Compromise has always been a holy word for the Washington establishment. But against the backdrop of ever-increasing anxiety over our fiscal dysfunction, most particularly the next budget showdown, the word has taken on a tone of anger, desperation, and even panic.
But in all its usages these days, “compromise” remains a word for bludgeoning Republicans. “Congress isn’t just stalemated, it’s broken, experts say,” proclaims the typical headline, this one in the Miami Herald. And the experts say it’s all the Republicans’ fault.
“The challenge we have right now is that we have on one side a party that will brook no compromise,” President Obama explained at the Associated Press Luncheon in April. The Republicans’ “radical vision,” Obama insisted, “is antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity.”
The speech was hailed as a “thunderclap” by the editors of the New York Times because Obama signaled he was done asking Republicans to put their “destructive agenda” aside. “In this speech, he finally conceded that the [Republican party] has demonstrated no interest in the values of compromise and realism.”
Now the standard Tea Party–Republican–conservative response is to note that Democrats didn’t care much for compromise when they ran Washington for Obama’s first two years in office. Moreover, what Democrats now mean by compromise is capitulation. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) summarized the attitude well during last year’s budget negotiations: “We’re recognizing that the only compromise that there is, is mine.”
While I largely concur with that standard retort, it’s worth at least saying something nice about compromise. Conservatism, rightly understood, does not consider compromise a dirty word. “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter,” observed Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism. A willingness to accept half a loaf when half is the best you can possibly get is the essence of wisdom.
Indeed, Obama is right when he says, “America, after all, has always been a grand experiment in compromise.” The Founders placed compromise at the heart of the Constitution — compromise between the state and the federal governments, between the different branches of government, even between the two houses of Congress. That is all well and good.
But let’s not go crazy here. The Founders didn’t fetishize compromise, either. When Patrick Henry proclaimed at the Virginia Convention in 1775, “Give me liberty or give me death,” even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson allegedly leapt to their feet to roar approval. Suffice it to say, the spirit of compromise didn’t fill the air.