Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The End of Compromise?

Though you would be hard-pressed to know this if all you consumed was a steady diet of Tea Party political rhetoric, the American Congress was constructed by the Founders to be a legislative body oriented toward cooperation and compromise.  Only by working with one another could legislators govern.  By the early 1800s, with the formation of political parties, this meant that the parties reached across the aisle to build legislation to serve the national interest.  By definition, this means that neither party gets all of what they want.  The hope is that if both receive a little and compromise further on what's left, our deliberative legislative process will govern in the national interest.

When the ability to compromise breaks down, the nation suffers as a consequence.  The Civil War is typically cited as the most extreme example of a failure to compromise.  It's not a perfect example, because there were some very good reasons to refuse a compromise that would permit the continuation of slavery, a morally repugnant institution in a nation claiming to favor liberty above all other values.  Even so, we should be profoundly reluctant to reject compromise these days, when the issues on the table don't approach the gravity of slavery's threat to American values.

In the last twenty years, it's gotten harder and harder to build compromise between the two parties in Congress.  Both parties are guilty, though the lion's share of the blame goes to the Republican party, as political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein argue in their new book about congressional gridlock, It's Even Worse Than It Looks.  You can see evidence of this everywhere, but especially in last night's primary election defeat of Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, who was seeking re-election to the seat he's held since 1976.

Lugar, a Republican, has long been the kind of Senator willing to reach across the aisle, committed to the idea of finding a moderate compromise in order to govern well.  This morning, the New York Times called Lugar "a collegial moderate" and the characteristic is perfect.  But it was that moderation that served as the primary  explanation for his loss to Republican challenger Richard Mourdock, whose Tea Party-fueled campaign thrived on a steady stream of invective directed at Lugar because of the Senator's long-standing record of compromise.

Democrats were not expected to devote a lot of resources to this race in the fall, feeling that the well-respected Lugar would likely be re-elected by his moderate state come November.  The Mourdock primary victory changes that calculation and Indiana is now very much in the running for the Democrats, who suddenly have a chance to pick up this Senate seat.  I'm a Democrat and I should celebrate that.  And yet I can't help but feel this is a hollow victory.  It puts us one step further away from the compromise that is essential for our nation to govern itself.  That's not good for any of us.

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