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Both Republicans and Democrats Used to Believe in Compromise

John McCain’s recent dramatic appeal on the Senate floor included these words: “The most revered members of this institution accepted the necessity of compromise in order to make incremental progress on solving America's problems.” He was right. Six years ago I criticized Speaker of the House John Boehner for saying that he rejected the word “compromise.” And at that time I referred to some of the words below by and about others who advocated conciliation and working together for the common good.

In his Ben Franklin biography, Walter Isaacson wrote that “we like to think of our nation’s founders as men with unwavering fealty to high-minded principles. To some extent they were. But when they gathered in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 to write the Constitution, they showed that they were also something just as great and often more difficult to be: compromisers. In that regard they reflected not just the classical virtues of honor and integrity but also the Enlightenment’s values of balance, order, tolerance, scientific calibration and respect for other people’s beliefs.”

In another essay Isaacson wrote that for Franklin “compromise was not only a practical approach but a moral one. Tolerance, humility and a respect for others required it. The near perfect document [the Constitution] that arose from his compromise could not have been approved if the hall had contained only crusaders who stood on unwavering principle. Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make great democracies.”

In his Profiles in Courage, future President John Kennedy stated:

We should not be too hasty in condemning all compromise as bad morals. For politics and legislation are not matters for inflexible principles or unattainable ideals. . . . legislation, under the democratic way of life and the Federal system of Government, requires compromise. . . .

Some of my colleagues who are criticized today for lack of forthright principles—or who are looked upon with scornful eyes as compromising “politicians”—are simply engaged in the fine art of conciliating, balancing and interpreting the forces and factions of public opinion. . . . Their consciences may direct them from time to time to take a more rigid stand for principle—but their intellects tell them that a fair or poor bill is better than no bill at all, and that only through the give-and-take of compromise will any bill receive the successive approval of the Senate, the House, the President and the nation.

President Barack Obama also often encouraged compromise, and one of the saddest aspects of his presidency was that he seldom found Republicans willing to do so. Shortly after he delivered a University of Michigan Commencement Speech in mid-2010, one of his finest, I quoted from that speech, and from his book, The Audacity of Hope, about the necessity of compromise. In his speech he criticized the “vilification and over-the-top rhetoric [that] closes the door to the possibility of compromise.” In his book he wrote of Lincoln’s humility and stated that Lincoln demonstrated that “we must talk and reach for common understandings, precisely because all of us are imperfect.”

Toward the end of his presidency, Obama gave another commencement speech in which he stressed the importance of compromise. This time he was speaking at Howard University. In it, he said, “change requires more than just speaking out—it requires listening, as well. In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise. . . . Democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right.”

But it is not just those on the political Left who have perceived the necessity of compromise. In England during the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke, sometimes labelled “the father of modern conservatism,” also advocated it. Urging conciliation with the American revolutionaries, he declared: “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights, that we may enjoy others; and we choose rather to be happy citizens than subtle disputants.”

Russell Kirk, sometimes called “the father of American Traditionalist Conservatism,” liked to quote Burke and also emphasized the importance of compromise. In his essay on the “Errors of Ideology,” he wrote that “Ideology makes political compromise impossible: the ideologue will accept no deviation from the Absolute Truth of his secular revelation. . . . Ideologues vie one with another in fancied fidelity to their Absolute Truth; and they are quick to denounce deviationists or defectors from their party orthodoxy. . . .[but] the prudential politician . . . is well aware that the primary purpose of the state is to keep the peace. This can be achieved only by maintaining a tolerable balance among great interests in society. Parties, interests, and social classes and groups must arrive at compromises, if bowie-knives are to be kept from throats. When ideological fanaticism rejects any compromise, the weak go to the wall.”

