E.J. Dionne — How do you vote for compromise?


Here’s where we have arrived as a country: We are so polarized that even compromise has become a partisan issue.

As the 2012 campaign closes, bipartisanship and “working together” are more in vogue than ever because the few voters still up for grabs tend to be more moderate, less partisan and less ideological.

But beneath the last-minute embrace of comity lurks a central fact about American politics now: Democrats, a more moderate and diverse party, believe in compromise far more than Republicans do. While polls find that six in 10 Democrats regard themselves as moderate or conservative, nearly three-quarters of Republicans say they are conservative. And tea party Republicans, who loom so large in primaries, are especially averse to giving any ground.

Moreover, Democrats still have a positive view of government and regard trade-offs between taxes and spending as a normal part of governing. Republicans care most about reducing government’s size and in cutting taxes. They’re prepared to accept standoffs and crises to reach those goals.

No Republican better summarized this sentiment than Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who defeated moderately conservative Sen. Richard Lugar in a Republican primary and is now best known for his comments on God’s will and rape.

“What I’ve said about compromise and bipartisanship” Mourdock said on CNN last May, is that “I hope to build a conservative majority in the United States Senate so bipartisanship becomes Democrats joining Republicans to roll back the size of government, reduce the bureaucracy, lower taxes and get America moving again.” When it was noted that this didn’t sound like compromise, Mourdock replied: “Well, it is the definition of political effectiveness.”

The split on compromise itself is visible in many other contests this fall, and none more than in the Virginia Senate battle between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen. Kaine has made working across party lines a central theme of his campaign. Allen has put a lot of energy into linking Kaine to Obama. He has also criticized Kaine for endorsing the compromise that helped avoid a crisis during last year’s debt-ceiling battle because of the defense cuts it contained. These would take effect only if Congress fails to reach — well, a compromise after the election.

Kaine argues that avoiding default was essential, and that voters seem to agree with him. The latest Washington Post poll found Kaine leading Allen by seven points while Obama leads in Virginia by four.

In his discussions with voters, Kaine said in an interview, “the three questions I get most are: How do we accelerate the economy? How do we fix the budget? And how do we find common ground? Of the three, the one that comes up the most is the third one.” Even in audiences that are “100 percent Democrats,” Kaine added, “they respond viscerally and warmly to the idea of ‘Let’s find an MO to work together.”

No surprise here, because polls show Democrats are consistently more pro-compromise. This partisan difference was especially visible — and consequential — during last year’s debt-ceiling fight. In April 2011, as the battle was taking shape, a Pew survey found that 69 percent of Democrats supported the idea of their own side making compromises. Among Republicans, by contrast, 50 percent preferred their side to “stand by their principles.” The anti-compromise number rose to 56 percent among conservative Republicans, and to 68 percent among Republican or Republican-leaning independents who supported the tea party. Sympathy for compromise has risen since then, but the gap between the parties endures.

It’s true that politicians running in states dominated by the opposing party are, by necessity, less partisan. In Massachusetts, Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who is running behind Democrat and consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, brags about votes he has cast with Democrats.

Two Democrats running strong races in Republican territory, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Bob Kerrey in Nebraska, play down party all they can. In one ad, Heitkamp pledges to “put partisanship aside and do what’s right for our country.” Kerrey closes his latest spot declaring that “we need to put country ahead of party.”

But their cases underscore why Democrats will remain the more pro-compromise party for some time: To hold their Senate majority, Democrats need to keep winning in smaller and rural states that lean Republican. Republicans almost everywhere — Brown is the exception — now live in fear of losing primaries to tea party candidates such as Mourdock.

Thus is compromise on the ballot next week. But only one side seems genuinely interested in reaching it.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com.