From Campaigning to Compromising

Perpetual political campaigns make compromise and governing even more challenging. Unifying the country will take a different mindset to find common ground where compromise is possible amid partisanship.

Perpetual political campaigns make compromise and governing even more challenging. Unifying the country will take a different mindset to find common ground where compromise is possible amid partisanship.

Compromise is always challenging. It’s nearly impossible when political campaigns become perpetual.

America and Oregon face serious challenges, including a sharply divided public. In the face of that division, how can political leaders find common ground to govern?  We know it won’t be easy, but will leader resist pressures from their respective political bases to look for solutions?

We will find out soon enough.

One encouraging sign is the peaceful and so far cordial transfer of power from President Obama to President-elect Donald Trump. We may take this for granted, but comparatively to other countries and other times, it is a big deal. Obama and Trump had trade jabs, some very personal, but there they were two days after the election sitting down talking about a baton pass in the Oval Office.

Trump promised in his campaign to undo much of what Obama did, such as health care reform and immigration executive orders. Trump threatened to repudiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Iran nuclear and Paris climate change agreements. Yet, the two men sat civilly in a room and talked for 90 minutes about America policy and security interests going forward.

The niceties of a White House meeting won’t negate politics, but it does serve as a reminder that we have traditions that unify us as a people that transcend political considerations.

Hillary Clinton’s concession speech carried out another important American tradition – urging unity after a hard-fought election and lending an open mind to the political winner. An open mind is akin to extending an olive branch. Winners must satisfy the voters who delivered their victory, but not at any cost or any price. There are ways to parcel victory without canceling out losers.

Trump will still appoint conservative judges, roll back regulations to address climate change and build a border wall. Agree or disagree, that’s what he campaigned on and that’s what you expect him to do in office. But he could do more selecting issues or parts of issues where compromise is possible. Infrastructure investment. College affordability. Fighting terrorism. Repealing Obamacare could be limited to repealing the individual health care mandate, letting others parts of the breakthrough reform stand and perhaps convincing all states to expand Medicaid coverage.

There is an analogue at the state level in Oregon facing Governor Brown, who won a 2-year term in Tuesday’s election. Democrats still control all the levers of power in Salem, though without supermajorities in the House and Senate to pass tax measures without Republican votes. Will Democrats push their agenda and ignore Republicans or will they look for areas that are ripe for compromise?

Oregon faces a sizable budget hole and many Democrats who supported Measure 97, which failed, will be pushing for other tax measures. Business leaders who spent more than $20 million to defeat Measure 97 may not be eager to jump into conversations about another tax-raising plan.

Brown, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney find themselves in an interesting place where compromise may be the only viable path to a credible solution. The stakes are large. Beyond glancing at the state budget, there is a growing Public Employees Retirement System unfunded liability and a gaping hole to fund the state’s Medicaid plan, not to mention K-12 schools, higher education, transportation and public health.

Political gridlock has been less apparent in Oregon than in Washington, DC, but no place is immune to the disease that gets it infectious start from constant campaigning. As Amy Gutmann, then president of the University of Pennsylvania, and Dennis Thompson, a professor of philosophy at Harvard, wrote in The Spirit of Compromise::

“The problem of compromise in American democracy has always been challenging. It becomes harder still with the rise of the permanent campaign. The relentless pressures of campaigning, which call for an uncompromising mindset, are overtaking the demands of governing, which depend on a compromising mindset.”

So the reigning question for leaders now is whether they can set aside their uncompromising politicking mindset and embrace a compromising mindset to move forward the country and states such as Oregon?

We can only hope they do.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.