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That C Word

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
December 14, 2010
Politico

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Not a lot surprises me anymore. But Sunday's “60 Minutes” interview with soon-to-be-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) did.

No, I'm not talking about what Lesley Stahl diplomatically called his “water works” — Boehner's propensity for crying at references to just about everyone and everything. Apparently, this country has come a long ways since Ed Muskie. No, I'm referring to Boehner's refusal to use the word “compromise.”

In the interview, Boehner expressed a willingness to govern, to work together, to find common ground, but not to compromise — something he said many Americans associate with selling out. “I reject the word,” Boehner declared.

This is downright odd. The Constitution only came about because of compromise. But don't take it from me— take it from Alexander Hamilton in “Federalist 85.” “The compacts which are to embrace 13 distinct States in a common bond of amity and union,” Hamilton wrote, “must as necessarily be a compromise of as many dissimilar interests and inclinations.”

How did we arrive here, where compromise has become a dirty word? There are several explanations. Gerrymandering of congressional districts to make them safe is one. Removing the necessity of winning over the center makes it all too easy to appeal to only one side or the other.

The proliferation of cable and satellite channels and Internet sites also works against the idea of compromise. Broadcasting forced ABC, CBS and NBC to reach out to large audiences of varied views. By contrast, with today's narrowcasting, the thousands of channels and Websites producing content play to far smaller audiences, which tune in to voices that largely echo rather than challenge their biases.

Also accounting for today's compromise allergy is the power of special interests. Citizens and groups who approach the political arena through the prism of a single cause —and many do — tend to be merciless in their treatment of any politician who departs from their particular orthodoxy. The Tea Party is only the latest in a long line of movements to pose litmus tests.

All this makes it dangerous to compromise. Which is an enormous problem. Compromise is the process by which things not only get done, but also how important initiatives garner widespread popular support. Such support is essential in a democracy that calls on its citizens to sacrifice.

Compromise can also be a protection against major policy swings —and errors — dictated by the majority. For good reason did the founders choose our Constitution, with all of its checks and balances and compromises, over a parliamentary system that concentrates power and often makes it all too easy to avoid compromise.

Consider, for a moment, America's mounting debt, arguably the greatest threat to this country's ability to provide for its own people and to play a major role in the world. Doing something about the debt is likely to require compromise involving painful spending cuts, selective tax increases and a reduction of popular tax exemptions.

Senate ratification of the New START Treaty will also require some compromise — though not nearly as much as its critics suggest. But passage is justified if Washington is to maintain a working relationship with Russia (essential to pressure Iran); have credibility when it presses other countries not to proceed with nuclear programs, and maintain a reputation for reliability and predictability — essential if a great power wants to exert influence commensurate with its power.

Democrats and Republicans, the White House and the Congress -– all will have to govern, to work together, to find common ground and, yes, to compromise. It is far from clear our elected representatives are up to the challenge.

It is, as the next speaker of the House might say, enough to make one cry.

Richard N. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as director of policy planning in the State Department, 2001-2003.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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