Finding the Smart Middle

Getting beyond campaigning to governing.The run-up to an election season, both nationally and in Oregon, may not be the best time to write about the need to find the smart middle, the place where compromise produces solutions to problems that plague this state and this country.

Still, it is a worthwhile exercise to discuss how all of us — observers, voters and those running for election — need to prepare for the artful work that is beyond electioneering, which is governing.

In a lead editorial, The Oregonian properly credited business leaders and elected officials in Oregon with trying "to get together" to solve problems such as education and health care reform. To be sure, those reforms are now "proposals," not accomplished facts. But the very theme of a meeting between business and government leaders December 12-13 in Portland, contains the appropriate admonition — "Time to Deliver.”

As The Oregonian reports, it was just about two years ago that elected officials and business leaders couldn't stand to be in the same room. Today, they stand together. What's the difference? Well, displaying both individual preferences and collective wisdom, voters elected about an equal number of Democrats and Republicans to hold office in Salem. That turned out to be a prescription for compromise in the most recent legislative session, 2011 — compromise that had escaped legislators in the previous four sessions.

Overall, despite progress in Oregon, trying to find the smart middle on tough issues could be a fool's errand during the election season.

Those running for the Republican nomination for President pick at each other without mercy, looking for the slightest edge that would give them an advantage in the coming state primaries. Members of Congress issue news releases to show how much they care about this issue or that issue, but they work mostly to gain a headline that will help in their campaigns and put their opponents on the defensive. In Oregon, the two candidates running for the First District Congressional seat are taking shots at each other, not proposing how to solve problems.

This state and this country face troubling problems that will not be solved on the campaign trail, but will be solved by those who can find a way to govern, rather than just campaign. 

The following piece by two professors -- "Failure to compromise:  Art of deal lost on Congress" -- puts it very well.  It ran in The Oregonian earlier this month and is reprinted here as an expression of the aspiration for finding the smart middle.

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Failure to compromise: Art of deal lost on Congress

By Amy Gutmann and Dennis F. Thompson  

When it comes to changing the toxic partisan gridlock in Washington, the Beatles got it just about right: "You tell me it's the institution/Well, you know/You'd better free your mind instead."

Last month's failure of the budget supercommittee, despite its super powers, is only the latest breakdown in an attempt at compromise in Washington. Politicians keep trying to fashion fail-safe solutions to the capital's uncompromising mindset, without understanding that there is no external escape from an environment that rewards those who stand tenaciously on their principles and demonize their opponents. Members of Congress need to change their minds about compromise, or voters will need to change the members of Congress.

The supercommittee was given almost unprecedented protection from Congress's normal rules: No filibuster or amendments would be allowed on its proposals, which would become law by a simple majority of both houses. Yet it failed to achieve what most Americans say that they want from Congress: compromises that improve on the status quo, even if it means giving up some causes the members care about.

The exercise proved that the capital is caught in a centrifuge that allows those with an uncompromising mindset to chase the tantalizing partisan dream: My party will gain control, and push through its agenda, undiluted. This is a fantasy. It is highly unlikely that one party will gain complete control. It would have to secure the 60 votes to overcome the filibuster, and it would still face the task of making compromises within its own ranks.

What enabled the uncompromising mindset to dominate our politics? We live in the era of the permanent campaign, and the uncompromising approach is designed for campaigning: voters are inspired by high-flying promises never to give in on their favorite causes, while the news media thrive on low-lying attacks, endlessly repeated even (or especially) if they are mendacious.

Although campaigning is essential to democracy, this degeneration of American politics over the past three decades enables the uncompromising attitude to dominate like an invasive species, spreading beyond its natural habitat of the campaign to the government. Once there, it overwhelms the compromising mindset, which is far more suitable to governing, calling on politicians to adjust their principles and respect their opponents to reach agreements.

The situation is dire, but not hopeless. Even a sharply polarized politics is not insurmountable if opponents will bend a little, as Sens. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., regularly did. Despite standing on the right and left wings of their parties, they co-sponsored significant legislation, including support for AIDS patients and the children's health insurance program.

Only a few decades ago, Ronald Reagan — a staunch partisan — criticized the "radical conservatives" in California who thought "'compromise' was a dirty word" and "wouldn't face the fact that we couldn't get all of what we wanted today." Not coincidentally, it was under Reagan that Congress passed the most far-reaching tax reform law of the century, a classic bipartisan compromise.

And yet today, Reagan's professed followers go out of their way to avoid association with the very idea of compromise. Speaker John Boehner, pressed to explain why he would not try to compromise, said, "I reject the word."

Because most voters say they want compromise, we could also try to change electoral institutions to gain a greater voice for majorities over intransigent minorities on both sides. Allowing independents to vote in all party primaries could elect candidates with more compromising attitudes. Publicly financed campaigns would lessen the pressures of fundraising that distract politicians from governing. Even rules that require members to spend more time interacting in Washington instead of rushing home to raise money from like-minded supporters could help.

These are all worthy reforms, but there is a Catch-22: Institutional reforms themselves require a change in the mindsets of our political leaders, and they will not happen without compromise. Either legislators adopt a compromising attitude, in which case the reforms are not essential, or they do not adopt it, in which case they will not be able to agree on the reforms. There is no deus ex machina that will save Congress from itself.

If its members won't relearn the value of compromise, then voters must use the next election to show that they want representatives who care enough about governing to try to compromise. This does not mean accepting those who abandon their principles or forgo partisanship. But it does mean choosing those who accept that compromises by their very nature will be impure from all partisan perspectives. So voters, too, may need to free, and speak, their minds.

Amy Gutmann, the president of the University of Pennsylvania and a professor of political science, and Dennis F. Thompson, a professor of government at Harvard, are the authors of the forthcoming book "The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It." 

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         [The author, CFM partner Dave Fiskum, has represented government agencies and private companies before the Oregon Legislature for more than 30 years.  During those years, he has been involved in compromise solutions to tough public policy problems.  Today, he advocates again for finding the smart middle.]