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Rice University Undergraduate Leaders

Rice University Undergraduate Leaders

This post is written by students in Professor Michael Lindsay's leadership course at Rice University.

Compromise is an ideal, not a reality

Question: In approaching the coming Congressional budget battle, House Republican leaders have decided to forsake the bipartisan center and bow to the spending-cut demands of the most conservative members of their caucus. This mirrors the strategy of House Democratic leaders who, in the previous session, accommodated the demands of their most liberal members on key issues, only to lose power in the next election. Is it more effective for leaders to demonstrate a willingness to compromise early on, or to stake out a hard line in the hope of compromising less later?

Given the partisan climate of modern politics, it is best to draw a hard line simply to get things done. Although compromise is an admirable dream, it belies the fact that legislation acts as a reflection of ideology. The issues facing the Republicans and Democrats of the 112th Congress--an unemployment rate of 9.8 percent, a recently proposed budget with a deficit of $1.1 trillion and a national debt of $14 trillion--are not matters of small concern. Given the increasing polarization in American politics, to compromise on legislation is to compromise on ideology; to admit that the opposing strategy to "fix America" is not so bad after all. If the Republicans really have the answer--and they claim that they do--then why should they cooperate with the Democrats' opposing ideas? This is not a pleasant way of looking at things, but it is politically necessary. It is better to take an early stand and later negotiate from a position of strength than to make ineffective and potentially harmful compromises early on.

In Princeton University professor Avishai Margalit's book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, agreements are divided into ointment agreements and cockroach agreements; ointment agreements are similar to flies in the ointment that make the compromise flawed, but not completely rotten. Cockroach agreements are akin to the best pot of soup spoiled by a cockroach that makes the entire compromise flawed. The goal should continually be to avoid cockroaches that would spoil the early talk on the table and instead to allow ointment agreements that proffer beneficence to society.

However, when both parties at the table have polarized values, there are no flies and no little issues. What one sees as a cockroach could be to the other a choice lentil. It is conceivable that this scenario could lead to frustration and gridlock. In a similar way, where the Republicans see spending cutbacks as a top priority, the Democrats think this is unwise in the face of the great need for job creation. It is clear that neither Republicans nor Democrats have the intention of placing the others' priority over their own. For the Republicans to compromise at this early stage of the game would be to make no real progress according to their own views of what needs to happen. Going along with a large budget would make the Republicans part of the problem they have condemned.

The course of recent political events has given the Republicans in the House more reason than ever to avoid compromise. In 2010, the House Democrats were thrown out of power because of a lack of results. The Republicans campaigned as a party of change and difference from the current administration. A compromise on an issue as central to the problem as the budget and its deficit would be either an admission that President Obama was right all along or a failure to keep the promises they made last November. The best way for the Republicans to maintain power is not only to depart from what are perceived as the Democrat's failed policies but to have resounding success on the strength of their uncompromised ideas.

Compromise is often an admirable ideal. However, compromise in the modern political arena cannot easily be attained. With two parties that each claim to have "the solution" to America's problems, any indication of a willingness to compromise early on is the equivalent of political suicide. The Republicans ought to stand their ground, not simply for the sake of fighting against the current administration, but as proof that their ideas have substance and that they truly believe in them.

Authors: David Benavides, Caleb Brown, Henry Hancock, Edith Teng, Miranda Wang and Alex Young

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By Rice University Undergraduate Leaders

 |  February 16, 2011; 2:30 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Government leadership , Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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If Republicans go too far away from center in an effort to compensate for an anticipated compromise, they will lose credibility. What they need to do is formulate their plans regardless of what they think the opposition will be, and then defend it to the best of their ability. A good strategy might be to present their plan under the guise that it is already a compromise, and shouldn't be changed once it is enacted.

Posted by: RobertZider | February 18, 2011 6:05 PM
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Now, more than ever, the media has substantial influence on the public's view of its leaders. WIth that, when a leader chooses to compromise he or she must take into account this can and usually is twisted to by the media into an act of weakness. Instead of compromising straight from the start, effective leaders should take a stand so they can immediately establish their authority and superiority. Only when they have the respect of their constituents can the leader compromise without appearing weak and easily influenced.

Posted by: NneomaElendu | February 18, 2011 4:27 PM
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Politicians have an obligation to represent the views and opinions of their constituency. If Republicans were elected because the majority of Americans like their policies, it is their duty to act on that set of beliefs and not compromise for the sake of earning favor with the opposing party. Compromise is a nice ideal, but given today's partisan political climate where a policy tends to be supported by either one party or the other, politicians should be expected to stick to their belief system.
With that said, Republicans shouldn't automatically reject ideas suggested by Democrats for the sake of not compromising. Some policies can be good ideas for both parties and should be supported accordingly. But Republicans can not abandon their belief system and the values of the people that elected them so the Democrats will like them more.