In his autobiography, An American Life (1990), Ronald Reagan criticized “radical conservatives” in the California legislature while he was governor. For them “ ‘compromise’ was a dirty word,” and they “wouldn’t face the fact that we couldn’t get all of what we wanted. . . . They wanted all or nothing and they wanted it all at once. If you don’t get it all, some said, don’t take anything.” Reagan went on to say, “I’d learned while negotiating union contracts that you seldom got everything you asked for. And I agreed with FDR, who said in 1933: ‘I have no expectations of making a hit every time I come to bat.”

In recent decades good politicians and commentators, both Republican and Democrat, have recognized the need for compromise. Former Republican Missouri senator (for two decades) John Danforth noted, for example, that “if legislators want to legislate—and not just appeal to a rabid group of supporters come hell or high water—that’s going to be in a system that involves compromise.” In such a system, he added, “It’s very helpful to believe that your program is not immutable. And that the other people you’re dealing with have something to say and something to add.” More recently, but before Donald Trump’s election, Danforth criticized him and “the anger and hatefulness that he expresses.” An ordained Episcopal priest, Danforth added, “Politics is not religion. Politics is simply politics. It is a method for working [out] our differences.”

Although in our own poisonous and partisan environment, it is rare to find senators from different political parties cooperating, this was not always so. Perhaps the best twenty-first century example of working together across the political aisle was that of Senators Orrin Hatch and Edward Kennedy. After Kennedy died in August 2009, Hatch stated the following:

We did not agree on much, and more often than not, I was trying to derail whatever big government scheme he had just concocted. We did manage to forge partnerships on key legislation, such as the Ryan White AIDS Care Act, State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and most recently, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. Ted was a lion among liberals, but he was also a constructive and shrewd lawmaker. He never lost sight of the big picture and was willing to compromise on certain provisions in order to move forward on issues he believed important. . . .

We can all take a lesson from Ted’s 47 years of service and accomplishment. I hope that America’s ideological opposites in Congress, on the airwaves, in cyberspace, and in the public square will learn that being faithful to a political party or a philosophical view does not preclude civility, or even friendships, with those on the other side. . . . I hope that Americans in general and Washington politicians in particular will take a lesson from Ted’s life and realize that we must aggressively advocate for our positions but realize that in the end, we have to put aside political pandering, work together and do what is best for America.

Although the conservative Hatch still serves in the Senate, he has not been able to work together with any Democrat as he did with Ted Kennedy. Another conservative senator who sometimes worked with Kennedy was McCain, who considered him a friend and said, “I admired his passion for his convictions, his patience with the hard and sometimes dull work of legislating, and his uncanny sense for when differences could be bridged.” Ironically, McCain has now been diagnosed with the same form of brain cancer that killed his Democratic friend. Like Ted Kennedy, McCain has not always acted wisely—who can forget his selection of Sarah Palin as his 2008 Republican running mate—but neither man’s imperfections negate their most noble moments in the Senate. And two of McCain’s were his speech to the Senate on July 25, 2017 urging compromise and his crucial vote against the Republican “skinny option” to partially replace Obamacare.

In his speech McCain spoke not only about “the necessity of compromise,” but of the need for humility and cooperation. “Stop listening,” he urged his fellow senators, “to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet.” He implicitly criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s untraditional procedure for trying to repeal Obamacare and suggested instead letting the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee “hold hearings, try to report a bill out of committee with contributions from both sides.” It could then be brought “to the floor for amendment and debate.” He realized that what might be passed could “be imperfect, full of compromises, and not very pleasing to implacable partisans on either side, but that [it] might provide workable solutions to problems Americans are struggling with today.’

After the speech and McCain’s crucial vote, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer listed his friend McCain as one of the greatest senators he has known—a category in which he also included Ted Kennedy. Schumer also expressed his hope that the senators could work together as McCain suggested to improve our healthcare system.

Given the track records of the House of Representatives, Mitch McConnell, and President Trump, the odds of the McCain and Schumer hopes being fulfilled might appear slim. But former President Obama’s words in The Audacity of Hope seem appropriate here. “The best of the American spirit [is] having the audacity to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary that we could restore a sense of community to a nation torn by conflict.”