How to Compromise

I appreciate the Gail Collins/David Brooks exchanges, and this week’s was especially good. They played at a sort of reverse one-upmanship, exchanging concessions of liberal or conservative sacred cows as an example of bipartisanship. Beyond their ideas (which I think are good), the exchange is worth considering for why it is possible. I see at least three reasons:

First, they know each other, as people. They’re not just opponents but colleagues. Few now serving in Washington can say that about those who sit on the other side of the aisle. And yes, there was a time, not that long ago, when that wasn’t the case – members of Congress knew and socialized with those across the aisle.

Second, neither subscribes to the slippery-slope theory of governance. Collins can offer up drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because she doesn’t imagine that single concession will mean the end of all environmental regulation as we know it. If she did, she’d have no room to compromise. The same applies to Brooks’ concession of taxes to balance the budget. He can do this because he doesn’t believe one tax increase justifies all tax increases forever.

Third, they can safely have this conversation in public without risking a backlash from constituents, many of whom do believe in the slippery-slope theory. This works easily for Collins and Brooks because they are pundits and not elected officials. Since legislators don’t have that flexibility, they need to meet in private to have these kinds of open discussions. Preferably, they would already be friends when they began those meetings. And, hopefully, they are mature enough in their political experience to see past the slippery-slope theory. Otherwise, we’ll never see the kind of compromise needed to get this nation on track for a brighter future.

2 Responses to How to Compromise
  1. Dave
    October 14, 2011 | 4:38 am

    I think they were right on the slippery slope argument. Unless and until we can find a way around that problem, we are in for messy legislating. I expect that a combination of more competitive districts, more “knowing” members on the other side, perhaps open primaries, coupled with some strong leaders who were more pragmatic than pure, might make a difference.

    • Jason
      October 16, 2011 | 1:33 pm

      One difficulty your comment brings to mind is finding an institutional path through which potentially strong pragmatic leaders can rise. Right now both parties reward the advancement of ideological purists. If anything, the Tea Party is likely making this worse. Too soon to say whether the Occupy Wall Street crowd will have a similar effect on the other side.

      So how would a strong, pragmatic leader rise to sufficient prominence to make a difference? Bloomberg’s the only one I can think of. But the circumstances that made his ascent in NYC are extremely rare. And even his popularity has slipped significantly in this third term. If only the very wealthy can buck the party system, can only do so at the local level, and can only last for a limited time, how can they fundamentally change the national political atmosphere? I’m searching for some ideas there.