The death of compromise

Whatever happened to the concept of political compromise?

Back in the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson needed help passing important legislation, he'd invite Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen to the White House, and they'd cut a deal. Johnson got his bill, perhaps revising a provision or two. Dirksen landed a presidential appointment or perhaps funds for an Illinois project.

And everyone hailed LBJ's consummate legislative skill.

That was then. This is now:

When President Obama agreed to Republican requests to reduce the cost of last year's economic stimulus bill and increase the proportion for tax cuts, he got a pair of moderate Republican votes to help it through the Senate -- and vehement criticism from GOP leaders who denounced it as a big-spending boondoggle by liberal congressional Democrats and assailed those Republicans who dared back it.

And when the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee tried to craft a bipartisan health care bill with three key Republicans, strong pressure from GOP critics forced collapse of the talks after weeks of meetings. When the Democrats pushed the measure without GOP backing, Republicans accused them of ramming it through with insufficient debate.

Deal making and compromise used to be the stuff by which Washington worked. Now, they've become dirty words.

When Senate Democrats helped to attract support for health care legislation from Sens. Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu by steering extra funds to their states, they got nothing but grief. Editorials condemned them, Republicans derided the provisions as the "Cornhusker kickback" and the "Louisiana Purchase," and they had to be struck to pass the bill in the House.

There have been exceptions.

Several years ago, 14 senators brokered a bipartisan deal to resolve a stalemate over former President George W. Bush's judicial nominees.

As a result, Democrats agreed to confirm some but not all Bush nominees and to limit using filibusters to block others.

But the poster child for how things have deteriorated is that group's leader, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Once a frequent bipartisan compromise seeker, he has become a partisan critic, presumably because of pressure from his conservative primary rival.

McCain's friend, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, tried to fill the void on immigration, climate change and Guantanamo.

He has encountered trouble attracting GOP allies and has drawn sharp criticism back home, despite his solidly conservative record.

It's even gotten to the point where a lawmaker's ability to garner federal funds or appointments isn't always a plus.

Nebraska's Republican governor, David Heineman, promptly attacked Nelson for agreeing to the provision giving the state relief from soaring Medicaid costs.

To some extent, these examples stem from the bitter partisanship that has resulted from the ideological divide between a generally liberal Democratic Party and a generally conservative Republican Party.

But they also reflect aspects of modern politics that earlier politicians never had to confront:

The rise of sophisticated negative research operations that track every vote and every statement and form the basis of the 30-second attack ads both parties use to denigrate rivals. Amendments are often designed to put rivals on the record for future campaign use.

Cable television, which thrives by featuring sharp divisions. What began two decades ago with CNN's "Crossfire" has become the stuff of daily programming, accentuating partisan differences and weakening the climate for compromise.

Incessant public and private polling constantly measures lawmakers against current opinion on hot issues of the day.

There remains room for compromise, especially in the Senate, which has a tradition of cooperation between the parties.

It should have been easy to resolve the impasse over Obama's stalled nominees. Since only a few are actually controversial, the White House could have offered to withdraw some who can't get confirmed in return for Republican acquiescence in the majority that can, before making recess appointments that accentuate partisanship.

Though that didn't happen, some in both parties hope to seek broadly acceptable compromises in forthcoming debates on financial regulatory legislation and climate change.

But that will be tough, given the prevailing climate and an election year already being fought at fever pitch. It would require both sides to accept less than they want and refrain from instinctively condemning their rivals.

And no one wants to go first.

Contact Leubsdorf, the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News, at carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.