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When to compromise and when not to

Elliott Pearce | Monday, September 10, 2012

As the 2012 presidential election nears and the partisan animosity between the candidates and their supporters escalates, many concerned citizens have called for a renewed spirit of compromise in American politics. I acknowledge partisan gridlock has kept our government from resolving many crises, and I would like to see our leaders adopt a more civil and constructive tone when debating contentious issues. I am suspicious of “compromise” considered in the abstract, though, because I believe most proponents of compromise and bipartisanship give faulty reasons for why our politicians cannot come together and work things out.

The conventional wisdom on this topic is that most people agree about what’s right for America and would readily support a bipartisan agenda if one were ever put forward. Politicians, however, are prideful, selfish and fiercely tribal, so they refuse to admit that someone from outside their own party could be “right” or have ideas worth considering and including in their own plans. On the surface, this view makes sense. Those who run for office are more likely to be power-hungry and to think highly of their own ideas than those who do not. Recognizing the important role their allies played in getting them elected can also make politicians feel beholden to “party machinery” and “special interests.” What America needs, according to this diagnosis, is a new kind of leader who is loyal to the people rather than to himself or his party, and who can reach across the aisle to pass the kind of common-sense legislation that will put our nation back on track.

I believe this view of America’s problem with partisanship is wrong because it fails to recognize how far our divisions extend beyond the political class to the general population, and how deeply they go beyond politics to fundamental questions about human beings, nature and morality. Large, well-organized and powerful groups of people drawn from varying backgrounds hold different and even contradictory views, not only on the purpose of government, but also on the purpose of human life. We compromise with allies and neutral parties, not with those we see as mortal enemies of our worldview.

No post-partisan leader can arise to speak for all of America, because America does not speak with the same voice. Barack Obama tried to do this in 2008 and succeeded admirably for a time. Sooner or later, though, he had to come out as either for or against eliminating the secret ballot in union elections, cutting entitlement spending and legalizing gay marriage. With each decision he made, he further alienated one group of people and ingratiated himself to another. Try as he might to remain above the fray, Barack Obama is now a liberal Democrat running against a conservative Republican. Should he beat Mitt Romney, liberals would see this as a victory for their side, conservatives as a loss for theirs. There would be no sense of a step forward for all of America like there was after the last election.

Is compromise impossible? Are we doomed to languish in partisan paralysis until one side amasses enough votes to ramrod its entire agenda through Congress by brute force? I do not believe so. We must instead think about compromise in a different way. The “grand bargains” everyone desires that would cut through major problems facing our country (immigration, debt ceiling, jobs) like swords through Gordian knots are unlikely to pass. Both parties could, however, try to advance their respective positions simultaneously by passing the least controversial parts of their agendas first and saving the fierce battles for after they have already done everything they could together.

One such example is health care reform. Democrats could have agreed with Republicans to extend the employer tax credit for purchasing health insurance to private citizens, cap medical malpractice lawsuit awards and expedite the FDA’s approval process for new drugs before getting into a heated debate about whether or not health care is a “right” and the dollar figure to which we are entitled if it is. Pro-life politicians should recognize the amount of court-packing required to overturn Roe v. Wade is a long way off , instead focusing their efforts not on outlawing abortion directly, but on eliminating the absurd statutes that allow minors to obtain abortions without the consent of their parents.

We have a long way to go before we solve even one or two of the problems that threaten our country, but we must resist the urge to make up lost ground in huge chunks by advocating sweeping reforms that are unlikely to pass. Instead, we must begin our journey by taking small steps. Who knows? The more steps we take together, the more we might discover we have in common.

Elliott Pearce can be reached at Elliott.A.Pearce.12@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.