Compromise makes a comeback

by Steven Roberts

After negotiating a deal with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to avoid a catastrophic default on America’s debt, President Biden observed: “Now, this agreement represents a compromise, which means not everyone gets what they want. That’s the responsibility of governing.”  

His statement contains two critical words, and the first is “compromise.” Too often, that term has been used as a criticism, even a curse word, the equivalent of betrayal. But actually, it is one of the most noble words in our political language. A decent respect for one’s rivals is the essential lubricant that makes the machinery of governing operate. 

The second key word cited by Biden is “responsibility.” For too many operatives on both sides, the capital is a place for performing, not governing. Congress is not a legislative forum but a TV studio or social media platform, where the most inflammatory statements are rewarded with the most attention. 

Communicating with constituents is a fine idea, but for any lawmaker, their main responsibility should be making decisions, not just demands; talking, not just tweeting. And both Biden and McCarthy deserve considerable credit for resurrecting these vital values. 

“It’s a miracle. I mean, release the doves,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu told CNN. “Washington actually is moving forward. Both sides seem pretty frustrated, which means it’s probably a pretty good deal actually.”  

Two other words also emerge from the debt debate with new relevance: facts and reality. In Donald Trump’s Fantasyland, “alternative facts” poisoned the political process, and Rudy Giuliani’s adage — “Truth isn’t truth” — became the administration’s watchword. Tax cuts pay for themselves; COVID-19 will disappear in warm weather; the Russians didn’t meddle in the 2016 election; the 2020 election was rigged. All lies, all promoted with evangelical fervor. 

Liberals have their own share of favored falsehoods: the answer to every public problem is another government regulation or spending program; bowing to the teachers’ unions and closing schools in the face of COVID-19 was a good idea. 

The result of all this self-delusion has been a flight from facts, a denial of reality and a freezing of the governing process. Barack Obama describes the problem this way: “Today, what I’m most concerned about is the fact that, because of the splintering of the media, we almost occupy different realities, right? If something happens that … in the past everybody could say, ‘All right, we may disagree on how to solve it, but at least we all agree that, yeah, that’s an issue.’ Now people will say, ‘Well, that didn’t happen,’ or, ‘I don’t believe that,’ or, ‘I don’t care about the science,’ or, ‘I’m not concerned about these experts, … ‘cause they’re just all liberals’ or, … ‘That’s just conservative propaganda.’ ”  

During the debt limit fight, facts ruled. Both sides agreed that the danger was imminent, and a solution was essential. Shalanda Young, one of the key White House negotiators, put it this way: “This is where you would expect a bipartisan agreement to land. It’s just the reality. There’s not a unified government. They have ideas. We have to listen to them. We have to talk about it.”  

That all makes sense, but not in today’s Washington. Rep. Jamie Raskin called the compromise “the weirdest legislation that anybody has ever been asked to vote on since I got here” because “everyone has problems with parts of it.”  

Weird? Because it was a compromise? Because nobody got everything they wanted? Because a truly hellish outcome was avoided? Raskin has it exactly wrong. The deal wasn’t weird at all. It was a welcome recognition of reality. 

So, will the deal become a template for future bipartisan bargains? Uncertain. Few issues carry the bracing impact of an impending debt default. Still, something valuable has been achieved. A modicum of trust — perhaps the most valuable of political commodities — has been fostered between the leaders. Biden praised McCarthy and his team: “Both sides operated in good faith. Both sides kept their word.” And McCarthy reciprocated calling the White House negotiators, “Very professional, very smart.”  

Moreover, Biden has amassed more evidence to bolster his argument for reelection, which a headline over an Associated Press story summed up well: “Biden’s 2024 pitch highlights pragmatism over Trump’s pugilism.” As AP’s Zeke Miller wrote of Biden, “As he seeks a second term, he’s again trying to frame the race as a referendum on competence and governance.”  

“Competence” and “governance” are hardly exciting words. Nor are “compromise” or “responsibility” or “reality.” But they remain essential and enduring virtues. 

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Email: stevecokie@gmail.com