Posted by: AJohannigman | February 18, 2011 2:57 PM
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Although compromise has often been touted as a morally respective option and method for many leaders, history proves that this concept will only go so far; in fact, it can be argued that compromise can occasionally make a leader seem weak on key political issues. When an issue occasionally has been used as a campaign platform, a leader is more often than not viewed as weak and incompetent if he or she were to compromise - this form of "giving in" has historically been looked down upon and the response has usually been overwhelmingly negative. In the political world, compromise is valuable, but only to a certain extent; beyond that extent, it is doubtless that the media, public, and other governmental officials would be quick to criticize the lack of dedication that a leader would have to his ideals.

Posted by: AngelaGuo | February 18, 2011 2:49 PM
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Compromise does not necessarily have to be viewed as flies and cockroaches. Viewing any form of compromise as inherently bad for the party that is giving something up is a narrow point of view. The republicans should, by all means, push through the policies they campaigned on but they should not completely shut out the ideas of the democrats. The republicans' unofficial policy on negotiation with the democrats over the last two years has been to refuse to cooperate. While this is the best thing for the short term gains of the republicans, shutting out the democrats and refusing to consider their ideas is not what is best for our diverse nation.
I am not suggesting that the republicans give in to the demands of the democrats. The republicans won an election and have legitimacy to push through their policy. However, the republicans must stop the attitude of “no cooperation” that has been their tone since the 2008 election. Also, thinking in terms of what is and what is not realistic is an inhibitive frame of mind and is often used as an excuse to take the easy way out. Republican leaders should be able to think outside the box and work with the 244 democrats in Congress and the democratic administration for the betterment of the nation that both parties serve. President Obama compromised with republicans early in his administration when he included tax cuts in the stimulus package (although this idea did not come directly from the republicans). Had President Obama refused to consider republican values, this part of the stimulus package would not have been possible. Similarly, because of the republicans’ current myopic shortsighted state of mind, we are likely to miss out on good ideas and initiatives from the democrats that could help the country that both parties serve. This pot of soup that the republicans want to serve would have missing ingredients that would have been able to improve the product.

Posted by: PlacidoAGomez | February 18, 2011 2:41 PM
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A willingness to compromise early on reflects only a need to please and appease the masses, a need that realistically can never be fulfilled. In the end, wishy-washiness and indecisiveness often lead to just as much conflict as resoluteness and absoluteness.
This is not to say that compromise is not necessary, for it is on many fronts. Without some kind of give-and-take negotiation, Congress would meet in dead gridlock on every issue. Yet compromise should come as a component of cooperation; it should not come early on but instead later on in the game, once all issues have been placed on the table to discuss. In this fashion, the original ideas of the party (the GOP) are not changed simply to instantly mollify but instead are changed to increase chances of passing necessary legislation. Furthermore, in this way, the Republican Party lessens the number of members it alienates by standing firm on its platforms and policies. By compromising early on, voting Republicans will look to their House representatives as hypocrites who cannot hold true to their promises. Why should Republicans in the House try to appease the Democrats if they lose out on their own followers in the process of doing so?
Republicans and Democrats have extremely polarized views on many subjects, from the budget to federal aid. While compromise is necessary to soften these different views in the long run, it is not quite as necessary early on. Bipartisian politics are integral to the American system of government, as they allow for dissent, argument, and ultimately, a larger pool of ideas.

Posted by: catherineyuh | February 18, 2011 2:37 PM
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I agree with the authors that sometimes, compromise is an ideal and is not the right solution to an actual conflict. While a good leader always strives to find a solution that is satisfactory for all parties, there are many cases in which meeting in the middle actually means that neither party is happy. Such solutions are akin to King Solomon's suggested solution for a dispute over the motherhood of a baby: cut the baby in half so that each mother is partially satisfied.
For small debates, negotiation and compromise usually result in satisfactory solutions with little sacrifice by either party. However, when it comes to disputes over ideals - such as in the upcoming budget battle - compromise is really just cutting a live baby in half.

