Compromise Is Impossible, but a Fig Leaf Would Be Nice

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They can’t compromise. It’s a matter of simple definition. Compromise occurs when parties each agree to give up something they want in order to produce an agreement that everyone can live with. This is an important principle in our Republic, but it doesn’t really apply here. In order for a compromise to occur, both sides have to be willing to give something up.

The House majority is demanding that Obama compromise by gutting—to a greater or lesser extent—the signature legislative accomplishment of his first term. Fair enough. Sacrifices are supposed to hurt. And what are Republicans willing to give up in return? Will they agree to a small tax increase to pay down the debt? Will they abandon their opposition to comprehensive immigration reform? Nope. What they are willing to put on the table is that the will allow the government to resume normal operation.

Allowing the government to function only constitutes a “compromise” if shutting down the government is something that Republicans want—if it is a positive good that represents a desired end of their legislative strategy. If this is the case, and Republicans intend to keep fighting to shut the government down any way they can, then Americans deserve to know that this is part of the Republican platform. In 2008, Obama told anybody who would listen that, if he was elected, he would fight for universal health coverage.

Using the rhetoric of compromise in this instance implies that keeping the government open represents a sacrifice of something that is important for Republicans—and that the President should, in turn, sacrifices something important to him. Clearly this is not the case. Shutting down the government is not an end of the Republican strategy; it is a means to defunding and debilitating the Affordable Care Act. This is simply not, by definition, a compromise. It is, at very best, a strike.

And it has not worked. By a 3-1 margin, Americans oppose shutting down the government to defund Obamacare. And by every measurable metric, Republicans are going to pay a huge electoral price for this shutdown. It is not even close. Obama and the Democrats have won the shutdown.

Now it is time for the Democrats to be good winners. They have a strong hand, but not an infinitely strong one, and they could very easily overplay it and mess things up more–losing big in the process. Americans don’t much like sore losers. But we like sore winners even less. If the President and Senate Democrats try for some kind of total victory or unconditional surrender, they are going to suffer a backlash equal to or greater than the one that Republicans are suffering from now. This is the time for magnanimity and negotiation—not to negotiate a compromise, which, as I have argued, is impossible, but to negotiate an honorable retreat.

This is basic Art of War stuff. Always give the enemy a plausible path to retreat—it saves lives and effort. When Grant accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, he famously offered the most generous terms that he possibly could. He allowed the former rebels to keep their horses, their guns, and their freedom in exchange only for the promise to cease hostilities. It was a compassionate act, but it was also brilliant strategy; he knew that, even defeated, the Confederate troops could still do a lot of damage.

Crushing your opponent into oblivion feels good, but it almost never works out well. The Democrats appear to have won, but the government is still shut down, and, as the winner (not to mention the President), Obama now has a responsibility to get things running again. And the best way to do that is to provide a compelling enough fig leaf to allow House Republicans to retreat from their position with some amount of dignity. If they fail to do this, the government could remain shut down for a very long time, and Democrats could end up snatching an embarrassing defeat from the glorious maws of victory.