OCR DOUBLE-TAKE: Thoughtful Conservatism — The Fallacy of Compromise

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[Editor’s note: This article is part of an OCR DOUBLE-TAKE.  Read its counterpart here.]

“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”  — Goldwater paraphrasing Cicero

Compromise.  Cooperation.  Change.  Three buzzwords popular nowadays among the political left, centrist Republicans, and some self-described conservatives.

They sound great.  In fact, they sound ideal.  A high school government student might easily conclude that each of these terms embodies intrinsic good–that whatever the issue, the public weal will be edified as long as our governing officials apply these alleged balms to our country’s wounds.  Surely those who live by them are more rational than their stubborn brethren.  Context and circumstances matter nothing, for nothing our partisan officials debate can be worth more than willingness to relinquish one’s position to reduce conflict.  The wise people, the thinking goes, are those willing to change, no matter what from; to cooperate, no matter the goal; to compromise, no matter the principle.

It’s funny how many conservatives’ rhetoric tilts this way two weeks into a crisis, when just two weeks before that crisis, very few would have dreamed of such sophistry.

Consider the recent budget battles and shutdown showdown. Few conservatives (indeed, few Americans) would dispute that the United States has a spending problem; that our 17 trillion dollar deficit is unacceptable; that we are risking selling our children’s economic future to China or to some yet unrevealed economic bog. If you were to ask them in early September whether Congress ought to to have taken a stand long ago using virtually its only recourse–the power of the purse–you would have gotten more yes’s than the NSA could count or the IRS could target.

How different was our song, however, a week after our fling with Ted Cruz’s quasi-filibuster? It wasn’t long before many conservatives proved all passion, no romance, by skulking away, leaving Cruz to face the Sanhedrin.  Then, days into the shutdown, Boehner rushed to announce that he would not under any circumstances allow the government to default, thereby exposing his soft underbelly. (Boehner’s error was not in wanting to keep the government solvent, but in revealing a price point far short of his negotiation objective.)  After briefly rallying, the Republican base, intimidated by media network polls and fearful of not being well thought of, saw its pluck systematically drained.  The strategy had failed.  “I said take a stand,” said Joe Republican, “but not like that.”

Question for Joe: okay, like how?

Does anyone really believe that Republicans would be more celebrated today had Cruz not filibustered?

Does anyone really believe that Boehner would have obtained more for Republicans had the New Guard allowed him to run his own playbook, as he did the last several rounds of budget and debt ceiling talks, in which Republicans gained practically nothing?

To me, an affirmative answer to either of these questions seems beyond naive.  It defies logic and ignores recent history by assuming that because a so-called guerilla tactic failed to produce a desired result, a conventional tactic would have succeeded.  It also scapegoats those who, had they succeeded, might have delivered their party, when in fact their failure was no worse than what the party would have sustained on its own.

I remember when my dad first told me about the First Battle for Bull Run (also called First Manassas), one of the first of the Civil War. Did you know, son, that people actually got dressed up in their Sunday clothes and packed picnic lunches to watch?  And that when their fathers and sons and brothers started falling, they fled with the rest of the Union Army?  At age 10 I thought the crowd pretty dumb for going to watch the battle. But now I see that this folly was only an outcropping of a deeper folly: they had elected to go to war without realizing that it would be one.

Let no one misconstrue my parable to suggest that conservative Republicans ought never have “declared war” on our government’s fiscal profligacy. Conservatives who talk big but don’t have the stomach to fight when the mud (or worse) starts flying aren’t wrong to have talked big.  We’re wrong to retreat.  And when we do, our retreat wrongfully condemns our former virtuous positions.  Our folly isn’t in fighting; its in our failure to recognize that it is indeed a fight.

In this fight, there are but two houses of Congress, and House Republicans are not the minority party.  The chamber most closely tied to the people has a Republican majority. The chamber further removed from the people has a Democratic majority.  Congress is tied, 1 to 1.  The only way to construe House Republicans as the minority party requires “adding” the Democratic Executive to the Democratic Senate—arithmetic that the Constitution’s principle of separation of powers does not respect.  We could sooner divide by zero.  Equally insensible are platitudes like Harry Reid’s: “It’s been the law of the land for four years!”—as if Congress is bound not to change or repeal its own laws.  Even a cursory survey of our country’s history will make most of us thankful that it can.

Of course it does not follow that every hill a Republican or a conservative chooses to die on is worth dying for.  But surely there must be one or two.  Is it not possible that there might come a point at which compromising would not in fact serve the public, and would actually harm the public?  Some have said it’s entering another fiscal year without curbing our country’s growing $17 trillion deficit.  Others have said it’s accepting anything less than a 100% guarantee that American citizens won’t be killed by drones.

I’m less concerned with where conservatives draw the line than that we acknowledge that there are, in fact, lines.  Senators Cruz and Paul indicated theirs.  Their doing so continues to help many Americans—of both parties—locate their own.

Where is yours?  You have to stand somewhere—if for no other reason than so you know all the places you can compromise.  But if you don’t, you’ll eventually compromise yourself out of the last ounce of anything you once claimed to value.

Compromise.  Cooperation.  Change. These aren’t ends; they’re means: tactics to be used toward legitimate ends.  When we treat these things as ends in themselves, we deprive ourselves of any rational basis for ever objecting—to anything.

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Michael Hamilton is the English Department Chair at Dayton Christian High School, where he teaches AP U.S. Government & Politics and Honors American Literature.  He is a graduate of Hillsdale College, the owner of Good Comma Editing, LLC, and the Executive Editor and a Co-Founder of OCR.

All opinions expressed belong solely to their authors and may not be construed as the opinions of other writers or of OCR staff.

Related on OCR: “OCR DOUBLE-TAKE: Thoughtful Conservatism — The Wisdom of Compromise”

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