This morning, a Democratic White House and wide Democratic majorities in Congress continue to pursue compromises with Republicans on Wall Street reform, Don't Ask Don't tell, the extension of unemployment benefits, the response to the oil spill, and more. The memory of Democratic compromise on health reform is still fresh, too.
Given all this, you might be wondering why Democrats are so eager to compromise even when they are in charge. You might especially be wondering this given that Republicans seem to govern with a steamroller when they are in charge.
The influence of corporate money is certainly one cause. However, another, much less discussed cause, is that the Democratic rank and file actually wants Democratic politicians to compromise, while the Republican rank and file does not want their leaders to do so.
In early 2007, right after Democrats had retaken Congress, Pew found (PDF, page 16) that self-identified Democrats preferred politicians who compromised, while self-identified Republicans preferred politicians who stood by their beliefs:
Three and a half years later, in a poll released yesterday, Pew has confirmed this finding. Republicans do not like politicians who compromise, but Democrats do (emphasis mine):
The latest Pew Research/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, sponsored by SHRM, finds more positive than negative reactions to a candidate who is willing to make compromises. A substantial minority (42%) say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who will make compromises with people they disagree with; only about half as many (22%) say they would be less likely to back a candidate willing to compromise, while 29% say it will make no difference. But there is a wide partisan divide. More than twice as many Republicans (40%) as Democrats (19%) or independents (15%) say they would be less willing to favor a candidate willing to compromise.
The language in the Pew article on the poll is a bit garbled, but it means that far more self-identified Republicans dislike compromising politicians than Democrats. Which means, conversely, that far more self-identified Democrats like compromising politicians than do self-identified Republicans
When leading Democrats, such as President Obama, incessantly talk about the need to be bi-partisan and reach consensus with Republicans, they are actually engaging in a form of base messaging. Disturbing as this may seem to some progressives, including myself, it kind of makes sense when you think about a certain form of liberalism for a moment. The conceptualization of a rational world, which rational humans are gradually improving through rational dialogue and good-faith research, is at the core of the late Enlightenment, liberal mindset. It isn't hard to grasp how such an ideology--which I personally find to be quite naive--can lead to admiration of compromising politicians.
This is a roundabout way of saying that Democrats who want a less compromising Democratic Party are going to have to convince the Democratic rank and file that the party should be less compromising. That may be difficult, however, since the belief in compromise is endemic to an ideology that is widespread among the Democratic base. Frustratingly enough, the Democratic base likes, and wants, compromise.