The virtues of com­pro­mise

The Saline Courier - - OPINION - Steve and Cokie Roberts can be con­tacted by email at steve­[email protected]

Joe Bi­den is aim­ing his cam­paign pitch di­rectly at the sen­si­ble cen­ter of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. “Com­pro­mise it­self is not a dirty word,” he as­serted dur­ing his an­nounce­ment speech in Philadel­phia. “Con­sen­sus is not a weak­ness. It’s how our founders down the road thought we would gov­ern.”

As a gov­ern­ing strat­egy, Bi­den is clearly cor­rect. Par­tic­u­larly in an era of di­vided par­ti­san power, con­sen­sus-build­ing is the only pos­si­ble way to ad­vance pro­gres­sive goals. On the is­sues that lib­er­als care deeply about -- from pay­ing for col­lege to ex­pand­ing health care -- no com­pro­mise means no ac­tion. Pu­rity equals paral­y­sis.

As a po­lit­i­cal strat­egy, Bi­den is also right. The clam­orous ide­o­logues in the Loud Left wing of the party get a lot of at­ten­tion on so­cial me­dia, spread­ing the myth that Demo­cratic suc­cesses in 2018 were based on a lurch away from mod­er­a­tion. That’s to­tally wrong: Their House ma­jor­ity was se­cured by “right-down-themid­dle, main­stream, hold-the-cen­ter vic­to­ries,” as Speaker Nancy Pelosi puts it.

A win­ning strat­egy next year has to learn from that ex­pe­ri­ence. The path to the White House does not run through the cam­puses of Berkeley and Cam­bridge; it runs through the sub­urbs of Pitts­burgh and Detroit.

“The left makes a lot of noise. They get a lot of press,” Elaine Ka­marck, a shrewd Demo­cratic strate­gist, told the Wash­ing­ton Post. “When peo­ple vote in pri­maries and they know the gen­eral elec­tion is com­pet­i­tive, there is plenty of ev­i­dence to show they make so­phis­ti­cated judg­ments about who can win.”

So far, the polls back up her anal­y­sis -- and Bi­den’s ap­peal. An av­er­age of na­tional sur­veys gives the for­mer vice pres­i­dent a 20-point lead among Demo­cratic vot­ers over his clos­est ri­val, Sen. Bernie San­ders. A re­cent Gallup poll re­ports that 54 per­cent of Democrats want their party to move closer to the cen­ter, with 41 per­cent ad­vo­cat­ing a shift to the left. And in a Mon­mouth sur­vey, 56 per­cent of po­ten­tial Demo­cratic vot­ers placed top priority on pick­ing a can­di­date who can de­feat Pres­i­dent Trump; only 33 per­cent pre­ferred a nom­i­nee who aligns with them on is­sues.

This is all good news for Bi­den, but he is hardy an ideal can­di­date. He’s run for pres­i­dent twice be­fore and flamed out both times. He has a well-earned rep­u­ta­tion for dam­ag­ing mis­takes and mis­steps, and his han­dlers can­not shield him from me­dia questions in­def­i­nitely.

He’d be al­most 78 on Elec­tion Day, 31 years older than the av­er­age age of the last four non-in­cum­bent Democrats to win a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion (Kennedy, Carter, Clin­ton and Obama). And like Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2016, Bi­den strug­gles to por­tray him­self as a change agent. In fact, the change he rep­re­sents is largely back­ward-look­ing: a re­turn to an ear­lier era, not an ad­vance into a new one.

“I’m go­ing to say some­thing ou­tra­geous: I know how to make govern­ment work,” he said in Philadel­phia. “Not be­cause I’ve talked or tweeted about it, but be­cause I’ve done it. I’ve worked across the aisle to reach con­sen­sus.”

Lib­eral crit­ics point out that Repub­li­cans mounted a fe­ro­cious op­po­si­tion to Pres­i­dent Obama for eight years, and de­ride com­pro­mise and con­sen­sus as im­pos­si­bly ar­chaic ideals.

“Wash­ing­ton is in post-deal-mak­ing mode,” said Jeff Hauser of the left-leaning Re­volv­ing Door Project to Politico. “The last tiny re­main­ing ves­tiges of that world ended with the rise of so­cial me­dia and Trump, and skill at ‘grand bar­gains’ is about as rel­e­vant to mod­ern pol­i­tics as skill with a phys­i­cal Rolodex.”

Bi­den was strongly crit­i­cized from the left, for ex­am­ple, when a cam­paign aide said he would fol­low a “mid­dle ground” on cli­mate change. “There is no ‘mid­dle ground’ when it comes to cli­mate pol­icy,” thun­dered San­ders.

But Bi­den is bet­ting that San­ders and his acolytes are wrong. Cli­mate change is a highly com­plex is­sue in­volv­ing pow­er­ful eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural forces. Any progress to­ward mit­i­gat­ing global warm­ing has to re­flect a “mid­dle ground” con­sen­sus that rec­og­nizes and rec­on­ciles those forces. The same is true for thorny prob­lems like health care, im­mi­gra­tion and count­less others.

At a cam­paign stop in New Hamp­shire, Bi­den pre­dicted that bi­par­ti­san­ship would be­come eas­ier again in a post-trump world. If Wash­ing­ton can­not change the cur­rent cli­mate of hy­per-par­ti­san­ship, he added, “We’re in trou­ble. This na­tion can­not func­tion with­out gen­er­at­ing con­sen­sus. It can’t do it.”

The next pres­i­dent will have a hard time mak­ing “com­pro­mise” a no­ble word again in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. That might not be Bi­den, but he or she must try. And yes, we are in trou­ble if that ef­fort fails.

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COKIE ROBERTS

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