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Is there room for political compromise in an era of permanent campaigning?

As the 112th Congress convenes, it must work to preserve one of America's greatest and most threatened national resources – compromise. To do this, it must rein in the mindset of constant campaigning that isn't fit for the reality of governing.

By Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson / January 4, 2011

Philadelphia and Cambridge, Mass.

If politics is the art of the possible, then compromise is the soul of democracy. In the deal he proposed to extend the Bush-era tax cuts (now signed into law), President Obama reminded his critics on both sides of the aisle that the refusal to compromise can make everyone worse off. It privileges the status quo – in this case an earlier status quo that virtually no one wanted.

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Why is compromise so hard? Obama was in a difficult position because in the 2008 campaign he had promised to reject tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Now he was proposing to accept them. His Democratic critics cried betrayal: We are not against compromise, they said, only this compromise, at least so soon. Stick to the principles you championed in the campaign. Hold out for more.

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The Republicans were suddenly seized with the virtues of compromise, but only for this compromise, and only after their electoral success. If the Democratic critics are looking to the promises made in the last campaign, the Republicans are looking to the promise the next campaign holds for them.

The critics on both sides misunderstand what compromise in a democracy really requires: a different mindset than what they are currently displaying. But achieving this crucial mindset is becoming increasingly difficult – because of the rise of the never-ending campaign.

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Campaigning vs. governing

Compromise requires a shift from the postures of campaigning to the positions of governing. The president’s critics miss the depth of the problem when they focus on how the specific gains and concessions in the proposed compromise match their campaign platforms. They are still in campaign mode, operating with a mindset that is perfectly appropriate for running for office, but counterproductive for running a government.

This uncompromising mindset stands tenaciously on principle and mistrusts opponents. In that frame of mind, you can always believe that your side could have won more if only you had pressed harder or the other side had been more reasonable. When the uncompromising mindset prevails, desirable legislation founders.

The mindset that promotes compromise – which favors adapting one’s principles and respecting one’s opponents– used to be more robust than it is today. The most comprehensive tax reform legislation in modern American history, the Tax Reform Act of 1986, was forged with the support of a bipartisan group that included President Ronald Reagan, Democrats Dan Rostenkowski and Bill Bradley, and Republican Bob Packwood. They were partisans – by no means oblivious to electoral pressures, but prepared to take responsibility for governing, and adopt the attitudes required to fulfill it.

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