What Happened to Good Ol' Bipartisan Compromise?

What Happened to Good Ol' Bipartisan Compromise?

By Grover Norquist


Because they’re playing for keeps.

Grover Norquist

Grover Norquist

The author is the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform.

TV pundits are bemoaning the loss of “bipartisan compromise.”  They think they’re being sophisticated and worldly, but they are simply telling everyone just how very old they are.

Back in the 1950s, and even into the 1970s, all fights — civil rights, taxes, spending, guns, foreign policy — were bipartisan. Why? Because if you were told someone was a Republican, all you really knew about them was that they were born north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Little old ladies in Mississippi who agreed with Ronald Reagan on everything voted for George McGovern because General Sherman was mean to Atlanta … recently. Liberals in Maine were Republicans because the general defending Little Round Top at Gettysburg was a Republican from Maine. 

If one party wants to go west while the other wants to go east, there can be no meeting point.

The parties were largely regional, with some marbling of recent immigrants. Tax fights pitted liberal Republicans and liberal Democrats against conservative Republicans and conservative Democrats. Every victory and every loss was “bipartisan,” because shirts and skins meant nothing. 

Which also made compromise easier. Richard Nixon believed the government should grow larger, while his nemesis, Sen. Teddy Kennedy, wanted it to get “much larger.” The compromise? “Somewhat larger.” Over time, the federal government got quite large. In the Colonial period, government absorbed 1 to 2 percent of personal income; by 1980, the federal government was consuming 20 percent of the economy — thanks to those “large” compromises.

During Reagan’s political lifetime, the two parties evolved into more consistent structures. Those who wanted government to grow were or became Democrats, and those who wished to limit the state’s power over the individual were or became Republicans. The first Republican senator elected in the former Confederate states was John Tower, in 1961. Today, the state Senates and Houses of all 11 former Confederate states are controlled by the GOP, and nine of them have Republican governors.                     

The partisan divide started long before Trump. In 1981, the Reagan tax cuts won every Senate vote, except for 11 Democrats. The 1986 tax reform package that cut the top marginal tax rates for businesses to 34 percent and individuals to 28 percent passed the House 292-136 and the Senate 74-23. But by 1993, Clinton’s tax hikes passed by one vote, and without a single Republican one. In 2009, when Obama had a Democrat House and Senate, the stimulus spending passed without a single Republican vote in the House. 

George H.W. Bush won the presidency when he promised, “Read my lips, No new taxes.” After breaking that pledge, he lost the 1992 election, and the message was clear to Republicans: Take the no-tax-hike pledge, win the primary and win the general. Keep the pledge? Get re-elected.

Since 1990, no income tax hike has passed with any Republican votes. No tax increase has been enacted at the federal level in any year since 1990 if the GOP held the House, Senate or the presidency. The only tax hikes came in 1993 and 2009–10 — years of complete Democrat control of the presidency, House and Senate. The Affordable Care Act was passed solely with Democrats’ votes. Dodd-Frank, the banking regulations bill, was passed with support from only three Republicans in the Senate and none in the House.

Looking ahead, the repeal of Obamacare will be passed with only Republican votes. The tax cut of 2017 will pass without any support from Democrats. So far, no Democrat has voted with Republicans in the Trump era if it was the deciding vote to enact anything. Once Judge Neil Gorsuch had enough votes to ensure his confirmation to the Supreme Court, and only then, did three Democrats — who are up for re-election in 2018 in red states — vote to confirm. 

The lines are drawn. Democrats cannot vote against the interests of unions, trial lawyers, environmentalists or the pro-choice lobby. Republicans, meanwhile, cannot vote against gun owners, taxpayers or the self-employed. So what about bipartisan compromise?

If one party wants to go west while the other wants to go east, there can be no meeting point. On taxes, they go up or down; there is no in-between. Compromise means moving toward one’s goals more slowly than one might wish but still making progress. If you are heading from Washington, D.C., to California, arriving in Missouri is not treason; it is on the way to California. But if your feet are wet and everyone around you is speaking French, moving in the wrong direction is not compromising, it is losing.

That is why Republicans refused in 2011 to give Obama a tax hike in return for promises of spending restraint. A tax hike was not a compromise, it was a loss.

Neither party can be expected to betray its principles. And on most central issues, the parties are divided and wish to move in opposite directions. Divided government gives you stasis — like the last six years of Obama. But unity in the national government and in 25 red states and six blue states gives you movement in the direction of the majority party without concern for the niceties of “compromise” or “bipartisanship.” 

There is no compromise in tug-of-war: The rope moves in one direction or the other.