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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.

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The incursion of campaigning into governing is increasing because campaigns have become, in effect, permanent. Campaigning is an essential part of the democratic process, but when it spreads out of its natural environment and threatens the process of governance, it needs to be pruned back. The mindset it breeds is hostile to governing.

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To govern, politicians need to look beyond how a particular compromise matches their campaign principles or how it affects their opponents’ fortunes. While the compromising mindset attends to political realities, it also focuses on the most critical question for governing: Compared to the realistic alternatives, does this compromise promote the principles of both sides better than the status quo?

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Shifting the balance

The influence of campaigning is not necessarily greater than other factors that make compromise difficult. Increased polarization in Congress and the parties certainly does not help. But the mindset associated with campaigning – with its overriding goal of producing a winner and a loser – reinforces and exacerbates all of the other factors. Sharp ideological differences would present less of an obstacle to compromise in the absence of the continual pressures of campaigning, and the mindset on which it thrives. Despite standing toward the right and left wings of their parties, respectively, Senators Orrin Hatch (R) and Ted Kennedy (D) managed (according to Hatch) “to come together in a bipartisan fashion to craft some of this nation’s most important health legislation,” among other legislative achievements.

We need to shift the balance in our democratic process more toward the compromising mindset and the promotion of political compromises it makes possible. This shift requires less governing by campaigning, and more respect for the virtue of compromise in its place.

This shift also requires some fundamental changes in our electoral and governing processes – changes that many observers believe desirable anyhow. We must regulate fundraising and provide public financing so that the pressures of campaigning are not so dominant in governing. We must prevent the abuse of congressional investigations for partisan purposes to make campaign points. We must design open government initiatives so that they engage moderate citizens and inform rather than manipulate, simply to mobilize. We must also regularly raise questions during the campaign about how candidates will govern.

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The capacity for compromise has long been one of American democracy’s greatest natural resources, which we are now squandering. As the 112th Congress convenes, its conservation has never been more needed.

Amy Gutmann is president and Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Dennis Thompson is Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard University. They are the co-authors of "Democracy and Disagreement" and "Why Deliberative Democracy?" They write more about compromise in “The Mindsets of Political Compromise,” in the December 2010 issue of Perspectives on Politics.


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