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Is It Compromise…or Selling Out?

Tea Party protest in Laguna Beach, Calif. File photo/Getty Images.

It’s hard to miss one of the main messages of this week’s primary votes, and it has to do with the current gridlock in Washington. It is that many voters are perfectly happy to see the gridlock continue if the alternative means striving for a middle ground.

To listen to the winner of the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat in Indiana, Tea Party favorite and state treasurer Richard Mourdock, the only movement should come from Democrats shifting to the Republican position. This is in line with what other Tea Party-favored politicians have said since the 2010 elections, when the overwhelming sentiment seemed to be: It’s far more important to stick by one’s conservative principles than explore compromise of any sort with Democrats.

Mourdock reflected this after winning the primary against 36-year incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar.

Here is what he said on MSNBC the morning after votes were counted:

“I certainly think bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view. ..If we [win the House, Senate and White House], bipartisanship means they have to come our way, and if we’re successful in getting the numbers, we’ll work towards that.”

(An Indiana Tea Party activist who boosted Mourdock’s campaign told Gwen something similar on Wednesday’s NewsHour.)

Former three-term Republican Sen. John Danforth of Missouri told NPR’s “All Things Considered” later in the day that he’d never thought of Lugar as a “moderate,” and he deplored what he called efforts “by a lot of people” to “purge the Republican Party and to kick out of it people who do not hew a very strict party line.”

Danforth’s observation is in line with the conclusion of scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, with the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, respectively. In their new book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” they fault both political parties for ideological rigidity, but single out Republicans in particular.

When I interviewed them for the NewsHour in early May, Mann said the GOP has “become an insurgent outlier….They are ideologically extreme, contemptuous of centuries worth of policy, economics and social, scornful of compromise, no use much for facts, evidence, and science, and really not accepting of the political legitimacy of the other party.”

Oklahoma’s Republican Sen. Tom Coburn disputed this notion when I talked with him this week about his new book, “The Debt Bomb.” Coburn told me Mann and Ornstein are entitled to their opinions, but he faults members from both parties. In his view — in so many words — there has been too much cooperation between members of Congress from different parties on spending, and that’s helped explode the U.S. debt to the unsustainable level it’s reached.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising since Coburn’s main focus is the debt, whereas Mann and Ornstein are worried about the ability of Congress to address problems across the board.

Still, it’s worth noting that a year-and-a-half after voters who favor drastic spending cuts and much smaller government (those affiliated with, or supportive of the Tea Party) dominated the mid-term elections of 2010, and at a time when polls show their influence is waning, that the sentiment is not only still alive, it’s helping to rid the Republican Party of those who believe the two parties have to work together, that both sides have to give.

It’s a view Danforth doesn’t share: “[I]t’s long been said, politics is the art of compromise….if you’re in government, and particularly if you’re in the legislative branch of government, eventually you have to try to work things out or else you’re nothing but a windbag,” he told NPR.

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