At the Golden Globe Awards last weekend, former U.S. President Bill Clinton made a surprise appearance to introduce Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Clinton said, “President Lincoln’s struggle to abolish slavery reminds us that enduring progress is forged in a cauldron of both principle and compromise .”
Upon first watching the Globes, I wasn’t even aware Clinton had included the word “principle” alongside the heavily emphasized word “compromise.” Then again, it wouldn’t be surprising if he hadn’t. In the last four years, it has seemed like the one consistent principle guiding the White House and Democratic leadership is “compromise.”
And that was bad political and moral strategy.
Obama’s emphasis on “bipartisan compromise” (as he articulated it last week while nominating Jack Lew for Treasury Secretary) brought us endless talks on the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling, got us nowhere on his jobs bill, and resulted, even with the largest democratic majority since 1958, in the president signing into law a health care bill without a public option – something he vowed he would never do.
For the last four years, the president has been unsuccessfully groping for a middle, bipartisan path. While the dysfunction in Washington certainly has not all been the president’s fault (no, don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the GOP), the philosophy of compromise was one the president touted before Republicans took a hard-line opposition to any of his policies. And in practical terms, the sacrifices that Democrats have made at the altar of compromise have done little to move Republicans to action, have castrated potentially revolutionary legislation, and have threatened to corrode nearly all of the party’s values.
Obama and the Democrats have placed too much stock in the wrong principle. In the Oval Office, President Obama has both a bust and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Clinton lauded Lincoln as a good compromiser, but that doesn’t hold with the facts. As Sean Wilentz points out in his review of Lincoln for The New Republic, Lincoln did not compromise on slavery in the slightest. In fact, Lincoln led the entire country into a civil war over the issue of slavery. As Wilentz notes, “Lincoln and the congressional leaders simply obtained, with every trick in the book, the votes they needed, and thereby achieved everything they set out to achieve.”
Compromise was not Lincoln’s primary goal – he was determined to end slavery. And this is at the heart of the Democrats’ problems over the last four years: compromise is only supposed to be a last resort. Compromise is what happens when you want Chinese food and I want Mexican food, so we settle on Italian. Compromise is, by definition, not ideal. But if we want to keep eating dinner together, we have to do it.
For any kind of fair compromise to take place, both parties have to enter into discussion knowing what they want and the limits they are willing to go to reach compromise. But the primary goal can’t be, in itself, to reach a compromise, for then one is more concerned with having an outcome than with the merits of that outcome. And when one party’s goal is compromise, the resulting solution will necessarily be skewed towards the other party’s goals. In many cases, a compromise will be necessary in the end, but it should only be made after all other attempts to achieve the desired outcome have failed.
This becomes especially true when we enter the realm of politics, where the decisions we’re talking about have much higher stakes than, “What are we going to eat for dinner?” We need only look to the greatest legislative compromise in United States history, the morally repugnant three-fifths compromise, to see that bad compromises at this level can reap disastrous results. Here’s what we’re grappling with: nationwide unemployment, unaffordable health care costs, 20 percent of children living below the poverty line, the discriminatory legal treatment of our LGBTQQI population, the still-open-for-business military base at Guantanamo Bay, one in every three black men being incarcerated in his lifetime, the continued release of CO2 into our atmosphere, and 27 gun murders every day in the United States. We don’t need a president whose main concern is his ability to take a bipartisan bow at the end of the day. We need a president who will lead on principle. We need a president who will work with and set an example for others around him by standing up for what he believes is right, who will compromise when it’s necessary – but not too eagerly and not to the detriment of the nation he serves.
On Sunday, President Obama opened the door to his second term, and with it the potential for a new way of doing business. As he gears up for a fight on gun control in the coming weeks, there is an emerging glimmer of hope that he has learned the political and moral pitfalls that attend a strategy based solely on compromise.