Saturday, July 30, 2011

Compromise: The "Genius" of America

By Mary Claire Kendall

Given the perspective of time, it's crystal clear that to compromise you need a partner who is dealing in good faith. Unfortunately President Obama continues to play games, today trotting out a Rose Garden tax increase, knowing it’s DOA, which actually makes Grover Norquist’s position, referenced herein, seem more reasonable and strategically wise.  As then Governor Ronald Reagan told Johnny Carson in 1975, when asked about how he would balance the federal budget, the same way you protect your virtue – by learning how to say “no.”  But, as Reagan also said, politics is the “art of the possible.”    
                                       - Mary Claire Kendall, September 19, 2011

Sketch of Bull Run battle by "Mr. Davenport." 

Washington, DC, July 21, 2011 – Echoing loudly, on this, the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Bull Run—the Civil War’s first real battle—is a powerful lesson.

As Shelby Foote reflected in Ken Burns’ The Civil War, this “enormous catastrophe” erupted “because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise.”

“Americans,” he continued in that soothing Mississippi drawl of his, “like to think of themselves as uncompromising. Our true genius is for compromise. Our whole government’s founded on it and it failed.”

Compromise founded our nation; wrote our Constitution; and defused the simmering conflict over slavery’s expansion, between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions, every thirty years since George Washington's first inauguration—in 1790, 1820 and 1850.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°30’ north except within the boundaries of Missouri (proposed state). Prior to this agreement, the House of Representatives had steadfastly eschewed compromise. But, then a conference committee was appointed, paving the way to the solution.

Only when North and South factional leaders refused to budge off their ideological positions did their struggle boil over into Civil War.

Some Things Never Change.

Of course, the North had a point—as does Grover Norquist and Republican politicians he holds in check. Slavery was wrong and had to be eliminated. And, taxes to pay for excess spending are wrong, so excess spending must be eliminated. But, then so did the South—as does House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and her fellow progressives. While not a perfect analogy, the South was intent on maintaining states’ rights to run their affairs without federal interference. And, entitlements, bankrupting our country, must continue—without reality’s interference—no matter how much they shackle our future.

States’ rights is what motivated General Robert E. Lee, who owned no slaves himself, to accept command of the Confederate Army, instead of President Abraham Lincoln’s offer to command the Union Army. When faced with that decision, siding with Virginia, “my country,” as he called his beloved state, was his only choice.

Of course, it didn’t need to come to that.

And, neither does it today, figuratively-speaking, except for one troubling fact—the same troubling fact that existed in 1865: The political center—where compromise lives—is barely breathing.

As in 1861, today two great factions have commandeered the debate on the national stage and are talking past each other.

Civil War erupted "because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise."   - Shelby Foote

The Tea Party, claiming a large stake in the Republican Party, given their House of Representative wins in the 2010 elections, insists cuts alone—no new taxes—must close the $2.5 trillion budget gap through roughly November 7, 2012, that, by an amazing coincidence, gets President Barack Obama past the next election.

The Progressives, who hold great sway over the Democratic Party, insist revenue increases, beyond closing loopholes for corporate jets, and cuts to Defense—definitely not entitlements or other favored social programs—solve the problem.

What a mess!

Fortunately, there are signs of compromise, including the “Gang of Six” plan for $4 trillion in cuts paired with revenue increases in a 4:1 ratio, albeit, there’s no way this plan can be “scored” in time; as well as “The McConnell Plan,” linked to doable cuts identified in the Biden talks.

But, will the entrenched factions budge? That's the $2.5 trillion question.

Ironically, like the Tea Partiers of today, Washingtonians who went out to watch the First Battle of Bull Run on a Sunday afternoon 150 years ago, in Manassas, near the muddy “Bull Run” stream, 30 miles south of Washington, thought it would be great fun. A regular tea party!

They brought their picnic baskets to watch the battle, thinking the Army of the Potomac would whip 'em, thus settling once and for all the decades-old conflict, making the federal government’s role in arbitrating slavery's future pre-eminent.  Instead they witnessed in horror as casualties mounted during the five-hour battle in which General Irvin McDowell’s 28,000-strong Army of the Potomac fought General Pierre Gustave Toutant (PGT) Beauregard's 33,000-strong Confederate States Army.

When all was said and done, 2,900 Northerners and 2,000 Southerners, respectively, were killed, wounded, captured, or missing. Hardly a tea party!

Thus, as we mark today’s anniversary, best to heed warnings regarding the August 2 deadline to raise the debt ceiling, which if disregarded, could result in the largest, fastest tax increase in American history, through steep interest rate hikes.

At which point, Grover, I would watch out for flying pies.

Published for the first time on American Politics and Policy, Wednesday, September 19, 2011.

Originally published in AND Magazine.

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