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On football metaphors, political compromise and asymmetrical polarization

I’m struck by how often (and sometimes how humorously) the story of compromise has relied (and apparently still relies) on totally unhelpful football metaphors.

I liked Peter Callaghan’s analysis for MinnPost of the end of legislative session crackup.

The crackup can be viewed as the latest chapter in a book that could be written about the dying art of political compromise. Now that Gov. Mark Dayton has vetoed the bills, the search for a compromise will continue.

This is going to be silly, but maybe it would help if everyone agreed that the search for compromise has little or nothing to do with a football game. I’m struck by how often (and sometimes how humorously) the story of compromise has relied (and apparently still relies) on totally unhelpful football metaphors.

And that reminds me of the comic stylings of longtime Washington observer Norm Ornstein, who happens to be a native Minnesotan.

Not a search for compromise

First we need to accept that none of the football metaphors make any sense, at least not in a football sense. A football game is not a search for a compromise where the game ends and both teams are reasonably satisfied with the outcome.

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But in the search for metaphors, Ornstein and Dayton at least assume that most of us can picture a football field and know that the end zones are 100 yards apart, with a 50-yard line in the middle.

Callaghan noted that Dayton:

often resorts to a football metaphor to explain how he thinks negotiations with the Republican-controlled Legislature ought to work.

The way he describes it, he starts in his end zone; they start in their end zone. Once each side has moved some and they are both approaching the 50-yard line, a deal can be done. … “We’re co-equal branches of government Dayton said] and we need to both acknowledge each other’s priorities.”

Dayton then ditches the football metaphor and makes the obvious point that, in a situation of divided government such as currently obtains in Minnesota, both sides have to get enough of what they need to make a deal that neither side finds perfect but both sides can live with. (Again, not the typical outcome of a football game.)

In happier times, it might have been better if the leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature and the DFL governor stayed at the bargaining table until they had found a compromise to which both sides could say yes. Then Legislature passes that deal and the governor signs the bills.

Instead, we have discussions in which no final deal is reached, but each side has had an earful of what the other side wants. You can call it a search for the 50 yard-line, but there is no actual 50 yard-line and no referees. Instead, the red team decides to give the blue governor a couple of things he has said he wants. But they skip the part where they ask him whether those concessions are enough to get him to sign the bill. Then they adjourn and go home. (It’s actually a bit more like a game of chicken than a game of football. In a football game, neither side goes home until the game is over.)

The parliamentary system

As I have mentioned in the past, there are forms of government that are much more deadlock proof. In a typical parliamentary system, for example, the prime minister leads a party or a coalition of parties that has enough votes to pass a bill. If the electorate doesn’t like what they’ve done, they can vote the majority party out at the next election and get a different prime minister. If because of a breakdown within the majority coalition, the government can’t pass its bills, that typically triggers a special election to give the voters a say. That is supposed to lead to the election of a party or coalition that can pass its bills. Our American system has no such mechanism.

There is no perfect system, but the system I just described has clear benefits if the goal is to have a government that can govern.

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Oh, yeah, I was going to reach back to the comic stylings of Norm Ornstein, which goes back to the use and abuse of football metaphors to describe the need for U.S. parties to compromise if neither party has full control.

Bear in mind that Ornstein, and his co-author, Thomas Mann, were writing about the federal government, which I would say is more polarized and dysfunctional than the Minnesota government.

Another football metaphor

Unlike Dayton, who said the parties start off in opposite end zones, Ornstein and Mann said that until fairly recently, the national Democratic and Republican Parties lined up on opposing 40-yard lines, and the pushing and shoving was to find a spot pretty close to midfield where a deal can be made.

The point of the metaphor was that neither party was all that radical; that both sides understood that they had to give some ground and that the final compromise would have to be found pretty close to the middle of the existing political spectrum. If one party was in a stronger position, they could expect that the final compromise would not be on the midfield line, but would still be fairly close to the center of the field.

Old coots like me can remember a time when there were very liberal Republicans and very conservative Democrats. But the parties have now pretty much sorted themselves into a left party and a right party with not much overlap in the middle. (Hello Sens. Susan Collins and Joe Manchin.)

Over recent decades the parties sorted themselves into a more coherent basic lineup, in which almost all Republicans are to the right of almost all Democrats. (And Democrats seem to be having a new civil war between their relatively moderate liberals and those advocating for what used to be considered extreme left positions, like single-payer health care.)

One party moved further

But Ornstein and Mann have argued for what they call “asymmetric polarization,” in which both parties have moved away from the 50-yard line, but Republicans have moved further. Which sets up the punchline, which I steal from my own coverage of a November 2015 Minneapolis appearance by Ornstein, when the 2016 presidential field was just taking shape:

On the presidential race, Ornstein said that notwithstanding a long-running assurance from the punditocracy that, in the end, the Republicans will end up with a reasonably mainstream nominee who has some experience in government, he is not convinced.

In current polls, if you combine the support of all the “outsiders,” it comes to 65-75 percent of likely Republican primary voters. If you combine the so-called mainstream candidates, it’s generally less than 20 percent.

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He also cited a recent Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers that asked Republicans what they liked about Ben Carson: 43 percent said they liked that Carson had no foreign policy experience; 78 percent said they liked that he said that if Jews had had guns there wouldn’t have been a Holocaust; 80 percent said they liked that he said that Obamacare was the worst thing that had happened to the country since slavery.

These are the kinds of things that feed Ornstein’s continuing argument that the polarization has not occurred evenly across the two major parties. He wrote in “It’s Even Worse than It Looks,” and he said again Monday, that in his early days in Washington, both parties operated ideologically between the 40-yard-lines. Both have moved farther to the extremes of the field, he said. But the Democrats are “around their 20-yard line,” while the Republicans “are well behind their own end zone — and quite a few of them are out in the parking lot.”

I’m not saying that applies to the Minnesota case, although some will say it does. The good news is this is not football season, and the real question of the moment is “Who’s on first.”