National polls do not always influence Congress. A recent USA Today/Pew poll found 49 percent of responders would blame Republicans if the sequester takes effect compared to only 31 percent blaming the president. For many Republicans, however, a sequester deal with the Democrats to raise taxes is worse than the sequester in inviting a primary challenge. Democrats, for their part, fear that agreeing to entitlement cuts could lead to a primary challenge and make them vulnerable in a general election. The influence of the gridlock logic has grown in recent years.
The logic emerged in the aftermath of the 2010 mid-term elections when the Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives. The Democratic 111th Congress in 2009-2010, supported by the new president, moved aggressively to tackle the biggest issues on the public policy agenda. They included economic stimulus, healthcare reform, climate-change legislation, and financial services reform. In simplistic terms, the warts on the Democratic initiatives provided the Republicans what they needed to re-take the House. The mistake made by the Democrats was too much action.
In an endless, constant election cycle, any public or private willingness to compromise is also a liability. A case in point was Sen. Ron Wyden’s (D-Ore.) work with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on a budget plan that included Medicare reform. As a candidate for vice president last fall, Ryan used on the campaign trail his cooperation with Wyden to justify Republican ideas on Medicare. Wyden became a political Benedict Arnold for his bi-partisanship in some Democratic quarters (Wyden has since backed away from Ryan).
The media, political parties, and primary challengers will use incumbents' actions and efforts to compromise to stir anti-incumbency and vote them out of office. Consequently, the logic of gridlock is firmly in place with a superior election strategy being for incumbents to espouse the party-line and blame the opposing party for a lack of progress. Profiles of courage might be out there to generate measured, balanced solutions, but recent history suggests otherwise.
Windle is a former hill staffer and was also an independent candidate for Congress in Washington in the 2012 election.