The problem, as I see it, can be illuminated with a bit of game theory. Consider a two-party government, and suppose each party has three possible strategies:
- Ideological (I): Fight for initiatives that are consistent with the party's core beliefs, regardless of how popular or achievable these initiatives are.
- Pragmatic (P): Work toward compromise and incremental accomplishments, in the view that "mixed bag" policies are better than stalemate.
- Cynical (C): Prioritize winning elections and humiliating political opponents over helping the country and upholding core beliefs.
Either side can choose any of the three strategies, giving us nine possible outcomes. Of course, when it comes to the needs of the country as a whole, some outcomes are better than others. The following matrix illustrates (in my judgment) how desirable each outcome is for the country's citizens, on a scale of 0 (horrible) to 9 (awesome).
If both parties are pragmatic, the country gets a solid 7. If one is pragmatic and one is ideological, the outcome depends on how successful the ideology is for the country, hence the wide range of possible values (3-9).
However, politicians aren't only concerned with the needs of the country. They also want to maintain and expand their power. We must therefore also consider how the choices of the parties affect their own success or failure.
This depends in part on how the country as a whole is doing. Let's say times are tough right now: unemployment, wars, etc. Then here's (again, in my own judgment) how the various outcomes will affect the party currently in power:
Here's how it looks for the opposition:
In my reading of events, the Republican leadership has decided that C is the way to go. This strategy is examplified by Senate leader Mitch McConnell's statement that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." There are elements within the Republican party who are more on ideological side, but I see nothing but cynicism from Boehner and McConnell.
Let's say I'm right. Then the Democrats are stuck with these options for their own fortunes:
But, unfathomably, P is exactly what Obama is choosing. This is apparent from his statements such as
Can Democrats and Republicans sit down together and come up with a list of solutions to common problems? I think that we will be able to. I’m doing a whole lot of reflecting, and I think there’s going to be some areas where we need to do a better job.We see it also from his willingness to accept tax cuts on the wealthiest one percent of earners.
The take-away message from our game theory model is this: There are times when it's good to compromise. If the other side is being pragmatic, or even ideological, compromise can be good for both the country and the party. But there's no point to playing P if your opponent is playing C! The correct response to C is I: counter cynicism by fighting for your core beliefs. Even if the cynics foil your policies, you can thwart their bad ideas and invigorate your supporters.
Some democrats (e.g. Bernie Sanders) have grasped the logic of this situation. But unfortunately, our president isn't yet among them.