Mark Mellman: Compromise: A dirty word?

Mark Mellman: Compromise: A dirty word?
© Greg Nash

Pew’s study of political polarization yields such rich data that I, like many others, will be mining it for a long time to come. But because you will likely be reading this after Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranChamber of Commerce makes play in Mississippi Senate race for Hyde-Smith Shelby approved as Appropriations panel chairman Cindy Hyde-Smith sworn in as Mississippi's latest senator MORE has lost his GOP Senate primary in Mississippi (it’s only Monday as I write this, but that’s my best guess), I want to examine just a tiny corner of their survey: compromise — perceived support for which has been one of Cochran’s problems. 

Rhetorically, compromise seems to be off-putting to Republican voters, who nonetheless endorse the concept in a variety of specific instances. This puts them at odds with GOP legislators, some of whom genuflect toward the word compromise but are rarely willing to enact it. 

While Democrats prefer “elected officials who make compromises with people they disagree with” over those who “stick to their principles” by 2-to-1, Republicans are evenly divided on this question. Consistent liberals support compromise by a whopping 68-point margin, but consistent conservatives reject it by 2-to-1.

Our own poll earlier this year with colleagues at North Star Opinion Research for the Bipartisan Policy Center (none of whom bear responsibility for my interpretations), yielded similar results. More than three-quarters of Democrats said “Members of Congress should work in a bipartisan fashion and compromise to try to come up with solutions to the nation’s problems, even if it means giving in on some of their principles,” with only 21 percent holding that, “Members of Congress should stick to their principles and do what they and their constituents think is right, even if it means that legislation addressing serious problems does not pass.” What was a 3-to-1 margin in favor of compromise among Democrats was just an even division among Republicans, who clearly view compromise with suspicion.

Nonetheless, the Pew data make clear that compromise is acceptable to Republicans on a host of specific issues. For example on gun ownership, 74 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Democrats took one of the middle positions: either that “there should be some restrictions on gun ownership” or “most Americans should be able to own guns with certain limits in place.” To be sure, Democrats tended to fall in the first camp and Republicans in the second, but there is more than enough overlap in the two for a clear compromise on something like background checks.

Similarly, with respect to immigration, 51 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of Democrats said undocumented residents should “be eligible for citizenship if they meet certain requirements.” Less than a third of Republicans endorsed a “law enforcement effort to deport all immigrants who are now living in the U.S. illegally,” which has become de rigueur among elected Republicans of late. 

Even on a contentious social issue like abortion, three-quarters of Republicans thought it should be legal in at least some instances — a far cry from where most GOP legislators stand.

Compromise is not quite a dirty word in the Republican lexicon, but it is one that makes many GOP voters uncomfortable. Those who represent them in Congress have taken that discomfort to heart, ruling almost every compromise out of bounds, without recognizing that behind the rhetorical aversion is an acceptance of compromise policies.

Maybe we just need to find different words to make compromise more attractive to congressional Republicans. Our poll with North Star for the Bipartisan Policy Center did exactly that. While Republicans were divided on “compromise,” by a 16-point margin, they wanted members of Congress to “work across party lines and engage in give-and-take to try to come up with solutions to the nation’s problems, even if it means giving in on some of their principles.” No matter what happens to Cochran, my hope is that Republicans just do it.


Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.