Pat McCarthy is a very thoughtful commenter to this blog, and he made an important point yesterday about compromise–a point that deserves consideration. What, exactly, do we mean by these repeated calls for political compromise? Should progressives “compromise” our insistence that GLBT citizens are entitled to the same civil rights as the rest of us? Can we really expect–or demand–that conservatives “compromise” deeply-held religious beliefs?
I think there are two different, albeit compatible, answers to that question.
The easy answer–the facile answer–is that honorable people don’t compromise on matters of moral behavior; we don’t sell out our gay citizens, act in ways that violate our consciences. The caveat here is that few political battles really involve such choices. Votes on tax rates, minimum wage, health care, the social safety net and the like may have moral underpinnings, may implicate our beliefs about social justice, but rarely present us with stark decisions about Good and Evil. (Note caps.) You’d have to be morally obtuse to characterize the recent, shameful mud-wrestling over the fiscal cliff negotiations as a fight for first principles.
Which brings us to the more honest–and arguably more difficult–definition of political compromise: prudence, a recognition that few votes are “all or nothing” and a willingness to accept less than everything in order to get something, in order to move, however incrementally, toward one’s goal.
One of the more memorable quotes in the wake of the fiscal cliff vote was Senator Bob Corker’s glum conclusion that sometimes, it is necessary to “Eat a *** sandwich.” The difference between a passionate advocate and a zealot is that the advocate will be willing to “suck it up” on occasion in order to achieve broader goals, willing to do what is necessary in order to advance his cause over the long term. The zealot is the “all or nothing” guy, and generally, what zealots get is nothing. As someone once said, politics ain’t beanbag. Or as Kenny Rogers might put it, people who actually get things done know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.
There aren’t bright lines when principles are at stake. We’ve all seen people selling out their principles and justifying that transaction on prudential grounds. But when zealots insist that every s**t sandwich is a betrayal, we all lose.