Posted by: nupurjain | February 18, 2011 2:11 PM
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I agree with the authors that sometimes, compromise is an ideal and is not the right solution to an actual conflict. While a good leader always strives to find a solution that is satisfactory for all parties, there are many cases in which meeting in the middle actually means that neither party is happy. Such solutions are akin to King Solomon's suggested solution for a dispute over the motherhood of a baby: cut the baby in half so that each mother is partially satisfied.
During debates over smaller issues, negotiation and compromise are ideal, since this will usually result in mutual benefits with little sacrifice on either side. However, when it comes to disputes about ideals - such as ideas about the budget battle - reaching a compromise is really just cutting a live baby in half.

Posted by: nupurjain | February 18, 2011 2:04 PM
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I agree with the authors that sometimes, compromise is an ideal and is not the right solution to an actual conflict. While a good leader always strives to find a solution that is satisfactory for all parties, there are many cases in which meeting in the middle actually means that neither party is happy. Such solutions are akin to King Solomon's suggested solution for a dispute over the motherhood of a baby: cut the baby in half so that each mother is partially satisfied.
During debates over smaller issues, negotiation and compromise are ideal, since this will usually result in mutual benefits with little sacrifice on either side. However, when it comes to disputes about ideals - such as ideas about the budget battle - reaching a compromise is really just cutting a live baby in half.

Posted by: nupurjain | February 18, 2011 2:02 PM
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It is most effective for a leader recently elected to power to stake out a hard line for the sake of those responsible for electing him or her, especially if those responsible for his or her election showed dissatisfaction with the ideologies of the previous leader.

House Democrats in the previous session accommodated the demands of their most liberal members, but failed to acquire results that satisfied the majority of American voters. This is not a flaw in the leadership strategy of the Democratic party, but rather in the execution and ideologies of the plans of the Democrats.

House Republicans need to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors that their plan to fix the country needs to be comprehensive, satisfactory, and address the needs of the public at large. Compromise may be necessary as a last resort to secure change and to push ahead with legislation, but ultimately it is results that matter to the people and results that will keep the House Republicans in power. House Republicans, like all newly elected leaders, need to distinguish themselves from their predecessors through action and solid decision making in favor of those responsible for electing them.

Posted by: NathanValdez | February 18, 2011 1:53 PM
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The analogy of the ingredients in the soup being either a cockroach or a prized lentil is a great way of describing the situation of Congress. While it is true that compromise is the best method for both sides, it is not always an option when both sides of the argument have little to no common ground. Yes, both Democrats and Republicans do want to see all of the problems diminish, however, neither side is usually willing to find a compromise. Because of this, sometimes it is best for one side to just give in to the other, and wait it out for their next opportunity to be stronger. While this doesn't seem like the most beneficial, and it usually does not lead to the greatest situations, it is all that can be expected. People are going to be upset regardless of the choice, so sometimes actually making a choice is all that can be expected. It's also sometimes the only way anything gets done - even if it is not what ones party expected to get done.

Posted by: hkaitchura | February 18, 2011 1:27 PM
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The analogy of the ingredients in the soup being either a cockroach or a prized lentil is a great way of describing the situation of Congress. While it is true that compromise is the best method for both sides, it is not always an option when both sides of the argument have little to no common ground. Yes, both Democrats and Republicans do want to see all of the problems diminish, however, neither side is usually willing to find a compromise. Because of this, sometimes it is best for one side to just give in to the other, and wait it out for their next opportunity to be stronger. While this doesn't seem like the most beneficial, and it usually does not lead to the greatest situations, it is all that can be expected. People are going to be upset regardless of the choice, so sometimes actually making a choice is all that can be expected. It's also sometimes the only way anything gets done - even if it is not what ones party expected to get done.

Posted by: hkaitchura | February 18, 2011 1:27 PM
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The analogy of the ingredients in the soup being either a cockroach or a prized lentil is a great way of describing the situation of Congress. While it is true that compromise is the best method for both sides, it is not always an option when both sides of the argument have little to no common ground. Yes, both Democrats and Republicans do want to see all of the problems diminish, however, neither side is usually willing to find a compromise. Because of this, sometimes it is best for one side to just give in to the other, and wait it out for their next opportunity to be stronger. While this doesn't seem like the most beneficial, and it usually does not lead to the greatest situations, it is all that can be expected. People are going to be upset regardless of the choice, so sometimes actually making a choice is all that can be expected. It's also sometimes the only way anything gets done - even if it is not what ones party expected to get done.

