David Adler: Today's politicians need to compromise more

Special to the Idaho StatesmanMarch 20, 2014 

The legendary Henry Clay said "politics is not about ideological purity, or moral self-righteousness, it's about governing. If you cannot compromise you cannot govern." Clay, the masterful Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, possessed the political talents, negotiating skills and commitment to the art of compromise that many believe staved off Civil War in his lifetime (1777–1852).

"The Great Compromiser," a powerful, influential member of the House, an effective Secretary of State and hailed by historians as one of the greatest senators in our nation's history, understood the working premise of American Democracy: Compromise is the engine of governance. Clay's convictions set him apart from many politicians in the 19th century and, it may be said, many in the 21st century. Lincoln's admiration for Clay led him to describe his fellow Kentuckian as "the ideal statesman."

Clay's words of wisdom are on display over the door in the office of Rep. Mike Simpson, next to the mounted head of an elk shot by his father. Simpson invoked Clay on Tuesday in remarks delivered to a capacity crowd at the Andrus Center's "Politics for Lunch" program. The eight-term congressman and chair of the powerful Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development explained that he doesn't try "to beat the heck out of the other side, because I have to work with them." How, he wondered, can members strike a compromise if they're always "beating up on each other?" The answer, painfully obvious to most Americans is, "you can't."

In our time, "compromise" has become a four-letter word, anathema to those whose principles dictate no retreat. For some, compromise is tantamount to surrender, an ideological position advanced with the fervor of religious beliefs. The United States is a nation that boasts a variety of political, religious, social and cultural tastes and values. What does such a nation look like without compromise? What does our system, crowded with politicians devoted to "ideological purity and moral self-righteousness," look like? A lot like the Congress we see: one unwilling and, perhaps, unable to strike a compromise on such crucial issues as energy policy, immigration and infrastructure, not to mention reform of the tax code and the Affordable Care Act. The intransigence of Congress has inflicted a series of blows on the health and welfare of the United States.

Politics, as Clay pointed out, "is about governing. If you cannot compromise, you cannot govern." Officials who prefer the cul-de-sac of purity and self-righteousness to effective governance are of little value to the citizenry. Idaho voters who for years returned to office such iconic political figures as Cecil Andrus and Jim McClure, grasped this essential, working principle of politics.

In their own ways, and by their own political lights, Andrus and McClure found the path to legislative success by exhibiting a willingness to strike a compromise by working across party lines. Sen. McClure was fond of saying that "it's better to get half a loaf than none." Governor Andrus' Democratic Party never held the majority while he was in office. Yet, voters demonstrated their appreciation for "The Andrus Way," which emphasized the art of compromise and earned him election to four terms as governor. McClure and Andrus understood the efficacy of compromise.

In gracious and witty remarks, Simpson, whose service in the Idaho Legislature overlapped with Gov. Andrus' tenure, exhibited his own sense of bi-partisan compromise when he observed that in his years in the Legislature he always thought that he was speaking at "the Andrus Center." There is plenty of room in American politics for civility, compromise and, yes, humor.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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