Pick Your Poison: How Compromise Ceased to Be a Choice

BY Gwen Ifill  October 28, 2011 at 11:43 AM EST

It happened again the other day. Someone in the audience I was speaking to in Newark, N.J., wanted to know: “Is compromise too much to hope for in Washington?”

And once again, I had to duck the question. I simply don’t know. But the signs are not good.

I spend my days sorting through the pronouncements of our leaders in search of answers to thorny questions like this.

This is what I learned this week. If you are a Republican, your intent is pure, and your goals are exceptional. If you are a Democrat, you want only what Americans want for themselves, if not more.

The problem is that the other guy is often painted as dirty, venal and determined to drive the country off the rails.

This is, of course, oversimplifying things — but not by much. Consider two major speeches, delivered within days of one another, by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan — the Republican from Wisconsin — and President Obama, the Democrat from Illinois.

I was intrigued by Ryan’s speech, which he gave at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, because it was billed in advance as a denunciation of the politics of division.

It did start that way — quoting Abraham Lincoln, praising veterans and talking about visionary leaders and America’s “commitment to equality of opportunity.”

But it did not take long for Ryan to veer into the politics of blame. In almost every single paragraph for the rest of the address, Ryan accuses the president of using “the politics of division to evade responsibility,” criticizes Mr. Obama’s “misguided understanding of fairness” and declares that the President sows seeds of “social unrest and class resentment.”

Nowhere does he suggest that Republicans might have a hand in any of this. Matter of fact, he doesn’t blame most Democrats either – just President Obama.

This is, of course, no accident. Better to attack an unpopular president than an even more unpopular Congress.

But the president is using almost exactly the same tactics.

In a series of speeches delivered while traveling the country recently on behalf of his economic rescue plan, he has not hesitated to place all the blame squarely on Congress — with special blame reserved for the GOP.

Republicans, he said in Virginia, would choose “dirtier air, dirtier water, fewer people on health care” and “less accountability on Wall Street.”

“The Republicans’ jobs plan boils down to these ideas,” he told an audience in North Carolina. “They want to gut environmental regulations. They want to roll back Wall Street reform so that we end up with the same financial system we had that got us into this mess in the first place. And they want to repeal health care reform so that 30 million people won’t have health insurance.”

This infuriates Republicans in much the same way that Ryan’s words infuriate Democrats. Middle ground simply disappears.

I always allow for the possibility that philosophy can trump politics. But it’s also clear that both sides are playing politics.

As I was writing this, an email from Ryan happened to pop into my inbox. Penned on behalf of the Republican National Committee, the subject line was “Help Make Barack Obama a One-Term President.” Making many of the same arguments Ryan used in his Heritage Foundation speech, it appealed for “an immediate campaign contribution of $25, $50, $100 or more.”

And at least once a day, I get a similar appeal from the Democrats.

Americans may be right to despair as the rhetorical gulf continues to widen. Thomas Edsall, a former Washington Post reporter and shrewd analyst of Washington, makes that depressing case in his upcoming book, “The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics.”

“The politics of retrenchment have, in effect, placed politicians in a vise,” he writes, “exacerbating the struggle for smaller pieces of a shrinking pie. Each party has veto power over policy, and the two parties share little or no common ground.”

Oh great. So the answer to the question of whether compromise is too much to hope for in Washington sounds like a yes.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.