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    The Ought of Compromise


    "It should be the highest ambition of every American to extend his views beyond himself, and to bear in mind that his conduct will not only affect himself, his country, and his immediate posterity; but that its influence may be co-extensive with the world, and stamp political happiness or misery on ages yet unborn."

    – George Washington


    There has been much talk lately of compromise in Washington, of the need for it, the possibility of it, the shape it might take.

    I’ve also heard nearly as much conversation about whether the signals that are coming from the Capitol—particularly from the Republican side of the House—are trustworthy, or whether they are merely the sounds of more pandering, this time aimed at convincing the American people that the lessons of November 6th were well-learned and that the GOP is now willing to take down their banner, the one that for two years read “The Party of NO!”

    The belief that the Republicans are merely posturing, behaving like admonished children who still eye more mischief, certainly stems from a reasonable core. Since the Republicans in power are essentially the same as those who created the current blockade, the argument goes, how can anyone trust what they now say? Has a Boehner really changed? A Cantor? A Chambliss? Can they? Aren’t they still beholden to the same interests that got them there positions in the first place? And after the way the 112th Congress conducted itself, how can we possibly offer trust?

    But if we choose not to trust—even just a little bit—then we are guilty of fostering more of the same problems we hope to overcome, promulgating the gridlock, the inability to find a negotiated compromise.

    Both sides in Washington seem at least somewhat willing to cooperate, to find some middle ground, each stretching out slowly toward their respective third rails—taxes for Republicans, and entitlements for Democrats.  It seems, however, that the Democratic constituency, the message-senders, may ironically emerge as the largest body of nay-sayers in this entire process, standing as firmly on principle as any Randian radical, willing perhaps (again ironically) to sabotage progress for ideology.

    It may not be the Republicans in Congress who have the biggest compromises to make, but those who have so long decried their behavior.

    This lack of trust now also manifests as yet another irony: the liberal recalcitrance to offer much in the way of compromise, particularly with respect to the upcoming “fiscal cliff.” I’ve recently challenged people of various stripes to suggest compromises that each party can and should be willing to make, and what I’ve found is that my GOP friends are talking about compromises that both sides should consider, while my Democratic friends focus almost entirely on what Republicans should sacrifice. Republicans, for example, are more willing to consider having the wealthy pay a higher share of taxes (though preferably without changing tax rates), and are open also to means-testing entitlement programs so that the wealthy would receive fewer benefits for Social Security and Medicare. I’ve also heard at least some willingness to cede ground in the areas of capital gains, the payroll tax, and (in some very small ways) defense spending.

    I’ve yet to hear much in the way of comparables from the Democrats I know. What I hear instead are arguments centered on two specious points. The first says that, since Democrats have done so much compromising already (and I agree that they have), that it’s time for the Republicans to do the same, as if our future is best ruled by some ethereal form of balance which no one can clearly define. The second has to do with a return to the “center,” a place, it is argued, that Republicans have forced rightward and which only a left-leaning hard line can restore to its rightful place. While this argument rings true to many, it is still not an argument for or against compromise at this particular point in our history.  In fact, both arguments strike me more as ones that children would make when deciding whose turn it is to use the Wii, rather than as discussions that encourage effective governance.

    Compromise is truly an art, and we cannot and will not create crystalline definitions of what is right and what is wrong. What our very recent history has shown, however, is that a lack of compromise, a stubborn unwillingness to put country above ideology, has hurt millions. This is a drawing we must not retrace. What the Republican constituency is now learning, and what the nation’s Democrats must also recognize, is that we must allow our leaders to compromise. It is the way they save face, the way they can stand up proudly and say that what they’ve done, they’ve done in the best interests of the country and because the people wanted them to.  What I fear is that many on the left will draw their own lines, boxing in the Democratic leadership, and make it that much harder to work our way through the impasses we now face.

    We should again remember that, in very fundamental ways, we are the country’s governing body.  One of the messages we sent on November 6th was that we want compromise to be one of our governing principles. Compromise, now and in the future, is something our leaders must do, and something all of us on both sides, as the people to whom they answer, ought to encourage.


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    Reader Comments (4)

    Well said Michael! In the run-up to the election, many supporters of President Obama stated emphatically, "We don't want bullies in the White House". Now I'm worried that they didn't properly consider what would happen if things went their way. The defining moment in the life of someone who has been bullied occurs when they themselves become powerful enough to repay their bullies in kind. Our animal instincts urge us to seek revenge; but in doing so, we become exactly what we had hated. If we seek instead, as Lincoln called it, "the better angels of our nature", forgiving instead of retaliating, do we not fulfill our higher purpose as sentient beings?

    As someone not enthralled with either party, I can only hope that the Republicans extend a genuine olive branch, and that the Democrats are able to resist the urge to accept it and then liberally (no pun intended) beat the Republicans about the head with it. Regardless, before deciding what action to take, both Democrats and Republicans should keep in mind that the 90 million eligible voters who decided not to participate in this election are watching; and if given the proper motivation, could crush both sides with the power of Thor's hammer come 2014.

    November 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan Arosnon

    The Republican Party has moved dramatically to the right in the recent past, while the Democrats have basically maintained the same political positions for decades. Movement to the current "middle ground," therefore, becomes a capitulation to the ideas of the traditional Right. How does that make sense for the people whose progressive positions have won the popular and electoral college votes in the last two presidential elections?

    November 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Concklin

    @Jeffrey -- by taking the long view. Moving to a compromise position now with the long view of pulling things back in the future. And it won't be hard to pull things back in the future since things are trending that way already. You can see the signs of it with the state-level wins for gay marriage and pot legalization.

    November 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEric Vormelker

    @ Jeff - Interesting observation, but I am a bit perplexed. First, can you please name one source that has labeled President Obama a "Progressive"? Pundits and observers alike actually had him to the right of Romney on more than one issue. Also, why are you assuming that a vote for the President was just that, for the President. Polls taken in the June time frame showed that over 50% of voters said that they would be voting for the lesser of two evils, not for a candidate they were excited about. And finally, what about the voices of the 90 million eligible voters who benched themselves during this election? If they truly backed progressive ideals, wouldn't they have turned out in droves and made the election the landslide victory that many are now [falsely] claiming it was? What does their silence tell us?

    When all is said and done, I simply don't see the data supporting the conclusion that "progressive ideas" won the day. Instead I see it supporting an “anti-rich guy/corporate fat cat who looks down on anyone needing governmental assistance” agenda – which, while not the same as progressive, isn't a bad thing either.

    November 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan Aronson

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