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Until they realized they were committing political suicide and changed their minds about rejecting a Senate bill extending the payroll tax break and jobless pay, Republican House members once again expressed their disdain for compromise. Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson have recently written on the necessity of political compromise and will have much more to say in their forthcoming book, The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It. But the initial House rejection merits more comment now.

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In December 2010, a month after elections had given Republicans control of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, soon to be the new House Speaker, told 60 Minutes host Leslie Stahl that he would try to “find common ground” with the president but not compromise. When pressed by Stahl why he rejected the word “compromise” he said that when you say it “a lot of Americans look up and go, ‘Uh oh, they’re gonna sell me out.’ And so finding common ground, I think, makes more sense.” When Stahl pressed him further, asking why he would not admit he was “afraid of the word” compromise, he responded “I reject the word.”

Rather than using his leadership position as House Speaker to help educate new House Republicans and others, including American voters, about the noble history of political compromise, he succumbed to ignorance, displaying a lack of leadership. Here is what he could have stated, if not on 60 Minutes, then soon after assuming his House Speakership:

A distinguished American and author of a Ben Franklin biography, Walter Isaacson, recently wrote that “we like to think of our nation’s founders as men with unwavering fealty to high-minded principles. To some extent they were. But when they gathered in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 to write the Constitution, they showed that they were also something just as great and often more difficult to be: compromisers. In that regard they reflected not just the classical virtues of honor and integrity but also the Enlightenment’s values of balance, order, tolerance, scientific calibration and respect for other people’s beliefs.”

In another essay Isaacson wrote that for Franklin “compromise was not only a practical approach but a moral one. Tolerance, humility and a respect for others required it. The near perfect document [the Constitution] that arose from his compromise could not have been approved if the hall had contained only crusaders who stood on unwavering principle. Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make great democracies.”

A contemporary of Franklin and member of the British Parliament, Edmund Burke, agreed on the nobility of compromise. Urging conciliation of the American revolutionaries, he declared: “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights, that we may enjoy others; and we choose rather to be happy citizens than subtle disputants.”

Russell Kirk, who died in 1994 and was sometimes labeled “the Father of American Traditionalist Conservatism,” liked to quote Burke and also emphasized the importance of compromise. In his essay on the “Errors of Ideology,” he wrote that “Ideology makes political compromise impossible: the ideologue will accept no deviation from the Absolute Truth of his secular revelation. . . . Ideologues vie one with another in fancied fidelity to their Absolute Truth; and they are quick to denounce deviationists or defectors from their party orthodoxy. . . .[but] the prudential politician . . . is well aware that the primary purpose of the state is to keep the peace. This can be achieved only by maintaining a tolerable balance among great interests in society. Parties, interests, and social classes and groups must arrive at compromises, if bowie-knives are to be kept from throats. When ideological fanaticism rejects any compromise, the weak go to the wall.”

Born a year before Kirk, someone on the opposite side of the political spectrum, John Kennedy, also praised compromise. In his Profiles in Courage, written while still a senator, he wrote:

We should not be too hasty in condemning all compromise as bad morals. For politics and legislation are not matters for inflexible principles or unattainable ideals. . . . legislation, under the democratic way of life and the Federal system of Government, requires compromise between the desires of each individual and group and those around them. Henry Clay . . . said compromise was the cement that held the Union together. . . .
Some of my colleagues who are criticized today for lack of forthright principles—or who are looked upon with scornful eyes as compromising “politicians”—are simply engaged in the fine art of conciliating, balancing and interpreting the forces and factions of public opinion, an art essential to keeping our nation united and enabling our Government to function. Their consciences may direct them from time to time to take a more rigid stand for principle—but their intellects tell them that a fair or poor bill is better than no bill at all, and that only through the give-and-take of compromise will any bill receive the successive approval of the Senate, the House, the President and the nation.

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In his autobiography, An American Life (1990), Ronald Reagan criticized “radical conservatives” in the California legislature while he was governor. For them “‘compromise’ was a dirty word,” and they “wouldn’t face the fact that we couldn’t get all of what we wanted. . . . They wanted all or nothing and they wanted it all at once. If you don’t get it all, some said, don’t take anything.” Reagan went on to say, “I’d learned while negotiating union contracts that you seldom got everything you asked for. And I agreed with FDR, who said in 1933: ‘I have no expectations of making a hit every time I come to bat. What I seek is the highest possible batting average.’”

In recent decades good politicians and commentators, both Republican and Democrat, have recognized the need for compromise. Former Republican Missouri senator John Danforth noted, for example, that “if legislators want to legislate—and not just appeal to a rabid group of supporters come hell or high water—that’s going to be in a system that involves compromise.” In such a system, he added, “It’s very helpful to believe that your program is not immutable. And that the other people you’re dealing with have something to say and something to add.”
Perhaps the best twenty-first century example of working together across the political aisle was that of Senators Orrin Hatch and Edward Kennedy. After Kennedy died in August 2009, Hatch stated the following:

America has lost a giant in politics and public policy. I have lost a close personal friend. People called us the “odd couple,” which was certainly true. . . .

We did not agree on much, and more often than not, I was trying to derail whatever big government scheme he had just concocted. We did manage to forge partnerships on key legislation, such as the Ryan White AIDS Care Act, State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and most recently, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. Ted was a lion among liberals, but he was also a constructive and shrewd lawmaker. He never lost sight of the big picture and was willing to compromise on certain provisions in order to move forward on issues he believed important. . . .

We can all take a lesson from Ted’s 47 years of service and accomplishment. I hope that America’s ideological opposites in Congress, on the airwaves, in cyberspace, and in the public square will learn that being faithful to a political party or a philosophical view does not preclude civility, or even friendships, with those on the other side.

When reflecting on my dear friend’s life, my thoughts continue to turn to the future of this great nation. With the loss of such a liberal legislative powerhouse who spoke with conviction for his side of the aisle but who was always willing to look at an issue and find a way to negotiate a bipartisan deal, I fear that Washington has become too bitterly partisan. I hope that Americans in general and Washington politicians in particular will take a lesson from Ted’s life and realize that we must aggressively advocate for our positions but realize that in the end, we have to put aside political pandering, work together and do what is best for America.

In the spirit of Senator Hatch, let me close by once again quoting his friend Teddy Kennedy’s brother; in his Profiles in Courage he wrote: “We shall need compromises in the days ahead, to be sure. But these will be, or should be, compromises of issues, not of principles. We can compromise our political positions, but not ourselves. We can resolve the clash of interests without conceding our ideals. And even the necessity for the right kind of compromise does not eliminate the need for those idealists and reformers who keep our compromises moving ahead. . . . Compromise need not mean cowardice. Indeed it is frequently the compromisers and conciliators who are faced with the severest tests of political courage as they oppose the extremist views of their constituents.”

Granted that the long statement made above might have been unwelcome to many of Speaker Boehner’s newly elected Tea Party Republicans, and perhaps he might have lost his Speakership, but it would have been an act of political courage—the kind John Kennedy wrote about in Profiles of Courage. How many more fiascoes like the House Republicans’ initial rejection of the Senate bill do we have to face before they learn the meaning of true compromise from some of their more astute political predecessors?

walter moss

Walter Moss

Walter G. Moss

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. For a list of his recent books and online publications, click here. He has previously written on mass culture, along with other topics, in his An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (Anthem Press, 2008).