The media's bipartisan fantasy: Centrist pundits forever chasing the "compromise" fairy

Pundits insist that the new GOP Congress will compromise with Obama. Here's why it won't happen

Published November 5, 2014 7:40PM (EST)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/photo montage by Salon)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/photo montage by Salon)

Let’s take a moment to examine two media narratives emerging from yesterday’s Republican rout of basically every Democrat everywhere. The first is that the Republicans were propelled to power by promising to block the agenda of President Obama. The second is that the Republican ascent to power will finally bring about a new age of bipartisan compromise between the White House and the GOP. To assert the existence of one narrative is to refute the other – if Republicans won by promising they’d stop Obama, then what reason would they have to find common ground with him?

This is a game that Beltway pundits who prize centrist compromise like to play. Any major political development, regardless of the circumstances, necessarily opens the door to Grand Bargains and other fetishes of the “radical center.” Here’s Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal explaining how this magical turnaround might happen:

Oddly, the president’s push for accomplishments may give him more in common with the Republicans who now control all of Congress. Much as the president needs to show he can still notch achievements, they need to show voters they are capable of effective governance, not just obstruction.

So likely Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican congressional leaders, their ranks now swelled, will see that with control comes responsibility and accountability, and will feel the urge to get at least some things done.

Nope. This presumes that the only thing holding back progress on policy items in the Capitol is a lack of sufficient will on the part of the Republicans. The actual reason is that the Republicans are a fractious and unruly gaggle of screaming loonies who are bound together by their shared hatred of the Democrat in the White House. It’s not that they won’t get things done; they can’t get things done. This isn’t some well-kept secret. Republicans are upfront about the fact that unbridgeable divisions in their caucus make it impossible to legislate so they default to a posture of obstruction because it allows them to push all the blame for gridlock off onto the president. They tell reporters that this is their strategy, and yet the faith in bipartisan comity remains undiluted.

And it’s not just the goofy liberals like me who recognize this dynamic. The editors at National Review have no illusions about what the Republicans are capable of, and they think that it’s in the party’s best interest to forgo compromise at every turn:

A prove-you-can-govern strategy will inevitably divide the party on the same tea-party-vs.-establishment lines that Republicans have just succeeded in overcoming. The media will in particular take any refusal to pass a foolish immigration bill that immediately legalizes millions of illegal immigrants as a failure to “govern.”

I’d point out that the failure to pass immigration reform does, in fact, count as a Republican failure to govern, given that John Boehner promised to pass immigration reform and then very noticeably failed to do so.

But let’s stay on immigration for a bit because it’s a great example of why this yen for the elusive swell of bipartisanship is so misguided. The Republican disarray on immigration reform means that Obama has absolutely no incentive to work with them. He already tried working with them and gave them every opportunity to be useful partners. They couldn’t get their act together, and the whole enterprise fell apart.

So that leaves Obama with two options: finally make good on his promise to take executive action to ease deportations, or break that promise because, as Chuck Todd warned, “it would be a provocative act politically.” Oh no! Provocation! If he breaks his promise, that means Obama will have accomplished precisely nothing in the one issue area in which he still has room to make a significant impact, and he’ll have pissed off one of the most important elements of his party’s base. But he’ll have avoided “provoking” the GOP, which is very important for the coming wave of bipartisan hand-holding, which somehow always requires Obama to give in wholly to Republican demands.

As my colleague Jim Newell rightly argues, the best thing Obama can do on immigration is to plow ahead and take bold action because he’s not going to have any opportunities after this. The White House is telling reporters that they intend to, and activists are already rallying to pressure Obama to finally keep his word. The smart thing for Obama to do – politically and policy-wise – is to move forward, which means “provoking” the GOP. The Republicans will attack Obama for "poisoning the well" (the same well they've been dumping poison into since November 2008), which means we’ll be right back where we’ve been for the last four years. The new Era of Good Feelings will be over before it had a chance to begin. And that's fine because it was never going to exist anyway.

By Simon Maloy

MORE FROM Simon Maloy