Why the Tea Party Should Stop Fearing Compromise

Conservatives have been burned in the past. But their magical thinking -- that politics can exist without giving an inch -- only weakens them.
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Among tea party voters, there is a belief that the right is always getting sold out by the political establishment. In their telling, Reagan-era conservatives agreed to an amnesty for illegal immigrants on the condition that the law would be enforced going forward, then deeply regretted having done so. George H.W. Bush broke his "no new taxes" pledge. The Contract with America failed to deliver on many of its promises. George W. Bush joined forces with Ted Kennedy on No Child Left Behind, changed positions on campaign finance reform, and closed out his presidency by bailing out undeserving Wall Street firms. In all this, he was abetted by GOP legislators.

These tea party voters are sometimes justified in feeling betrayed. Other times, they misinterpret what happened. Right or wrong, however, they're powerfully averse to compromise. Mere mention of the word aggrieves them. They don't think of it as a means of bringing about a mutually beneficial change in the status quo, where one of their priorities is addressed in return for giving up something on an issue they care less about. When they hear the word compromise, the knee-jerk reaction is to oppose it. In their experience, going along with compromise is tantamount to getting screwed. The insistence that pols "stand on principle" is a defense mechanism.

This attitude helps explain why tea partiers are so frequently attracted to relatively inexperienced politicians like Sarah Palin, Marco Rubio, and Michele Bachmann. More experienced pols have been forced to compromise as the price of achieving something, just as a President Palin, Rubio or Bachmann would be forced to compromise in order to pass the parts of their agenda most important to them. Having gotten so little of substance done in their careers, however, they haven't yet had to give up anything significant, so they can maintain the fiction that they never would. As Daniel Larison puts it, "Bachmann's lack of achievements is in some ways a blessing for her, because it is proof that she has never compromised. In today's GOP, that is very valuable, and she doesn't have many competitors in the race who can say the same."

The tea party movement should know better. The Founding Fathers engaged in an endless series of compromises. Abraham Lincoln compromised. Franklin D. Roosevelt compromised. So did Ronald Reagan. Every consequential leader in the history of the United States has had to compromise.

It defies common sense to think the next Republican president will be different. So why are tea party voters asking themselves, "Which of these presidential candidates is least likely to compromise?" They ought to be pondering different questions, such as: "What style of negotiation and compromise does this candidate employ? How much have they gotten in the past for what they gave up?"

"Do the issues they've treated as most important align with my priorities?"

Viewed in that light, Mitch Daniels' talk of a truce on social issues in order to focus on the budget deficit should've appealed to a large faction of tea partiers. He laid out his priorities. They aligned perfectly with tea party rhetoric: it is a movement focused on economic issues and individual liberty far more than social conservatism if you trust what its typical adherents themselves assert. But even tea partiers who shared Daniels' priorities didn't like that he talked of compromise.

They got self-righteous about it.

Tea partiers would be better off accepting that every politician cares about some things more than others, that there is no such thing as successfully governing America as an uncompromising social, economic and national security conservative, and that pretending otherwise results in choosing candidates who are marginally less likely to choose the best compromises.

Another way to put this is that if tea party voters were less naive about the centrality of compromise to politics -- and more willing to believe that a principled person can compromise -- they'd feel less victimized by an unchangeable fact of democracy. They'd also be more frequently empowered to bring about policy outcomes that better align with what they care about most.

Image credit: Flickr user Aidan Jones