Posted by: hkaitchura | February 18, 2011 1:25 PM
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With compromise, many Republicans will view their House leaders as weak or even hypocritical. As the Rice Undergraduate Leaders mention, "going along with a large budget would make the Republicans part of the problem they have condemned." For a party to so strongly stand opposed to President Obama's large budget and then turn and compromise to support it (at least more so than previously) reflects poorly on the strength of the Republican ideals and elected leaders of the House. Compromise, however, very much resembles bargaining with street vendors. They set a price, and the potential buyer attempts to bring it down. While the vendors are usually very willing to lower their prices (they boost them very high), they will only give way to a certain point. Then, it is up to the potential buyer to decide whether or not the new deal is economical for them. Here, Republicans are faced with the same sort of situation: are they willing to compromise on the budget of the United States to please the Democrats? Or, is it not worth it for them to appeal to the larger masses of the United States? It is a difficult question to answer: should Republican House leaders stick with their ideals and deny the large budget, or should they instead move forward alongside Democrats with compromise? As the group sums up, "for the Republicans to compromise at this early stage of the game would be to make no real progress according to their own views of what needs to happen." No matter the decision, unrest will come: either from the masses or from minority groups displeased with the Republicans' weak back bones and inability to stick to their ideals.

Posted by: kelseypedersen | February 18, 2011 1:00 AM
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Posturing for a show of strength, as the GOP has been, is different from taking an actual position of strength. Although they claim a popular superiority due to the "failed policies" that led to the ouster of House Democratic power last November, the more likely motivation behind those election results was disillusionment in President Obama's ability to achieve policy results via compromise. The health care bill was the last straw when President Obama resorted to messy, entangled, partisan wheeling and dealing to pass the bill. This state of affairs was exacerbated by an intransigent GOP unwilling to compromise then, as well.

Compounding these factors is President's Obama's lamentable communication with the people to assist in and support his varied policy achievements. The popular momentum gained during his election has been wastefully dissipated, even as dissatisfied conservative movements got into gear. An indication: a Public Policy Polling poll taken in 2011 showed 51% of likely voters in the Republican 2012 primaries were birthers, doubting that President Obama was born in the U.S. Both Democrats and Republicans have a tendency to talk past each other; nevertheless it is a wonder that the Democrats have not chosen to dispel the most damaging political myths.

As it stands, the loudest voices of the Tea Party represent a deep, if narrow, conservative constituency. While the GOP should well and respectfully take their views into account, backing their positions without reservation would only draw out Washington partisanship. Leadership reflects upon the entire country, and the GOP should seek to take on a more flexible, and powerful, role to navigate between conservative and Democratic elements. Unlikely as this initiative would be, it would serve to create more effective public policy.

Posted by: JustinNg | February 17, 2011 11:40 AM
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Republicans and Democrats alike have ideas shaped by ideology. Having a structure of ideology allows us to form opinions about issues in which we are not experts in. In the United States, conservative ideology has come to be identified with Republicans and liberal ideology has come to be identified with Republicans. The polarization is rooted in this ideological struggle – big government against small, welfare state or no, breaking the status quo or keeping it, equality of opportunity or equality of results.

Unfortunately, ideology can only take us so far. Take, for example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Few would argue that its passage was a morally appropriate course of action, yet some of the actions it takes fundamentally go against the precepts of conservative ideology. After all, within the conservative (or Republican, as the case so often is) frame of mind, what right does the government have to force private businesses to do anything?

The Civil Rights Act was surely a historic act, but there are smaller yet still influential acts that require ideology-breaking. Another word for ideology-breaking is, of course, compromise. After all, compromise is where you attempt to realize a higher goal that does not necessarily jive with your own ideology. Still, why is it important? Quite frankly, compromise allows government to function. If compromises were not made, complete and utter gridlock would ensue. After all, in order to control the Senate, it requires sixty single-minded individuals: a near impossible task in a nation so large and diverse as the United States is. While following one’s ideology may be a noble goal, it ultimately falls short, because life doesn’t always work according to ideology and because ideology must be shared by too many people in order to regularly be successful.

Posted by: JonEndean | February 16, 2011 5:07 PM
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It is true that compromise frequently weakens a proposed policy. Through debate, and congress, porkbarrel legislation often emerges. The compromise and influence of multiple constituents adds expense and bulk to bills. These bills many times, as a result of compromise, are passed with such amendments intact, costing tax payers additional dollars and decreasing the effectiveness of the proposed legislation. In this manner, bipartisian and multiple interests snowball their way into legislation, riding off the goal of the proposed policy. These additions are often extremely off course, road construction dollars added to a healthcare bill for example. An alternative to such a system is a British style parliament where the minority is not able to influence the legislation of the ruling party. Compromise will, as the nature of the American system, continue to exist among parties as they try to most effectively govern.

Posted by: sheppatterson | February 16, 2011 4:24 PM
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