Thursday, July 14, 2011

On The Need For Compromise: The Devil Is In The Defintions

At the Madville Times, Cory responds to this chart.

Cory writes,
This chart appears to support an observation I made over the weekend, that Democrats are actually the center, seeking practical solutions and good government, while Republicans are the wild-eyed ideologues, who view compromise as the root of our problems.
In certain areas (freedom of speech, human rights), compromise makes me queasy. But compromise lies at the heart of good governing. Compromise is how adults get things done. And if you’re looking for compromise, it appears you’re much more likely to find a home in the Democratic party.
 In the comments, Ken Blanchard writes,
. . . . The whole point of compromise is get as close as one can to one’s principles when other people are involved. . . .
There is a very good reason why a lot of Republicans are skeptical of compromise. They think that politicians go to Washington promising change and then do business as usual. They think that compromise means making promises you can’t keep and spending trillions you don’t have.
Nonetheless, I am tempted to accept your view that Republicans have principles and Democrats don’t. You’d think that when Obama criticized Bush’s national security policies, that the former was speaking from principle. If so, he compromised his principles in a hurry. You’d think that Democrats had a principle that a President can’t start a war without consent from Congress. Obama surely compromised that principle in a hurry, with his utter contempt for the War Powers Act. So maybe you’re right. Compromise is the way to get things done. Principles are just obstacles to good government. Thanks for setting me straight.
First the esteemable Dr. Blanchard correctly observes politics and values and principles create a complicated calculus.  For example, the Christan Right's support for Ayn Rand acolytes confuses me.  He also correctly observes President Obama has violated principle by refusing to follow the War Powers Act.  The President deserves to be condemned for his disdain for Constitutional principles.

It seems, however, that Blanchard has confused "negotiation" and "compromise"  when he asserts the "point of compromise is get as close as one can to one’s principles."  A standard definition of compromise* is
a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles, etc., by reciprocal modification of demands. [emphasis mine]
In short, compromise means that both sides must make concessions.  Negotiate, on the other hand, seems to carry the connotation of success.  To negotiate is to "arrange or settle by discussion and mutual agreement."  Further, it can mean "to succeed in accomplishing or managing."  Here, the "mutual agreement" can be a win for one side or the the other.  There is an agreement, but there may not be "mutual concessions" or "reciprocal" modifications.  If one has superior talent or resources, one can manage to get everything that one desires through negotiation and refuse to compromise.

Today's New York Times leads with
The Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, warned on Wednesday of a “huge financial calamity” if President Obama and the Republicans cannot agree on a budget deal that allows the federal debt ceiling to be increased. Moody’s, the ratings agency, threatened a credit downgrade, citing a “rising possibility” that no deal would be reached before the government’s borrowing authority hits its limit on Aug. 2.
"Huge financial calamity" and "a credit downgrade" indicate that the time for negotiation, getting as much as one can," has ended.  The time has come to compromise.

James Fallows illustrates what I hope most Americans want from their leaders in this situation.
It's easy to forget at times like these, but the whole ponderous U.S. political/governmental system is made of actual human beings, who -- even as they respond to large-scale ideological, political, financial, and interest-group pressures -- can still choose to behave better, or worse, in a given set of circumstances. And the difference between good and bad behavior can make a difference. (If JFK's national security council had been much more hair-trigger and impatient during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or if Khrushchev had been, world history would have been different.)
I'll add another distinction to Fallows's point.  By all accounts Cantor and Obama are intelligent men.  Right now, America needs their wisdom more than their intellect.

*I used the definition of compromise as a noun although I am comparing the definitions of two verbs.  The verb definition "to settle by a compromise" does not do much to further the discussion.

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