Republicans and Democrats alike have allowed themselves to be held hostage by their loudest backers, the ones who help them get re-elected. Gerrymandering has exacerbated the problem, with lawmakers redrawing congressional lines to make House districts Republican and Democratic bastions. That gives lawmakers little reason to deviate from the party line.
In this environment, reaching across the aisle sometimes has become a fatal act. Republicans, specifically, have been targeting their own in primaries, casting anyone with a history of working with Democrats as not sufficiently conservative.
To suggest that we’re entering a new era of feel-good compromise governing is, of course, overstating things. And ‘‘grand bargains’’ of the sort Obama and Boehner had initially sought may not happen anytime soon. After all, it takes time for a political system to transition out of an age as toxic as this.
Yet, to the voters in the middle, there’s reason to see hope in the ‘‘fiscal cliff’’ deal. It suggests that a divided government can actually accomplish something — and that lawmakers are starting to realize they actually have to listen to the people who elected them, even when Election Day isn’t around the corner.
Exhibit A: Paul Ryan, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin and the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, who voted for the deal that most of his House GOP colleagues and the tea party opposed. ‘‘The American people chose divided government. As elected officials, we have a duty to apply our principles to the realities of governing,’’ Ryan said.
Obama, too, suggested the average voter won out: ‘‘While neither Democrats nor Republicans got everything they wanted, this agreement is the right thing to do for our country.’’
But, as he faces the reality of a GOP-led House and a long second-term to-do list, Obama also made clear that his stomach for compromise only goes so far. Boehner signaled he was done privately negotiating with the president, and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell suggested the GOP would stand firm on its demand for spending cuts during the next fiscal debate, this one over raising the nation’s debt ceiling.
That issue is among the many coming up that are likely to require bipartisan solutions: guns, immigration, Social Security, Medicare and the tax code.
How much each side is willing to give on them will determine whether the fiscal agreement is kindling a new season of compromise, and whether independents, moderates and other voters in the center will continue to influence lawmakers when they’re actually governing, not just when they campaign.
For these voters, the ‘‘fiscal cliff’’ deal was a first step toward what they expect from their government — cooperation that begins when negotiations start and doesn’t end as the latest one did, with a frantic deal to avert catastrophe struck by a handful of resentful partisans in the dead of a contentious Washington night.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Liz Sidoti is the national politics editor for The Associated Press.