Why ‘Compromise’ Has Become Such a Dirty Word


At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegates from large and small states engaged in a fierce struggle over how Congress should be constituted. Big states favored representation by population; little states thought each ought to have the same number of representatives. It was the Great Compromise that created our bicameral system in which the House is represented by population, reapportioned after every decennial census, and the Senate is comprised of two representatives from each state.

To the Founding Fathers – who had an actual claim to the concept of a Tea Party – compromise was not a dirty word; it was the essence of governance. Without principled compromise as a result of robust debate, Delaware and New Jersey might still be at each others’ throats. Thank you to the boys from Connecticut, Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth.

Which brings us to the sorry situation we face today, in California and Washington in particular, in which leaders of the Republican Party are so terrified and intimidated by the noisy anti-tax absolutists in their know-nothing right wing that they are incapable of principled compromise. Even when flexibility would yield them pension reforms, spending controls, entitlement reductions, long-term fiscal stability and more, the Republicans would rather cut off their noses to spite their faces.

We’ve been harping on the Death of Compromise since September of last year (here, here and here) – long before Gov. Jerry Brown and President Barack Obama, both of whom are anything but true-blue, unbending liberals, ran up against the immovable object that is the ultra-orthodox, anti-tax jihad.

So were delighted to see pundits like David Brooks, Eugene Robinson and Harold Meyerson and political writers like Dan Balz, now shining a bright light on the perversion of our politics by those who can’t take yes for an answer.

Brooks, whom we generally find a finger-wagging smarm, must really be worried about his darling GOP because he pulled out the stops in an attempt to get them back on track.

If the Republican Party were a normal party, it would take advantage of this amazing moment. It is being offered the deal of the century: trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for a few hundred billion dollars of revenue increases.

But we can have no confidence that the Republicans will seize this opportunity. That’s because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.

The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch in order to cut government by a foot, they will say no. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will still say no . . .

The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency. A nation makes a sacred pledge to pay the money back when it borrows money. But the members of this movement talk blandly of default and are willing to stain their nation’s honor. . .

If the debt ceiling talks fail, independent voters will see that Democrats were willing to compromise but Republicans were not. If responsible Republicans don’t take control, independents will conclude that Republican fanaticism caused this default. They will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern.

And they will be right.

Robinson, one of the Washington Post’s liberal voices, took dead aim at another issue that drives Calbuzz crazy – false equivalency.

Washington has many lazy habits, and one of the worst is a reflexive tendency to see equivalence where none exists. Hence the nonsense, being peddled by politicians and commentators who should know better, that “both sides” are equally at fault in the deadlocked talks over the debt ceiling.

This is patently false. The truth is that Democrats have made clear they are open to a compromise deal on budget cuts and revenue increases. Republicans have made clear they are not. . .

. . . the “both sides are to blame” narrative somehow gained currency after [House Speaker John] Boehner announced Saturday that House Republicans would not support any increase in revenue, period. A false equivalence was drawn between the absolute Republican rejection of “revenue-positive” tax reform and the less-than-absolute Democratic opposition to “benefit cuts” in Medicare and Social Security.

The bogus story line is that the radical right-wing base of the GOP and the radical left-wing base of the Democratic Party are equally to blame for sinking the deal.

What underlies the disintegration of politicians’ ability to forge consensus is a set of popular attitudes in certain quarters that sees compromise as weakness, an evangelical rigidity that holds taxes above all else as the Great Evil.

The partisan differences on this – which we noted back in September 2010 – are every bit as powerful today.

According to a new survey by the Economist and YouGov, Americans are nearly evenly split on whether they prefer a congressperson who compromises to get things done or one who sticks to his or her principles, no matter what. It’s 53% for compromise, 47% against.

While the survey was of a web-based panel (not a method we think much of), it’s not all that far off a real survey done by Pew Research Center last September, that found about half (49%) of Americans say they most admire political leaders who stick to their positions without compromising, while slightly fewer (42%) say that they most admire political leaders who make compromises with people they disagree with.

But what both surveys found was that Democrats and independents like compromise in politics in order to get things done, Republicans (and Pew found especially those who identify with the Tea Party) don’t want compromise.

In the new Economist/YouGov survey, Democrats split 68-32% in favor of compromise, independents were 55-45% in favor and Republicans were 66-34% against compromise.

Likewise, liberals favored compromise 76-24%, moderates in favor 60-40% but conservatives against 69-31%. No other demographic was as powerful except perhaps education, where those with a high school or less education were against compromise 52-48%, while college graduates were in favor of compromise 64-36%.

The notions that taxes are the end-all-be-all evil in the world, and that compromise means capitulation, are rooted in the black-and-white thinking of the conservative Christian movement (on issues like abortion, prayer in school, gay marriage, etc.) and conservative talk radio, where Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and their ilk demonize any politician who would consider reaching consensus as a traitor who sleeps with the enemy.

Forget about the fact that it was George Bush and Dick Cheney who ran up the national debt, arguing that deficits don’t matter, while fighting two wars and cutting taxes for the wealthy without charging anyone for the privilege. Forget about the fact that most of the great advances in self-governance – from the U.S. Constitution itself to Medicare and Social Security – were the result of principled compromise. None of that matters.

What will matter is if the United States defaults on its international obligations, if middle class families in California cannot afford to send their children to college, if public schools degenerate into holding cells, if prisons explode, if roads deteriorate, if state parks close. These kinds of things will actually matter to average citizens.

And when they figure out – if they do – that it was because one side in Sacramento and Washington refused to bargain, rejected great opportunities for meaningful agreement and stood in the corner with their ears covered yelling “No! No! No!” then perhaps they will exact their political revenge.

We can only hope.

subscribe to comments RSS

There are 2 comments for this post

  1. avatar pdperry says:

    This David Brooks?

    “I remember distinctly an image of–we were sitting on his couches, and I was looking at his pant leg and his perfectly creased pant, and I’m thinking, a) he’s going to be president and b) he’ll be a very good president.”

  2. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    I’ve seen the figures before on the disparate attitudes toward compromise. But I’ve never seen a good explanation of the split. Because the GOP thinks they have a direct line to god? Maybe because they know the Bible better? Actually, they misrepresent it fairly frequently. And their memory of it is highly selective. Or they’ve read the Constitution more thoroughly? Ditto here. They only seem to remember the parts of it they like. Because they’ve proven their approach right? If so, how? The economy didn’t seem that robust under their no-taxes-for-the-rich regime from 2000 to 2008. Because all those Nobel-Prize-winning economists who disagree with them are just academic pinheads and the Nobel committee is too? And, if so, why are they more qualified? Are their finances so much better than Paul Krugman’s? I doubt it.

    The certainty with which Republicans, and Tea Partiers in particular, approach everything is simply mind boggling. They are sure they’re right, even when it’s pretty easy to prove they’re wrong. I mean Paul Revere did write an account of his ride on April 18. We do have figures and statistics on the economy and job losses from 2000 to 2008. You can download a copy of the Constitution online and read it yourself. It’s not that long. And every motel in the country has a bible you can read. And Medicare really is a government program. So you can’t keep government out of your healthcare and keep your hands off Medicare at the same time. Look at your paycheck stub. There’s a withdrawal listed right there for money the government collects to pay for it. Really. And they’re still not convinced. It’s just amazing.

Please, feel free to post your own comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.