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Tuesday, October 3, 2023
Oct. 3, 2023

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Westneat: Compromise necessary

Everyone says they want compromise in politics, until it happens


The other morning in the U.S. Capitol, Seattle Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat, was in the hallway with a gaggle of reporters denouncing the deal to curb the budget and extend the government’s borrowing limits.

“I will be a no,” she said. “This is a right-wing, center-right deal.”

At exactly that same moment, one of her counterparts, a Republican congressman named Ben Cline from Virginia, tweeted out that he would be joining her, sort of, in voting no.

“I cannot in good conscience vote for a ‘deal’ … which can only be characterized as a capitulation to the Liberal Left,” he wrote.

This is the story of this past week in Congress. Various right-leaning groups and politicians blistered what they were doing as a sellout of their conservative principles, even as it was negotiated by their own leaders. Meanwhile various progressives decried it as an illegitimate process that made cruel and unnecessary budget cuts, even as it was the work of their own party’s president.

What was missing from the noisiest rhetoric on the right and left was this one dirty word: compromise.

The word contains multitudes. The noun is thought of as a good thing: a settlement of differences. But the verb is bad: To compromise something means to weaken it, or to muck it up.

The political world is hopelessly conflicted about it. Voters overwhelmingly tell pollsters they want more of it. But the voters maybe aren’t being entirely honest.

“Voters do not respond well to (compromise), nor do they side with a candidate who is defined by it,” said one prescient Democratic polling memo, from 2013. It noted that in a polarizing, hyperpartisan political environment, the word “compromise” or “consensus” amounts to capitulation in many people’s minds.

This is the dance that is going on right now in Washington, D.C. Making a deal is supposed to be a good thing, even a rare thing. But now they hope to signal to their base voters that they did no such thing.

Jayapal, the leader of the House Democrats’ progressive caucus, was pretty open about this dynamic from the start. She said Democrats wouldn’t allow the government to default, and that she would vote “yes” if need be. At the same time: “If we want to have credibility with the progressive wing of the party, then we need to be able to show that we’re fighting for them,” she said, explaining her “no” vote.

A Republican counterpart, Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, demonstrated how to really distract from all this unsavory compromising going on.

“Republicans got outsmarted by a president who can’t find his pants,” she said. This manages in one quip to insult everyone involved, on both sides. But would she have voted “no” with such brio had her vote really meant default? Highly doubt it.

Not all compromises are good, of course. But Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, told The Seattle Times that all the drama obscured a different truth this time — which is that the deal wasn’t even that big of a deal.

“The extreme Republicans took us to the brink of default, and Joe Biden managed to lead us back,” Smith, who voted “yes,” said. “Beyond that, for the most part, this is a pretty standard budget deal.”


There’s a new report about the Washington Legislature that sheds some surprising light on this phenomenon. It suggests that bipartisanship and compromise is what’s “real,” while the partisan smackdown is more for show.

As with Congress, most state legislative seats now are safe for one party or the other, a dynamic that tends to disfavor appearing to get along with the other side.

But the daily reality is almost the opposite. An analysis of all 487 bills that passed the 2023 Legislature shows there were only 11 that passed on a purely party-line basis. That means 98 percent of the work was done with some cross-party appeal.

Even some of the session’s most contentious issues weren’t solely partisan. Take, as one example, the charged police pursuit issue. On that bill, SB 5352, which would make it slightly easier for cops to car-chase suspected criminals, 54 Democrats joined with 29 Republicans to outvote 32 Democrats and 30 Republicans.

The drug reform issue that melted down the regular session? It was reworked into a compromise — there’s that word again — that won with overwhelming bipartisan majorities. More than 86 percent of all lawmakers voted “yes.”

Will any of this getting along make the campaign ads? It will not. It just doesn’t get the blood pumping quite like the strife.