Rescuing compromise

Playing hardball in politics is not unhealthy. Hardball is often necessary and important, and many who complain about it should pay more attention to getting better at it. Madison’s framework does not require or desire that individuals should all be moderates. But to valorize hardball for its own sake is unhealthy, and even more unhealthy is to veto a compromise simply because it is a compromise. There is no contradiction between compromise and political principle, or at least no necessary contradiction. Nor is compromise at odds with constitutional principle. Just the reverse: Compromise is the most essential principle of our constitutional system. Those who hammer out painful deals perform the hardest and, often, highest work of politics; they deserve, in general, respect for their willingness to constructively advance their ideals, not condemnation for treachery.

No one is saying, of course, that anyone should support anything only because it is a compromise, any more than that he should oppose something only because it is a compromise. The point, rather, is that compromise is a republican virtue. It endows the constitutional order with stability and dynamism. It not only tempers the worst in us; it often brings out the best. It is patriotic, not pathetic, and it deserves to be trumpeted as such.

An encouraging, if still embryonic, development on the right is the emergence of some prominent conservative defenders of compromise. Peter Wehner, a former George W. Bush administration official, has written critically of the knee-jerk rejection of compromise, and supportively of the willingness of politicians like Madison and Lincoln to reject the “seductive appeal of the absolute.” He defends moderation as a conservative virtue, and praises a conservatism “disposed toward compromise, incremental progress and taking into account shifting circumstances.” Peter Berkowitz, of the Hoover Institution, recently published a superb little book called Constitutional Conservatism that makes a case for a conservative politics that weighs and weaves many values and seeks a balanced public life. Constitutional conservatism, he writes, “stresses that balancing worthy but conflicting political principles depends on cultivating the spirit of political moderation institutionalized by the Constitution.” This is the politics, Berkowitz notes, of the first and greatest modern conservative, Edmund Burke.

Berkowitz and Wehner and a handful of others are not a sea change, but they are a start toward rebuilding an intellectual foundation on the right for a multivalent politics. And that is important. If the right is to effectively advance its own cause, it needs to restore compromise to respectability in the conservative movement.