Compromise: A Good or Bad Idea in Politics?

It is generally agreed that the tax cut legislation of December 2010 reflected compromises on both sides of the political aisle. Were such compromises warranted?

It depends on your view of the political process. There are those who hold to unyielding fixed positions and will not entertain the possibility of making “mutual concessions” (the dictionary definition of “compromise”). Politics is viewed as an all or nothing enterprise. If that is your view of politics, then compromise is a bad idea.

But there is an alternative view of politics for which compromise is a good idea. That view was captured by President Obama in his comments after the December 2010 tax cut legislation: “compromise means yielding on something each of us cares about to move forward on something all of us care about.” The key word here is “yielding.”

When driving through one of the rotaries (roundabouts) in Massachusetts, “yielding” is not the end of the journey. Rather, it is a temporary delay in an ongoing journey. Analogously, in the December 2010 tax legislation Obama yielded on some matters about which he has strong beliefs, most notably his belief that tax cuts should not be extended to the wealthy. But his political opponents also did some yielding, most notably agreeing to a number of tax breaks for the middle class and an extension of unemployment benefits that Obama supported.

But in agreeing to such a compromise, didn’t both Obama and his political opponents violate their deeply held beliefs? Only if you think that December 2010 was the end of the journey. But what took place in December of 2010 is far from the end of the journey. Obama believes that the tax cuts for the wealthy will not create the significant number of jobs that is a high priority for both parties. His political opponents believe this measure will create many new jobs. Who is correct?  Politicians on both sides of the aisle need to exhibit enough humility to acknowledge that they could be wrong. Only time will tell.

Of course the journey continues now with the raging debate about Obama’s budget proposal. One viewpoint is that Obama failed to show leadership in not tackling  entitlement benefits, military spending, of a major overhaul of the tax code. But there is a more charitable view hinted at in Obama’s words to the Press Corps when he released his budget proposal: “You guys are pretty impatient. If something doesn’t happen today, then the assumption is that it isn’t going to happen.”

Once again, Obama’s own words suggest that he views the political process as a journey in which he yields on certain budgetary convictions, at least for the time being, with hope that further down the road it will be possible to attain compromise on the big ticket budget items. Is that wishful thinking? Again, only time will tell.

These reflections are not intended to express support, or lack of support, for the December 2010 legislation or Obama’s budget proposal.  Rather, it is to indicate my belief that it is appropriate for those on both sides of the aisle to agree on compromises, remembering that compromise, as a good idea, is always a temporary yielding in an ongoing political process. To be sure, that makes politics a messy enterprise that has been likened to the making of sausage, but that is the only way forward when politicians disagree as to the best way to go forward.

An abbreviated version of this essay was published in the The Center for Public Justice’s web publication Capital Commentary.