Democrats adopting GOP's 'no compromise' demand in primaries could make Congress harder to run

Republicans from sharply conservative House districts have won recent elections by promising to "never compromise," and now some Democrats are eyeing the same motto for their primaries.

Continue Reading Below

Liberal activists, frustrated by the absence of a potent challenger from the left to Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential hopes, are turning some of their energies to congressional and mayoral races.

In Maryland, key liberal groups are assailing a well-regarded Senate candidate for his earlier refusal to rule out bipartisan deals that could combine tax increases with cuts in the projected growth of Medicare and Social Security. These liberals demand no nicks in such social programs, even if conservatives bend on tax hikes and other matters.

Most congressional Republicans have promised not to raise taxes.

Democratic insiders question how far the anti-compromise strategy might spread in a party that generally wants government to work. But if it does expand, it could make life harder for legislative leaders in a Congress whose political middle already has largely vanished.

The Maryland target is seven-term Rep. Chris Van Hollen. Now the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Van Hollen has held other party leadership posts, including the one overseeing congressional campaigns in 2008 and 2010, and won the endorsement of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Continue Reading Below

By most measures, Van Hollen's record is mainstream liberal or progressive. Americans for Democratic Action gives him an 80 percent rating. That ranks him fourth among the seven House Democrats from Maryland, one of the nation's most liberal states.

But Van Hollen isn't ideologically pure enough for liberal groups that prefer Rep. Donna Edwards for the seat being vacated by five-term Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski. ADA gives Edwards a 95 percent approval rating, and her political persona is more unabashedly liberal than is Van Hollen's.

Van Hollen's liberal critics include Daily Kos columnists and the group Moveon.org. The group began in response to President Bill Clinton's 1998 impeachment and strongly backed Barack Obama's presidential campaigns.

Moveon.org calls Van Hollen "accomplished and capable." But the group says "it was deeply disappointing" when Van Hollen praised the basic framework of the 2010 Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction plan.

Obama commissioned the report but never embraced it, and it eventually fell victim to attacks from all sides. The report called for tax increases and spending cuts, saying both parties must yield hallowed political ground to make significant progress against future deficits. Neither party did.

The Bowles-Simpson plan would have slowed the projected growth of Medicare and Social Security, something many nonpartisan analysts advocate.

Over time, however, key liberal groups hardened their stand against any trims to these large and growing programs. They now question whether Democrats such as Van Hollen are sufficiently liberal.

Some lawmakers blamed the collapse of Bowles-Simpson and similar bipartisan "grand bargains" on congressional Republicans who promised voters they would never compromise their conservative principles, even if Democrats gave up a lot in return. Such "don't compromise" rhetoric is now animating at least a few Democratic primaries.

In Chicago, some liberal groups say Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel — a former congressman and Obama's onetime chief of staff — is too centrist and pro-establishment. They are backing his challenger, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, in the April 7 primary runoff.

Political analysts say the Democrats' remarkably uncrowded presidential field — so far, anyway — is pushing liberal activism elsewhere.

"The absence of a prominent progressive in the ranks of Democratic presidential hopefuls has accelerated the quest for congressional candidates who could hold Hillary Clinton's feet to the fire," said Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker. The Clintons' "centrist legacy," he said, "causes considerable anxiety in the ranks of Occupy Wall Street groups, unions, liberal media," and candidates like Van Hollen can become collateral damage.

Dan Schnur, who was an adviser to President George H.W. Bush and GOP Sen. John McCain, said demands for ideological purity are familiar to many Republicans but are "a newer dynamic for the Democrats."

"The only powerbroker strong enough to discourage these types of infra-party brawls is usually the president," Schnur said. As Obama becomes increasingly seen as a lame duck, he said, "there's no one in the party with the ability to discourage a potential spoiler."

Polls find Democratic voters more inclined to see government as a force for good, and therefore more accepting of compromises to make divided government work. That's why some analysts think a "no compromise" mandate won't go far in Democratic primaries.

"Nothing like the 'no new taxes' pledge has been duplicated on the Democratic side," said Brookings Institution scholar Thomas E. Mann. "The center-left position on most issues espoused by Obama remains relatively safe ground in Democratic primaries."

In Maryland, Mann said, "Van Hollen clearly occupies that space."