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Is there good news lurking behind the lack of ‘compromise’ talk in Washington?

You don’t get to compromise by saying the word “compromise” constantly.

President Barack Obama shaking hands with Speaker John Boehner at the end of the State of the Union address.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Returning briefly to the State of the Union: the state of the Union appears to be uncompromising.

Nothing new there. And compromise is not really something to be ardently pursued for its own sake. And there are some things not worth compromising.

But, as I argued in a 2012 series titled Imperfect Union, the U.S. system of government relies on bipartisan compromise more than most other systems in the world.

Under our system, there are sooo many ways to block a law, but it’s nearly impossible to make one unless you get it adopted, separately, by majorities in two houses of Congress, elected on different schedules (and, in the Senate, the majority often has to be a supermajority), signed by a president elected on yet a third schedule, and not struck down by a U.S. Supreme Court that is tenured for life, not elected at all and to whose conclusions about what the Constitution permits there is virtually no appeal.

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Divided government — in which no single party controls all the levers needed to act — has become much more the norm than the exception. That means some agreement or compromise, across party lines, is necessary for the federal government to legislate much of anything — even a budget just to maintain the status quo.

Nothing new about that system, and there have been periods when compromise was normal and the system seemed to more or less work. But in the past decade or more, compromise has gone out of fashion. There’s blame to go around (or perhaps you believe that rather than blame it should be credit that goes around). But I pretty much subscribe to the Norm Ornstein-Tom Mann hypothesis that the Republican Party — especially since the advent of its Tea Party faction — bears the larger share of the blame/credit for the era of gridlock.

Republicans miffed

So it turns out that the Republicans had a very good year in the 2014 midterms and now hold majorities in both houses of Congress. But it also turns out that this doesn’t really change the likelihood of passing much legislation because of the power of the presidential veto. Republicans are miffed that President Obama continues to publicly wave his veto pen. But wave it he did, all but shouting tough noogies to the Repubs.

Now returning briefly to the State of the Union address: Obama chose to use the opportunity to talk about what he thinks Congress should do but he did not choose to use the opportunity to talk much about the necessity of compromise for anything to get done.

(Yes, at the end of the speech he did reprise a version of his famous there-is-no-red-America-or-blue-America-but-only-a-red-white-and-blue-America riff. But if you channel your inner-Republican and read carefully the things he says everyone can agree on, you’ll note a blue-ish cast to the list.)

There is an analysis of the speech that suggests that Obama used the speech to set up the terms of debate for the 2016 presidential election (and, of course, to set them up in a way that favors his own party). Maybe that’s true. Maybe it will help the Democrats hang on to the White House and improve their numbers in the Congress. But that election is two years off. The idea that after an election, there can be a slight diminution of political calculations for a few weeks to do a little governing seems to have disappeared. The fact that we news junkies are going to read multiple stories about the positioning and the fund-raising and the messaging about the 2016 election should be a little disturbing.

Away from limelight

But for those who share some of my disgust with the permanent campaign, there may be some good news lurking behind the lack of “compromise” talk. It may be (in fact, it almost certainly must be) that you don’t get to compromise by saying the word “compromise” constantly. You don’t get there repeating that everything has to be on the table, when in fact there are many that if they stay on the table will be deal-breakers.

It may be (in fact, I’m sure this is so) that away from the limelight key members of Congress (and yes, representatives of the White House, too) are discussing bills that would include enough of what the reasonable wings of each party can support, and little enough of what they cannot possibly abide, to form a package that might pass and be signed and not be struck down and become law.