Matt Lewis

Why Republicans have good reason to be wary of ‘compromise’

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf has written an interesting post titled, “GOP Intransigence: Wise or Foolish?” Meanwhile, Jonah Goldberg argues that compromise isn’t a dirty word.

Since compromise seems to be the topic of the day, I felt obliged to weigh in.

First, let’s start with Friedersdorf, who notes that especially if Romney loses,

Republicans will have to confront the opportunity cost of the path they’ve chosen. I am not talking about the good of the country. Set that aside for the time being. What I’m saying is that Obama would’ve traded major concessions for GOP support on his health-care bill, he would’ve cut a deal that reduced the deficit with significantly more spending cuts than tax increases, and he might’ve even cut a deal on entitlements.

The narrative seems to always be that the GOP wouldn’t compromise. To be sure, there is plenty of blame (or credit?) to go around. But I can recall examples — conveniently forgotten now? — where it was Barack Obama’s party that scuttled bipartisan deals.

Here is a prime example from the health care debate. The AP reported on October 13, 2009:

“When history calls, history calls,” said Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, whose declaration of support ended weeks of suspense and provided the only drama of a 14-9 vote in the Senate Finance Committee. With her decision, the 62-year-old lawmaker bucked her own leadership on the most high-profile issue of the year in Congress, and gave the drive to remake health care at least a hint of the bipartisanship that Obama seeks.

At the White House, Obama called the events “a critical milestone” toward remaking the nation’s health care system. He praised Snowe as well as Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the committee, and declared, “We are going to get this done.”

(Emphasis mine.)

Baucus and Snowe had clearly struck a deal — but a few days later Reid undermined her by insisting on a public option.

From CNN:

“It’s unfortunate the Senate majority leader decided to take a different path, because he did say it was a pretty good doggone idea with respect to the trigger in September, so I don’t what has happened to change his mind,” [Snowe] said later.

“It’s regrettable, because I certainly have worked in good faith all of these months on a bipartisan basis and, as you know, have been standing alone at this point as a Republican to do so because I believe in good public policy,” Snowe added.

The premise that Republicans are solely responsible for gridlock in Washington is a canard.

Goldberg acknowledges this in his column, but he also notes:

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.

This, of course, is true. But modern Republicans have some legitimate reasons to be wary of compromise — some of them experiential and some of them structural.

First, the experiential. As I noted yesterday, Republicans are still smarting over being double-crossed in the 80s and early 90s, by Democrats who offered them spending cuts in exchange for tax hikes:

Reagan was offered such a deal (a 3-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases) in 1982, and it’s the reason he reluctantly agreed to the largest tax increase of his presidency, the “Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982.“ The Democratic Congress then promptly proceeded to ignore the planned spending cuts. George H.W. Bush encountered the same trick in 1990. It cost him the presidency. The same idea was tossed out last summer — and smartly rejected by the GOP.

What’s the saying? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Now for the structural reasons why conservatives have more to lose from compromising on big things. Conservatives are often called “reactionary.” This is simplistic, and meant to be derisive. But there is also some truth to it. In many cases, conservatives are attempting to conserve the status quo, which they may see as “tradition” or even a strict adherence to the Constitution.

Based on that paradigm, conservatives are always playing defense, and thus, eventually destined to lose.

This is because it’s not like the left seeks a compromise once, and then retreats. Public policy battles are usually won incrementally, via a series of “common sense” sounding compromises (thus, the smoker was first pushed into a “smoking” section before he was forced out of the restaurant entirely.)

A few years ago, I explained the concept in terms that most could easily identify with (forgive me for the length):

Let’s say your wife wants to live in New York to be close to her parents, but you want to preserve the status quo and stay in California (where you are from). Eventually your wife might offer to move to Nebraska (this means you both avoid having to fly across the country). By offering up this compromise, your wife appears to be the “adult.” You reluctantly accept.

A year later, though, your wife once again brings up the fact that she still wants to live in New York — after all, her parents are getting older (and by the way, she adds, “Nebraska stinks!”).

After much debate (and some marriage counseling), you may well decide to “compromise” and move to Ohio. (This at least allows your wife to be a quick plane trip away from her folks.)

Predictably, though, sometime later, your father-in-law has a bad health scare and your wife again revisits the idea of moving to New York. You realize that there is little reason for you to stay in Ohio, anyway, so you finally consent. (That, my friends, is how wars are lost without a bullet being fired).

This represents the danger of compromise when one side is perpetually on the offense and the other side just desperately attempts to keep what territory he has. Concessions aren’t really concessions when they are temporary (think of a man driving a nail with a hammer — the backswing is just as important as the forward swing).

(A real compromise would have only been possible had you, instead of hoping to preserve the status quo by staying put in California, raised the idea of moving to Hawaii.)

Of course, deciding where to live isn’t really a matter of principle. But deciding to compromise on issues such as the right to life or the Second Amendment (or any other issues politicians confront daily) does involve principles — for both sides.

Conservatives frequently find themselves seeking to preserve the status quo and defend American traditions. As such, liberals are often, over time, able to accomplish their goals by continuously asking for more, and compromising for slightly less.

And when conservatives refuse to compromise further, they are cast as the villains. The public says: Can’t they just meet in the middle?

But just as the man who wanted to stay in California eventually found himself in New York, we may someday wake up not recognizing our own nation. And that is the danger of compromising on principles.

This is all a very long way of saying that this is complicated. There are times to be stubborn and times to compromise. And sometimes it’s hard to know the difference between the two. But the notion that compromise is always good — and that Republicans are the ones always blocking compromise — is both simplistic and false.