By Brian Howey
It can be politically dangerous, opening a politician to the charge of being a “flip-flopper.” If the position is explained with compelling data or logic in a shifting dynamic – as complex dilemmas can be - Hoosier voters are generally astute people who can be persuaded to go along.
The danger in such a swing is if the reasoning is deemed to be strictly political. In such a case, Hoosiers might just say, fetch the burgers and spatula.
Over the past two weeks, we have seen a dramatic shift in Republican U.S. Senate nominee Richard Mourdock. He raised eyebrows back in 2011 when a major theme of his campaign was that he was against bipartisanship and compromise. Up until his candidacy, I had never heard a politician take such a stance and the reason is simple: in a democracy and in a legislative and executive branch context, compromise is the lifeblood of the republic. Nothing would ever get done if two sides can’t meet somewhere.
In cases when there is no compromise, we get things like the Civil War, or the showdown between President Woodrow Wilson and isolationist Republicans over the League of Nations, the seeds of pestilence are sown for a bitter harvest later.
Mourdock used his stance against bipartisanship and compromise as a rallying point with the Tea Party tribes, and they lapped it up. They were emboldened by the across-the-board party line votes in Congress that have been the tale tail of the Obama era. And we have an economic and debt crisis that festers.
In Mourdock’s worldview, the only resolution is to pack Congress with people like himself, until the Tea/GOP can control the entire process. The problem with that is the American electorate is like the unlatched screen door in a thunderstorm, flapping back and forth. As long as problems linger, voters will lurch between Democrats and Republicans. If this continues, perhaps a centrist third party might rise.
Mourdock’s shift was signaled by a TV ad featuring Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, who says, "Washington could use a little Hoosier common sense. Richard is a great teammate. He'll work with both Republicans and Democrats."
But this flies in the face of everything Mourdock has said, all of which is there to watch on YouTube or read on the Internet.."
After he upset U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar, I asked Mourdock about bipartisanship. Is there a time when he believes he can reach out across the aisle to Democrats?
“Sure," Mourdock responded. "There is always a time for compromise on issues, but not on principle. The idea that compromise is based on principle usually leads to a discussion of bipartisanship. I recognize there are times when our country is incredibly polarized in that political sense. Right now is one of those times. The leadership of the Republican Party and the leadership of the Democratic Party are not going to be able to reach compromise on big issues because they are so far apart in principle.”
Democrat Joe Donnelly reacted by saying, “That’s like the kid who comes to the park with the ball and bat and says, ‘We have to play by my rules or I’m going home’.”
In the hours after his stunning upset, Mourdock went on national TV and boasted his unwillingness to compromise with Democrats. He told MSNBC's Morning Rundown, "I'll be happy to keep bipartisanship when the Democrats come and join us." And in an interview with WTHR-TV anchor John Stehr, he said, "Well, it's clear over the last few years there's very little room for compromise between Republicans that are there now and the Democrats."
Beginning with the March 26-27 Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll, the first general head-to-heads emerged with Lugar leading Donnelly 50-29% while Mourdock and Donnelly were tied at 35%. Every poll since shows the race to be a dead heat with independent voters poised to decide the outcome. And those voters want problems solved, not politicians digging in.
When the Howey/DePauw poll in April asked Republican voters whether they wanted lawmakers to compromise or stick to rigid positions, 60 percent responded to the former, and 33% to the latter.
I’m almost certain Mourdock’s pollsters are picking up these sentiments. Thus, the dramatic shift in Mourdock’s core message. He’s now open to compromise. He wants to work with Democrats.
Washington Republicans, now sensing they could lose a once safe Indiana Senate seat, are rushing in to prop up Mourdock. Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn campaigned with him last Monday calling the Indiana seat “critical” and insisted that Mourdock “will compromise in the best interest of our country.”
When Mourdock was asked to name a Democrat he could work with, he gave further credence to speculation that his national funders and handlers want him to keep quiet, circulate only at GOP events, and let them do the talking. Mourdock responded, “I would have to think about it. I don’t have any off the top of my head.”
Which begs the questions: Has he changed? Or will he just say anything to get elected?