, with lawmakers redrawing congressional lines to make House districts Republican and Democratic bastions. That gives lawmakers little reason to deviate from the party line.
In this environment, reaching across the aisle sometimes has become a fatal act. Republicans, specifically, have been targeting their own in primaries, casting anyone with a history of working with Democrats as not sufficiently conservative.
To suggest that we're entering a new era of feel-good compromise governing is, of course, overstating things. And "grand bargains" of the sort Obama and Boehner had initially sought may not happen anytime soon. After all, it takes time for a political system to transition out of an age as toxic as this.
Yet, to the voters in the middle, there's reason to see hope in the "fiscal cliff" deal. It suggests that a divided government can actually accomplish something - and that lawmakers are starting to realize they actually have to listen to the people who elected them, even when Election Day isn't around the corner.
Exhibit A: Paul Ryan, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin and the GOP's 2012 vice presidential nominee, who voted for the deal that most of his House GOP colleagues and the tea party opposed. "The American people chose divided government. As elected officials, we have a duty to apply our principles to the realities of governing," Ryan said.
Obama, too, suggested the average voter won out: "While neither Democrats nor Republicans got everything they wanted, this agreement is the right thing to do for our country."
But, as he faces the reality of a GOP-led House and a long second-term to-do list, Obama also made clear that his stomach for compromise only goes so far. Boehner signaled he was done privately negotiating with the president, and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell suggested the GOP would stand firm on its demand for spending cuts during the next fiscal debate, this one over raising the nation's debt ceiling.
That issue is among the many coming up that are likely to require bipartisan solutions: guns, immigration, Social Security, Medicare and the tax code.
How much each side is willing to give on them will determine whether the fiscal agreement is kindling a new season of compromise, and whether independents, moderates and other voters in the center will continue to influence lawmakers when they're actually governing, not just when they campaign.
For these voters, the "fiscal cliff" deal was a first step toward what they expect from their government - cooperation that begins when negotiations start and doesn't end as the latest one did, with a frantic deal to avert catastrophe struck by a handful of resentful partisans in the dead of a contentious Washington night.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Liz Sidoti is the national politics editor for The Associated Press.