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The Risks of Compromise

During the 2008 presidential campaign, I had repeated arguments with various friends on the topic Nate raised earlier, namely, whether Barack Obama was a liberal disguising himself as a centrist, or whether he was in fact a centrist. With respect to healthcare, as Nate argues–and I would agree–the worst outcome is to be depicted as having staked out a liberal position despite having actually forged a centrist consensus. I don’t say “worst” in a normative sense here; I mean worst in terms of the politics, the optics. If healthcare reform is going to be depicted as unacceptable (and defeated) because it’s considered a too-liberal big government power grab, it may as well be that.

One of the joys of reading The Audacity of Hope is also one of its repeated annoyances: Obama’s reasoned and reasonable mind almost always works through a problem or controversy by admitting the merits of arguments made by advocates on both sides of some issue, then confesses his preference for a more liberal solution, but admits he is open to alternative solutions that might take into account a broad range of views and values. The book was undoubtedly written with his own political future in mind, and he surely aimed to demonstrate both his intellectual faculties and his open-mindedness.

But the presidency is not an intellectual exercise. It is a not a law school class debate. And in this hyper-partisan age it damn sure isn’t a colloquium in which opponents try to find common ground with opponents uninterested in reaching accommodation, no matter how much good faith bargaining is done. Consider the filibustering tendencies of the past three years, with the Republicans in the Senate minority, compared to the six years prior with the Democrats in the minority and George W. Bush in office.

Based on data provided by the U.S. Senate, cloture activities have doubled since the GOP became the minority. The average annual filed cloture motions from 2001 through 2006 was 34, but jumped to 69 in the three years since; average votes on cloture grew from 27 to 50; and per annum invoked clotures ballooned from 13 to 33. Neither party plays well with the other, but the GOP is more likely to throw a tantrum in the sandbox.

Did Obama think his political philosophies or 2008 campaign rhetoric would be an antidote to this sort of obstructionism? Did he think that the hand he reached across the aisle would be shook rather than bitten? Did he think wishing for a post-partisan America would make it so?

As I wrote previously, there is little to no incentive for Republicans to vote along with the Obama agenda. The president was in a go-it-alone situation from the beginning. He was going to absorb all the blame or reap all of the credit no matter what happened with health care or the economy.

In hindsight, tackling healthcare in the first year may have simply been biting off too much politically to chew. The complex web of interests arrayed on both sides of the issue presented a perilous landmine field in which almost every step would set off an explosion on Obama’s left or right. I always thought energy was the safer policy issue to tackle first because, among other things, energy is viewed as a “Republican” issue whereas healthcare is viewed as a “Democratic” one. (For the same but inverse reasons, Bush tried to co-opt the Democrats on education with No Child Left Behind.)

The lesson to take away from the first year of the Obama presidency is that the risks of compromise as a governing philosophy in office are much greater than the risks of running as a “uniter, not a divider” or with a “there’s not a blue America or red America, but the United States of America” theme during a presidential campaign. After all, a presidential election, after the primaries are done, is a forced, pairwise choice between the major party nominees. A policy debate, however, is anything but a pairwise choice, even if final votes in Congress or a presidential signing or vetoing of a bill are. A complex issue with a vast menu of options and trade-offs can end up angering a huge swath of the population in the way that an electoral choice does not.

A final irony is that the compromise reflex only tends to beget more compromise, more dissensus and more frustration. Proponents and opponents alike view you as weak, and in turn expect more compromise, greater concessions. Obama needed to lay down some markers during Year One. And now, amazingly enough, the ability to lay down markers is diminished by the loss of a single U.S. Senate seat, as Official Washington commences with calls for the president to curb his audacious appetites in Year Two.