Compromise Versus Principle

For some, conflict is the goal, not compromise. Governing takes a back seat to scoring political points for the next election.On a drive from Salem to Portland, I make the mistake of listening to Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh is nothing if not inflammatory in his rhetoric from the right, usually the far right, as he rails against the "Obama regime."

Limbaugh also eschews compromise, as do left-wing talk show-types such as Carl Wolfson, whilst they compete for listeners in a political environment that seems more acrimonious by the day. Stand on principle, they say. Don't compromise.

Back in political science class, the definition of politics was the "art of compromise."  That appears to be out of vogue today, at least in battles within Congress and between Congress and the President.  

To understand the realities of compromise, it is better not to rely on the Limbaughs or Wolfsons of our world. So, I didn't. I went to a couple of scholars, Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, and Dennis Thompson, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the same university. They wrote an article entitled the "Mindset of Political Compromise" for the American Political Science Association.  A good read — here's the way they put the compromise vs. principle issue:

         "Political compromise is difficult in American democracy even though no one doubts it is necessary. It is difficult for many reasons, including the recent increase in political polarization that has been widely criticized. We argue that the resistance to compromise cannot be fully appreciated without understanding its source in the democratic process itself, especially as conducted in the United States. The incursion of campaigning into governing in American democracy — the so-called "permanent campaign" — encourages political attitudes and arguments that make compromise more difficult. These constitute what we call the uncompromising mindset, characterized by politicians' standing on principle and mistrusting opponents. This mindset is conducive to campaigning, but not to governing, because it stands in the way of necessary change and thereby biases the democratic process in favor of the status quo. 

         "The uncompromising mindset can be kept in check by an opposite cluster of attitudes and arguments — the compromising mindset — that inclines politicians to adapt their principles and respect their opponents. This mindset is more appropriate for governing, because it enables politicians more readily to recognize and act on opportunities for desirable compromise."

The authors land on a key problem in today's political process — the tenuous balance between electioneering and governing. Candidates run for office and, when they get elected, they keep running for office. They don't focus on governing. Each new issue they encounter is a chance to make a political statement for the next election. To hear Limbaugh and Wolfson tell it, that is the way things should be — principles are too important to sacrifice them for compromise.

The good news is that compromise still occurs in Oregon, perhaps in part because the legislature is nearly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Split control often is a prescription for either gridlock or compromise. In both the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions, split control produced compromises on a number of tough issues. On redistricting, for instance, leaders on both sides of the aisle crafted a compromise on the contours of new legislative districts. Most observers predicted failure. Legislative leaders — chiefly Rep. Chris Garrett, D-Lake Oswego, Rep. Shawn Lindsay, R-Hillsboro, and Senator Suzanne Bonamici, D-Portland — produced a compromise that cleared both the House and Senate.

Compromise also occurred in the 2012 February-March legislative session on education reform, early learning reform, health care reform and foreclosure protections, to name four. In each case, Governor John Kitzhaber proposed sweeping reforms and compromise legislation was hammered out between Republicans and Democrats in the legislature.  

Looking back on those issues, there was one key ingredient: Legislative leaders who were willing to set aside partisan differences to find the smart middle and get about the business of governing.  We are all the better for it.

Here's hoping that leaders will emerge again in 2013 who are committed to putting governing before electioneering.  And, also, here's hoping that openness to smart compromise, not just fealty to one side of the political ledger, will help to define candidates on the political trail this spring, summer and fall.  Too much to expect?  Perhaps.  But there's always reason to hope.


         The author, CFM partner Dave Fiskum, sometimes listens to Rush Limbaugh, but tries to rely on other, more credible sources. He has lobbied in Oregon for more than 30 years, though, on occasion, he has toyed with calling Limbaugh to set him straight.