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The Bogus Case for “Compromise”

The contention that the GOP is more ideologically inflexible than Democrats is preposterous. So is the idea that conviction is a political liability.

When Texas Senator Ted Cruz rolled out an epic 21-hour small-“f” anti-Obamacare filibuster, his efforts were ridiculed by journalists across the Twitterverse as a useless exercise in would-be obstructionism. No surprise there.

The New York Times editorial board joined in, spitting out an angry editorial accusing Cruz of employing an “aimless and self-destructive Tea Party strategy”; an egomaniacal attempt to cash in on the impulses of misguided conservatives.  However hopeless a liberal cause may be (gun control, cap-and-trade, Wendy Davis, take your pick) it’s always a worthy idealistic pursuit. Conservatives in uphill fights, on the other hand, are more likely to be fanatics or money-grubbing frauds – the Times can’t seem to decide.

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid took to the Senate floor as well, and declared Cruz’s efforts a waste time, unpacking his standard lament about the lack of compromise in Washington. Reid reminisced about the early 1980s, offering a personal story about a Republican who had helped him feel more comfortable when he first arrived in Washington. If only today’s “anarchists” (his description) were half as cooperative, we’d really get stuff done.

Well, believe it or not, compromise isn’t a holy sacrament. It’s not a mitzvah. It’s not particularly inspiring to voters. Politics is the art of compromising as little as possible, actually.

So while conservatives may be fumbling for a plausible plan to deal with Obamacare, the contention that they’re more ideologically inflexible than their opponents is preposterous. The only thing more preposterous is the idea that Cruz’s crusade will hurt them.

Yes, this is a hostage crisis

But that’s not the only myth. In a recent exchange on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” panelists went a few rounds on the GOP’s strategy for the upcoming budget showdowns (wily anarchists or slack-jawed yokels?) and talked about the pros and cons of “hostage taking” before MSNBC’s Chris Hayes chimed in with a pretty revealing comment:

To your point about whether it is a fair tactic, I think it’s useful to separate the kind of tactical question from the substantive one, which is to say, you know, like, if there was a liberal caucus in the United States government that could, you know, hold the continuing resolution hostage to try to stop a war that I thought was horrible, I would say, yeah, do it. The thing they’re trying to stop here is 30 million people getting health insurance! Like, that’s the substance here!

It’s the substantive question liberals have a problem with these days, not the tactical one.

A potential shutdown over the continuing resolution or the debt ceiling would be fine if the issue happened to move the liberal soul. But Republicans can’t possibly have a legitimate reason to want to defund/delay/defeat/de-anything Obamacare. The GOP opposes the law because of an insatiable impulse to deny millions of poor Americans health insurance. If Hayes were to concede that genuine objections existed – however misguided he might find them – he’d also be conceding that conservatives have a purpose beyond his own cartoon depiction of free-market beliefs.

In this cartoon the GOP are obstructionists, and that’s that. When Reid says any Republican House budget he dislikes is “dead on arrival” how many non-partisan publications will call him out on his uncompromising position? When the president states that negotiating with Republicans over debt ceiling “is not going to happen” how many reporters are going to point out that his stubbornness could potentially lead to a government shutdown?

But one of the remarkable and most often overlooked aspect of this debate is that it revolves around perhaps the least cooperative pieces of major legislation in American history, Obamacare. Shouldn’t those who idealize the D.C. bargain be concerned that a single party took control of a significant chunk of the American economy and compelled the participation of every family and business in the nation without a shred of support from the minority party? Even the wing-we-can-get-behind of the Senate – the McCains of the world – weren’t on board. Talk about a hostage crisis.

Does compromise need rescuing?

So there is the cynical push for Republican compromise and then there is a more idealistic championing of the idea, most often by realists on morning cable shows. This version of compromise for compromising’s sake is most intricately laid out in a remarkably misguided 4,500-word piece written by the typically sharp Jonathan Rauch in National Affairs.  Basically it boils down to this:

Tinkering with filibusters and gerrymanders and the like may be worthwhile, but wholesale change requires an injection of ideas. Small-bore change will not work without an intellectual effort to advance a principled, positive, patriotic case for compromise, especially on the right.

Rauch argues that the Founders – Madison in particular – envisioned an American government with an embedded compromise-forcing system, with mechanisms that endow “the constitutional order with stability and dynamism. It not only tempers the worst in us; it often brings out the best.”

Obviously, compromise is often the inevitable outcome of our political process and we have a republican system that gives us a better chance than a democracy. But a person could very easily argue that Madison would probably be more apprehensive about the lack of checks and balances, that he would support evolutionary rather than revolutionary change, and that protecting the voice of the minority would be a top concern. Certainly, nothing in The Federalist Papers leads us to believe that perfunctory compromise would have topped his list. Madison and the Founders – and this is just a hunch – would be uncomfortable with the idea of legislation that coerces American citizens to buy a product  (many against their will) and undermines federalism by blackmailing every state to compliance.

Fact is, the only way for the minority GOP can collect any crumbs of concession is to trigger showdowns. The big trick is winning them. Whether Republicans have the right strategic ideas to achieve is another discussion. But with both parties drifting towards ideological purity over the past decade, there is no other way to forge compromise without some level of anguish. There has to be a showdown on every major issue because there is less common ground to work with. That’s not necessarily unhealthy.

Even with all the scaremongering about the end of political cooperation, somehow budgets pass every year, clean energy gets its subsidies, massive new regulatory schemes grind on and unprecedented reforms efforts move forward. Considering the gaping ideological divide Washington functions under it’s actually pretty amazing how little things change– and, for a lot of us, that’s pretty disappointing.

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