On Compromise

Here in Minnesota, our state government shut down (sort of) last night as a result of a budget impasse between our Republican legislature and our Democratic governor. A similar drama is playing out over the federal budget, with efforts to increase the debt ceiling the current battleground. It is likely that both of these struggles will end in compromise, and that the compromises–whatever they turn out to be–will be roundly condemned by principled partisans on both ends of the political spectrum.

So Peter Wehner’s excellent essay on compromise in Commentary couldn’t be more timely. Wehner examines the attitude toward compromise of two of our greatest statesmen, Abraham Lincoln and James Madison:

At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Southern delegates made it clear: they would walk out before they would give consent to a government that outlawed slavery. If the Articles of Confederation were going to be replaced by a new Constitution, those advocating the Constitution would have to compromise. “Great as the evil [of slavery] is,” James Madison said, “a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” And so just as language condemning slavery was removed in the draft of the Declaration of Independence, so it was with the Constitution. Madison made the deal in part because he believed the Constitution would eventually help uproot slavery. It would occur more slowly than he wanted, but he wasn’t going to make the perfect the enemy of the good. …

Then there is Abraham Lincoln. Henry Clay had been Lincoln’s favorite politician, a powerful orator who Lincoln himself had twice supported for president. But in 1848, Lincoln supported Zachary Taylor rather than Clay for the Whig nomination. “There is no doubt which of the two men … Lincoln in his heart, and in the abstract, preferred,” wrote the Lincoln biographer William Lee Miller. “There was no comparison.”

Lincoln explained himself in a letter, saying, “Our only chance is Taylor. I go for him, not because I think he would make a better president than Clay, but because I think he would make a better one than Polk, or Cass, or Buchanan [all Democrats] or any other such creatures, one of whom is sure to be elected if he is not.”

Wehner quotes Lincoln on the nature of political judgment:

As a young man Lincoln made this generalization:

The true rule, in determining to embrace, or reject any thing, is not whether it have any evil in it; but whether it have more of evil, than of good. There are few things wholly evil, or wholly good. Almost every thing, especially of governmental policy, is an inseparable compound of the two; so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.

Of course, not all compromises are good. The ones that ultimately emerge from our current fiscal struggles will have to be evaluated on their individual merits. But it is safe to say that those on both sides who expect ideal results from their politicians in all instances will be disappointed.


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