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."
Accept 'half a loaf'
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.
And that's a point worth keeping in mind. The merits of compromise depend mightily on direction. If my wife and I agree on moving to Chicago, then the opportunities for compromise are limitless. When we move, where we live when we get there, even how we get there: these are all reasonable subjects for negotiation. But if I want to move to Chicago and she wants to stay in Washington, D.C., then splitting the difference and moving to Cleveland would be absurd. But it would be compromise.
Right now, the two parties are split fundamentally on the issue of direction. The Democrats -- not to mention the "experts" and so much of the political press -- would have you believe it is a choice between forward and backward. Hence, Obama's perfectly hackneyed slogan "Forward!" According to this formulation, reasonable compromise amounts to acquiescing to the direction Obama and the Democrats want to go, but demanding concessions on how fast we get there and by what means.
Forward vs. backward
From the conservative perspective, this is madness. It is like saying Republicans must agree to let Obama drive the country off a cliff, but Democrats must be willing to negotiate how fast the car goes. And if a Republican counsels hitting the brakes or pulling a U-turn, he is dubbed "extreme" by the establishment cognoscenti.
Conservatives see it differently. Washington is aflame in debt; the national debt clock reads like a thermostat in an inferno. The annual budget deficit is approaching 10 percent of GDP. Meanwhile, the actual deficit is larger than our entire GDP. Under Obama, the deficit has grown by $5 trillion to more than $15 trillion (and as a headline in USA Today recently reported, "Real federal deficit dwarfs official tally").
Hence, the Democratic insistence that Republicans enter negotiations about how much more gasoline we should throw on the fire is a non-starter, at least for conservative Republicans. As Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., likes to say, "Republicans and Democrats must start compromising over how much we have to cut, not how much we want to spend."
None of this has a chance of being settled before the election in November, and even then odds are we'll be having this argument for years to come.
But you can be sure of one thing. If Republicans take over the White House and the Congress and start cutting, the same voices now championing compromise as a virtue in itself will be applauding the principled idealism of Democrats who refuse to compromise.