The elusive American compromise

The Critic Who Counts

Oh, my kingdom for a compromise — something is rotten in the state of American politics.

Even as President Barack Obama stood before Congress in his 2013 State of the Union — practically begging the House and Senate for bipartisan reform on Medicare, the tax code, climate change, immigration and much more — Washington, D.C., insiders already knew the likelihood of a compromise was virtually nil. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank uttered the most painful words of the year on Tuesday, when he reacted to the failure of compromise on fiscal policy: “The grand bargain may not be dead, but it has been given its last rites.”

Much of the discussion about appropriations and budget reform revolves around the “bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission,” which Obama cited in his speech. It’s a reference to the president’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, created in February 2010 to brainstorm fiscal policies that would put the country on solid financial footing for the long term. Headed by Alan Simpson, a former senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, chief of staff for former President Bill Clinton and a current member of Morgan Stanley’s board of directors, the commission has been widely honored as an example of bipartisan success. But that’s not precisely true.

The commission’s report, issued in 2010, can’t actually be called an official report of the commission because it failed to garner the necessary 14 votes (of 18 members) to be formally endorsed. The vote was 11-7 in favor of the report, and although it’s still a considerably bipartisan accomplishment in the current political climate, the commission’s failure to make an official recommendation is reflective of the general state of American compromise. How bad is it really, when even a bipartisan commission is so divided on partisan lines that it can’t approve its own report? The results of the Simpson-Bowles Commission prove  that compromise in America was never very much alive.

Our revels aren’t now ended — they never really began.

Behind the buzz of “compromise,” “reaching across the aisle” and “bipartisanship” that Obama echoed in his State of the Union is a fundamentally false ideology promoting the idea that this nation was built on — and historically excels at — compromise. But closer examination of history quickly refutes that deceptive dogma.

Some of the most notable compromises of American history — the Three-Fifths Compromise, the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 — weren’t actually compromises at all. They were temporary agreements to continue government-sponsored disenfranchisement of blacks for the sake of pushing an inevitable and bloody civil war down the road.

Emory University president James Wagner showed his belief in the myth of great American compromise recently when he lauded the merits of the Three-Fifths Compromise, fundamentally failing to understand that true compromises bring all interested parties to the bargaining table. What did the Three-Fifths Compromise really achieve? The prolonged systematic persecution of African Americans and the suppression of democratic ideals.

Recent Congresses continue to cling to America’s pattern of pseudo-compromise, punting on the fiscal cliff once and the debt ceiling twice just since 2011 — with temporary fixes that solved nothing at all and created even bigger problems down the road.

More often than not, compromise in American politics results only in the postponement of disaster rather than the creation of real solutions to partisan disputes.  It’s not that compromise isn’t desirable or effective; it’s just that true compromise is an astoundingly difficult achievement — far more difficult than any old-timer political observers like Milbank seem to recall. True compromise effects real, lasting change in a way that leaves all parties at least minimally satisfied. It’s a long-term solution, and it brings to mind very few examples in American history.

At present, Washington, D.C., looks to be further from a true compromise than it’s ever been. If Obama and Congress can strike a genuine compromise, then they’ll have accomplished a feat rivaling — or surpassing — any other in the long American history of standoffs between the executive and legislative branches. A true compromise — a grand bargain, if you will — is precisely what the country needs. But in all likelihood, Congress and the president will continue their useless dilly-dallying and false compromise until the weight of popular opinion proves insurmountable.

The painful but necessary truth is that Americans never really were much for a compromise. Even when we need compromise most, it’s drama of Shakespearean proportions, rather than shrewd political discourse, that determines whether the country will sink or float. As Cassius tells Brutus in “Julius Caesar”: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

We certainly look like underlings now.


Contact Connor Grubaugh at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @connorgrubaugh.