A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that 35% of Americans feel President Obama has learned from the midterm election disappointments and is making adjustments. Meanwhile, an across-the-board majority of all voters except those in the Republican Party want to see both parties compromise on future legislative efforts. In other words, “compromise” is the new “hope and change”—a dangerous meme to seduce voters heading into 2012 and evoke a shift to the political mushy middle where the majority of them tend to settle in the interest of non-ideological pragmatism.
Compromise oozes democracy, cooperation, and thoughtfulness. It’s one of those words you could test in a focus group and only the very odd person would scrunch her nose up at it and spit it back after rolling it around on her tongue. That person—likely to be labeled a crank—realizes that compromise is one of those terms that sounds wonderful, until it translates into practice.
Margaret Thatcher once said of compromise, “If you set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.”
Obama’s new health care law was touted as being the love child of compromise between the two parties: Democrats initially wanted a public option controlled and managed by government while Republicans didn’t want to see problems exemplified by the publicly controlled veterans’ care system spread right across the entire spectrum. The end result was a half-breed compromise representing the worst of both worlds. What we got is a dysfunctional sanctioned marriage between unlimited, unaccountable government spending, and Wall Street’s insatiable, scammy thirst for profit. And because no one can possibly keep track of all the ingredients going into that sausage, Wall Street seized the opportunity to dip into everyone’s pockets in the interest of all the extra people the government wants Wall Street insurance companies to cover.
That’s what compromise really signifies in practice and in the real world. Much like the health care law, the real effects and detriments of compromise are often not known immediately. Just ask the many defenders of it who will say that while people may be complaining about it now, they really need to give it a chance and a bit of time.
In much the same way, the GOP can expect Obama to compromise like crazy from now until his reelection—if only because it’s clear from polls that it’s what America wants to see. They see the word, not the net result.
Those coming out against compromise—bluntly saying that they have no intention or interest in working together across the aisle because the result is usually a disaster—can expect to have a tough uphill battle in any campaign against Obama. Those people will be attacked as divisive, difficult, stubborn, uncooperative, and therefore unfit to lead a nation that requires input from all sides in a time of economic difficulty.
The GOP needs to recognize and explain to voters, repeatedly and using concrete examples, that compromise in reality isn’t the term of warm and fuzziness that radiates off the page of a dictionary. Compromise is incompatible with leadership. Leadership may involve the consideration of differing views, but the decision still rests with a single person in charge, who has to make a decision based on certain consistent and non-opposing values and principles, unlike the health care law.
A glance over at Egypt right now illustrates this principle. With the military having just driven the country’s dictator out of office, talk turns to new leadership. Many of my Facebook “friends”—patting themselves on the back for having tweeted and status-updated their wishes so intensively that they feel the social media gods finally responded by kicking out Mubarak—are now fantasizing about an authoritarian regime transforming overnight into a sort of utopian co-op, collective hodgepodge of various Islamic interest groups all working together in peace and harmony. Then they add a status update about how frustrated they are with the five other members of their own condo strata council who can’t seem to agree on anything.
A leader with a vision can pay some lip service to opposing views and consider them—even if it means rejecting them for incompatibility. Often opposing ideas are good in that they help bolster and strengthen one’s arguments and serve as a check on one’s positions, principles and values—and there’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s quite different from incorporating them at any cost in the interest of the overarching principle of compromise.
The current British government, for example, is a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who have opposing views on various major issues from immigration to the economy. For all intents and purposes, however, that government is a Conservative one led by a Conservative leader. If the Liberal Democrats hold a deputy prime ministership and some cabinet seats and contribute to the idea bank, they’re clearly not in the driver’s seat. The GOP would do well to point out the dangers of Obama-style compromise, the disasters it has already produced, and his inability to recognize its incompatibility with leadership—all while reiterating that it’s open to listening to others’ views.