You may recall from your junior high history textbook that Henry Clay, who served as a senator from Kentucky, secretary of state, and speaker of the House of Representatives during the early and mid-19th century, was known as "the Great Compromiser." This honorific was bestowed upon Clay in recognition of his role in a series of legislative compromises that delayed the Civil War by a few decades. In the end, of course, the war happened anyway. Fortunately for Clay, he was already dead, no doubt having departed for the great deliberative body in the sky, secure in the knowledge that his carefully wrought compromises had spared the country a bloodbath.
It's hard to imagine a politician being called "great" for engineering a compromise today. Compromises still happen, of course, but few find them heroic. Much of the time, politicians can gird themselves for the criticism from their own side, swallow hard, and take the inevitable pain that compromise entails. But as Republicans and Democrats attempt to avoid a government shutdown, it seems clear that much of the next two years is going to involve searching for compromise and getting angry about the compromises that are found.
We have a divided government now, just as we have had for much of our history. Throughout, congresses managed to pass bills, presidents signed them, budgets were decided on, and the government continued to function. Today, however, the idea that this Republican House will come to an agreement with this Democratic Senate and this Democratic president seems like the hope of the naive. After all, there are legitimate and meaningful differences, many of them enormous, between the two parties these days. When your opponents want to take the country to a place you consider the ninth circle of hell, the suggestion that we meet instead in the fourth or fifth circle doesn't sound very appealing.
Honesty requires acknowledging that the chief impediment to compromise is and will continue to be the right wing of the Republican Party, which increasingly looks less like a wing and more like the whole bird. Speaker of the House John Boehner may have an instinct for deal-making, but to do almost anything in the 112th Congress, he needs the cooperation of two kinds of members of his caucus: newly elected representatives who feel they're on a mission to slash government to ribbons and re-elected members terrified of challenges from the right. Consequently, the cost of compromise for Boehner and every other Republican is frighteningly high.
The administration and congressional Democrats, it should be noted, have already compromised on the budget. Instead of beginning negotiations with the position that no budget cuts are warranted, they have proposed billions in cuts, on top of prior actions like freezing the pay of federal workers (a generous gift President Barack Obama gave Republicans, since it not only struck at people they don't like but legitimated their argument that public employees make too much money).
The Republican aversion to compromise goes beyond the particular people now serving in Congress. A recent poll from the Pew Research Center asked people whether they prefer politicians who "stick to their positions" or "make compromises with people they disagree with." While 48 percent of Democrats said they preferred the position-stickers, 63 percent of Republicans said the same. The number among Tea Party supporters was even higher, at 69 percent. And it isn't just a function of the strength of one's ideology: While conservative Republicans are much more likely than moderate and liberal Republicans to prefer those with an uncompromising stance (70 percent, as opposed to 54 percent of the moderate and liberal Republicans), liberal Democrats are actually more likely to favor those who make compromises than are moderate and conservative Democrats (57 percent of liberal Democrats prefer compromisers, compared to 41 percent of moderate and conservative Democrats).
These findings certainly accord with our ideological stereotypes: Conservatives are often wrong but never in doubt; liberals are so open-minded they won't take their own side in an argument. It isn't just the substance of any particular compromise that Republicans oppose; it's the very concept itself. If you've watched how conservatives have sought to deify Ronald Reagan since his death, one feature of the rewritten biography stands out: Reagan's compromises, of which there were many, are washed away as though they never happened. Reagan's compromises on taxes (he raised them multiple times), the welfare state (his promises to undo it never came to fruition, and he even cooperated with Tip O'Neill to save Social Security), and foreign policy (the lifelong anti-communist hawk negotiated and compromised with the Soviets) are ignored, underplayed, or explained away. Instead, we get a picture of a man of unbending principle, standing firm and staring down opponents and enemies until they buckle before his awe-inspiring certainty.
This is at the core of what makes Reagan a hero to conservatives, but it also may illustrate a way out. If Reagan could compromise so often and leave most conservatives assured that he did nothing of the sort, perhaps the current Republican leadership can do the same.
It won't be easy, but it is possible to spin compromises as just one more example of adherence to principle. Consider the evolving conservative position on gay rights. Once, they held that it should be legal to fire gay people from their jobs and evict them from their homes. Then, their position became that gay people can keep their jobs and their apartments, so long as they don't serve in the military or get married. Conservatives are falling away from those positions even now. As long as there's something they can define as the new line in the sand, they can continue to pretend their moral convictions remain unchanged.
But that's a gradual shift, not a negotiation that happens while the television cameras wait outside for news of the deal. In the end, what may make compromise possible in this period is the ability of the two parties to define victory in different ways, so they can both claim they won, keep their supporters' anger in check, and save face. There will be budget cuts of some size, which will enable Boehner to say Republicans fulfilled their promise of scaling back government. And if those cuts pass over some important programs and keep the government open, Democrats can say they stared down their opponents and staved off disaster without giving up too much.
It won't make anyone feel great, but compromise seldom does.