Politics and the art of compromise

Brian Calle Contributor
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PBS Newshour aired a segment called “Politics and the Art of Compromise” in which they interviewed two outgoing United States Senators who they opine are casualties of compromise: Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah). Their thesis is that political compromise in this age of divided, ideological governance leads to being thrown out of office. But such a discourse is fallacious and misses the bigger picture: Political compromise for the sake of gaining favor and compromise of purported principles are not compromise in the interest of political progress.

Compromise was not a word commonly thrown around in Washington, DC until after the results of the November electoral landslide, but on Tuesday President Obama, at a press conference regarding the deal reached to extend the Bush tax cuts, said “this country was founded on compromise.” His thesis, for some, is disputable, but while compromise is particularly important to political progress, abandoning principles in the process is not.

Senators Bayh and Bennett were not ousted from their elected offices because they were known in Washington as the “great sages of compromise” who sacrificed personal or professional interests for the greater good of the country and the deliberative body. Quite the contrary. Delegates in Utah’s Republican Party opposed Bennett’s nomination because he supported unpopular bank bailouts and co-authored a bill to mandate health insurance coverage. His version of compromise was but a means to gain favor with his colleagues so he could bring back pork in the form of earmarks back to Utah, something he has been known for actively pursuing.

As for Bayh, when he announced he would not seek reelection earlier this year, it was more of a political calculation than anything else. He saw the writing on the wall; the wave of Democratic defeats to come. Such a tidal wave of Democratic defeats is all too familiar to Bayh, whose father lost a reelection bid in 1980 as a Democratic casualty of the Reagan revolution. Had he ran for reelection, he would have had to answer to Indiana, a red state, for his overt support for the Obama health care law. Now he has changed his tune on supporting Obamacare, which has led to backlash from his party. Is that compromise, though, or astute political maneuvering?

Voters do not fret compromise. Ideologues do, to an extent. But the true art of compromise is to maintain commitment to the core principles one espoused while seeking office while advancing a plausible policy agenda. Adhering to principles whether they be liberal or conservative while crossing party and ideological lines to make progress is the true art of political compromise. The last class of Washington politicians did not understand that, nor did an emboldened president. The game has changed in Washington and the lost art of compromise will be what makes or breaks the second half of the Obama presidency.

Brian Calle is an opinion columnist and editorial writer for the Orange County Register (ocregister.com/opinion). He blogs at ocregister.com/orangepunch and freedompolitics.com.