“I go for honorable compromise whenever it can be made. Life itself is but a compromise between death and life, the struggle continuing throughout our whole existence. All legislation, all government, all society, is formed upon the principle of mutual concession, politeness, comity, courtesy; upon these, everything is based.”
Those are not the words of President Barack Obama, though he would have you believe they express a sentiment he personifies. Rather, they come from a Senate debate in 1850 and were spoken by Henry Clay, known as the Great Compromiser.
Clay authored the three greatest compromises in American history, two limiting the spread of slavery outside the South (1820, 1850) and one on tariffs (1833). Obama has talked about compromise, but has neither sought nor produced a single one.
Obama has succumbed to the temptation of large majorities. The lopsided Democratic margins allowed him to win approval of his health care plan without making a single meaningful concession to Republicans. And he’s pursuing a partisan strategy with his remaining initiatives this year.
This approach is politically risky. On health care, Obama not only spurned Republicans, but also defied public opinion.
When threatened with defeat on the economic stimulus package last year, Obama’s tactic was to peel off just enough Senate Republicans — three, it turned out — to win approval.
With the financial reform currently being debated in the Senate, Obama pushed for passage without compromise — until every Republican and one Democrat blocked his way with a successful filibuster. This forced Obama and Democrats to yield ground to Republicans. But the current legislation is still a long way from being what could fairly be called a compromise.
It’s true that compromise is not always feasible in politics. It may not have worked on health care because Obama and Republicans had different goals. The president wanted (and got) a measure that vastly expands the federal government’s control over the health care system. Republicans preferred to roll back government and give individuals control over their own care.
But Obamacare was an exception. When the two sides of a debate share the same goals but differ on the means of achieving them, a compromise along the lines enunciated by Clay is quite possible. For a compromise to work, Clay said it must be win-win.
Obama’s mistake is not to understand the value of compromise, both for him and the country. By relying solely on Democratic majorities, he’s caused his popularity to collapse and jeopardized passage of his agenda. Clay knew better.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.