There’s Compromise, and There’s Compromise

December 9, 2010

There’s a lot of noise today about promoting political squishiness to a virtue and endorsing the notion that compromise for its own sake is noble. I uncompromisingly dissent.

First, let’s understand that compromise for pragmatic purposes or out of political necessity is wholly different from compromise for its own sake. It is the latter I reject, recognizing that the former is, by definition, sometimes the best of the bad options. Those types of decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis with a thorough evaluation of the available options and the short- and long-term implications of settling for the imperfect solution.

We often hear that “the American people are sick of all the partisan wrangling and just want politicians to get along, compromise and get something done for the good of the nation,” as if there were a consensus out there as to what is good for the nation and the only obstacles to achieving it were partisan bickering.

The recently hatched group that labels itself “No Labels” is “calling for a new politics of problem-solving.” One if its label-eschewing founding members, David Frum, cites a survey allegedly showing that “61 percent of independents … endorsed the proposition that ‘Governing is about compromise, and I want my elected officials to work with the other side to find common ground and pass legislation on important issues.'”

Now that’s interesting. Not even two-thirds of self-described independents subscribe to the Rodney King credo, “Can we all get along?” Thirty-two percent of those rascals “chose the contrary position that ‘Leadership is about taking principled stands, and I want my elected officials to stand up for what they believe in, even if it means that legislation on important issues does not pass.'”

Just think of what the results might have been if the poll questioning hadn’t been loaded toward squishiness? I mean, the poll question could have admitted that gridlock is preferable to bad bills and as many as half the squishes might have rejected squishiness.

As noted, it is sometimes necessary for even highly principled politicians to compromise — in those cases when the compromise is better than the alternative. That is, gridlock is not always better when existing legislation is worse than compromise legislation that could improve on the status quo. For example, a case could be made that Republicans were right in agreeing to the tax deal with Obama because it was the only way to prevent economy-devastating income tax increases over the next few years. Personally, I’m not sold that the Republicans got the best deal they could have, because their tax rate extension was only temporary and they also agreed to reinstate the estate tax and yet another extension of unemployment benefits, which will detrimentally impact the deficit and prolong and expand unemployment.

But here we’re talking about doing our best with the cards we are dealt: a Democratic president and, for now, Democratic majorities in Congress.

But why should compromise be our initial goal — that we shouldn’t even try to improve the hand we’re dealt? If we believe that compromise with liberals invariably pushes us toward statism and that statism would be detrimental to the United States and the liberty and prosperity of its citizens, why would we support “middle ground” instead of conservative candidates?

Can it really be denied that America has been on a steady march toward statism? On, Peter Robinson cited Charles Murray’s devastating critique of David Brooks’ persistent calls for “energetic government.” Murray pointed out that the federal government under President Lyndon Johnson spent only $782 billion in fiscal year 1963 (measured in 2008 dollars), just $259 billion of which was for domestic non-defense items. In 2008, $1.7 trillion was allocated toward domestic non-defense items — a “sevenfold increase.” Murray concluded, “You don’t increase spending by those amounts without changing the role of government in ways that go to the heart of the American project.”

Just so. And yet it’s never enough for liberals. They’ve jumped up spending astronomically again since 2008, and they’re still not satisfied. If we continue to compromise, we stick that fatal statist spear deeper and deeper into the heart of the American project. If we accede to the notion that we should accept government at existing levels and just figure out more acceptable uses of government power, as the Frums and Brookses seem to advocate, we are effectively abandoning the American project.

Whatever may have been true in the past, I don’t believe liberals and conservatives share the same goals anymore. On the domestic side, you can’t square equality of opportunity with equality of outcomes. On foreign policy, you can’t reconcile American exceptionalism with the Obama mentality that laments that we are still a military superpower.

The conservatives’ goal should be victory, not compromise, even if we sometimes have to compromise on the way.