Compromise is not a dirty word. Compromises may be the only way to get things done in the current version of our democratic republic in which people strongly hold different positions.

For my friends in the Democratic Party, I offer a few observations on how not to approach compromise. I will focus on two attempts at getting universal health care legislation.

When William Clinton was president, he asked Hillary Rodham Clinton to lead a team to develop a health care plan. They started by trying to meet the demands of various “stakeholders” (probably including many big corporations and their wealthy owners), adding feature after feature that would give each of the stakeholders something to gain. The result was a complex mess no one would support. You can’t please everyone.

Then President Obama began work on his health care proposal. He started with a compromise plan that included ideas from Republicans such as Mitt Romney. In an attempt to get enough Republican support to make it a nominally bipartisan effort, a small group of conservative Democratic senators began negotiating with a few “moderate” Republican senators. Time passed. Many details were watered down and the public option was eliminated. Yet, in the end, no Republicans voted for the Affordable Care Act; the ACA was passed entirely with Democrats’ votes. The Democrats had a congressional majority and I wish a much stronger and more coherent bill had been passed.

I suggest Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson as examples of negotiators of effective compromises. Of course, they generally had congressional majorities and sometimes were negotiating just within the faction-ridden Democratic Party. But they were tough negotiators and didn’t give away their key bargaining points before the bargaining started. In the long run it’s more important to get things done than to appear gentle and moderate.



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