Alan Greenspan called compromise on public issues “the price of civilized society, not an abrogation of principle.” Greenspan’s position is probably the result of advising and working closely with each president from Gerald Ford until George W. Bush. Yet his pragmatic approach is lost on many politicians, especially those with parties in the majority. The passage of health care reform and the present conflict in Madison, Wisconsin are sure examples of politicians using majority status as an excuse to avoid compromise.
“No compromise” is the default position almost whenever the opportunity pokes its head. Compromise is written off as politically inexpedient, weak, and unnecessary when there is a legal means to avoid it. These assumptions are inappropriate in light of our history, the Constitution’s spirit, and political reality.
On the road to passage of health care reform, Republicans were told to take a back seat. Democrats had been elected to govern, and they were going to govern. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s goal was to create a bill that would pass by one vote, not a bill that could enjoy wider bipartisan support. This, even though some Republican support may have been added by cutting out components like the individual mandate or by adding in stronger tort reforms and real pro-life protections.
Now, in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker is staring-down the Democratic minority in the legislature. Senate Democrats have left the state to prevent passage of a bill that would limit the benefits and collective bargaining rights of teachers. Democrats are willing to accept some of the bill's provisions, even some that would decrease teacher take-home pay, but Democrats will not support the bill as long as it limits collective bargaining. Gov. Walker and his majority won't budge. He says that the changes are necessary to fix the state's budget crisis, a somewhat tenuous connection since we are talking about a present budget crisis and future collective bargaining rights.
In either case above, the possibility of real compromise was categorically written-off, at least publicly. This way of governing, though possible and technically constitutional, is out of step with the Framers’ intention. In Federalist 51, James Madison touted how a system of rival interests would prevent one branch of power from dominating the whole republic. In Federalist 10, he showed us how the Constitution would prevent, insofar as possible, a majority faction from controlling the whole government, which would make the protections outlined in Federalist 51 ineffectual. Taken together, Federalist 10 and 51 are persuasive because compromise was necessary to the survival of the Republic; the Framers built compromise into the system.
Compromise is sought, but not mandated. If a majority faction (the target of Federalist 10’s criticism) or party refuses to compromise, it is within its right. But exercising a technical Constitutional right is not always consistent with the spirit of the Constitution, which sought to avoid total majority rule. The positive law attempts to manifest a greater goal, where the positive law is not sufficient to bring about that goal, leaders should still abide by the goal. Leaders with majority status should not write off compromise as quickly or as casually as they do.
In his Lyceum Speech, Abraham Lincoln called attention to the insufficiency of our governmental framework alone to prevent abuse. Observing that the passion that once sustained us was now gone, Lincoln appealed to reason, reason restrained by “general intelligence, sound morality and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws…” We are bound to something higher than the letter of the law, higher than the structure defined by the Constitution. The same values that made the Constitution worth defending in The Federalist should be revered when the structure falls short of its goal. Compromise may not always be the solution, but compromise carries its own merit that shouldn’t be dismissed by leaders of controlling majorities like Gov. Walker, despite how much merit his proposals may have.
Political realities also warn against readily dismissing compromise. As the Democrats learned last November, a disenfranchised minority is loud and powerful. By settling on “no compromise” from the beginning, Gov. Walker limited his chances of pure victory. He may successfully limit collective bargaining for teachers, but will his victory be Pyrrhic? Voters in his traditionally left-leaning state will wonder if they want an uncompromising Republican governor. If he does not successfully limit collective bargaining rights this late in the game, then not only will he be perceived of as ineffective, but also unreasonable.
Politics is a game of practicality. That is why Lincoln, who was uncompromisingly anti-slavery as president, idolized “The Great Compromiser,” Henry Clay. It is how a student of Ayn Rand’s black-and-white-there-is-no-grey worldview can grow up to call compromise, “the price of civilized society.” Today, Gov. Walker is convinced of his cause, but his approach deserves a second guess.