WASHINGTON The effort to defund Obamacare, culminating in Sen. Ted Cruz’s marathon speech on the Senate floor, has been symbolic in ways its sponsors did not intend.
This, in the end, was the strategy: For procedural reasons, senators needed to vote against a House spending bill defunding Obamacare — in order to force a government shutdown, in order to cut off federal spending unrelated to Obamacare, in order to trigger a wave of public revulsion against Obamacare, in order to force President Obama to trade away his signature legislative accomplishment. And any elected Republican, by the way, who questions the practicality of this approach is a quisling.
It is the fullest expression (so far) of the view of leadership held by the new, anti-establishment, conservative establishment: Exploit a legitimate populist cause to demand a counterproductive tactic in an insufferable tone, then use the inevitable failure to discredit opponents in an intra-party struggle. More Pickett’s Charges, please. They are emotionally satisfying (and good for fundraising). And the carnage may produce new generals, who are more favorable to future Pickett’s Charges.
In the process, the GOP is made to look unserious and incapable of governing. But that is beside the point. The advocates of defunding have bigger ideological fish to fry. They argue that, over the decades, Republican compromisers have been complicit in producing a federal government so overgrown that our constitutional order has collapsed beneath it. “I don’t think what Washington needs,” argues Cruz, “is more compromise.”
In this case, the evidence of GOP compromise is not the acceptance of Obamacare. It is insufficient enthusiasm for an absurd procedural maneuver. But never mind. The real target is the idea of compromise itself, along with all who deal, settle or blink.
In the middle of this unfolding Republican debate comes a timely National Affairs article by Jonathan Rauch. It is titled “Rescuing Compromise,” but it might well have been called “James Madison for Dummies.”
Rauch argues that Madison had two purposes in mind as he designed the Constitution. The first was to set faction against faction as a brake on change and ambition — a role that tea party leaders have fully embraced. Madison’s second purpose, however, was “to build constant adjustment into the system itself, by requiring constant negotiation among shifting constellations of actors.”
Following the Articles of Confederation, America’s founders wanted a more energetic government. But they made action contingent upon bargaining among the branches of government and within them. “Compromise, then, is not merely a necessary evil,” argues Rauch, “it is a positive good, a balance wheel that keeps government moving forward instead of toppling.”
Compromise, of course, can have good or bad outcomes. But an ideological opposition to the idea of compromise removes an essential cog in the machinery of the constitutional order. “At the end of the day,” says Rauch, “the Madisonian framework asks not that participants like compromising but that they do it — and, above all, that they recognize the legitimacy of a system that makes them do it.”
We are seeing that an anti-compromise ideology can make for bad politics. In our system, Obamacare will not be overturned by one house of Congress. A tea-party shutdown strategy — if implemented — would make securing the other house and the presidency less likely for Republicans. And the political energy consumed by Cruz and crew has not been available to promote incremental limits on Obamacare that might have aided GOP political prospects.
But the problems with this view run deeper. A belief that compromise is always favorable to liberalism is historically ill-informed. Ronald Reagan’s 1986 tax reform and Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform were the results of bipartisan compromise. So were Clinton’s four budgets that kept federal spending under 20 percent of GDP. And addressing the long-term debt crisis — really a health entitlement crisis — will not be possible without a series of difficult political compromises on benefit restructuring and revenues.
It is a revealing irony that the harshest critics of compromise should call themselves constitutional conservatives. The Constitution itself resulted from an extraordinary series of compromises. And it created the system of government that presupposes the same spirit. “Compromise,” says Rauch, “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.”
But such condemnation, it seems, is an easier path to attention.
Michael Gerson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.