Why Compromise Is Vital, Even in Rush Limbaugh Fantasyland

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The influential radio host is too much of a utopian to understand that sweeping ideological victories will never solve America's problems

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Rush Limbaugh says that mutually beneficial compromise among Republicans and Democrats is impossible. "One party is abject no doubt socialist," he argues. "The other party is constitutional conservative, small government, lower taxes, entrepreneurs, all that stuff, where is the middle ground there?" You're probably thinking, "Hey, wait a minute, the Democratic Party isn't actually composed of socialists," and you're absolutely right. But you've got to ignore the disingenuous propaganda if you're going to engage Limbaugh, which is worth doing here because there's a more subtle, unintentional error in what he is saying.

His mistake is presuming that political compromise in Washington, D.C., consists of splitting the difference between the Democratic and Republican positions on the nature of government. President Obama wants to nationalize the whole American health-care system (or so it goes in the fantasy land that Limbaugh constructs in exchange for millions of dollars each year and the adoration of powerful Republicans whose approval he craves). The GOP wants a completely free-market health-care system (this too is fantasy -- look at the polling numbers on Medicare). The parties compromise and socialize 50 percent of the health care industry. Voila! Were that the extent of it, Limbaugh and those who think like him would be right to eschew compromise. It would only result in the slow but steady advance of leftist policies and ideas, and in time the total defeat of the right.

But compromise needn't involve Democrats and Republicans settling on a middle ground on core issues of principle or major decisions about what path the country should take. Maybe Democrats want socialized medicine, Republicans want a completely free market, and both sides agree on the need to rein in overall spending on health care. Tort reform is extremely appealing to Republicans and mildly unappealing to Democrats; permitting prescription drug imports from abroad is extremely important to Democrats and preventing them is only mildly important to Republicans... and hey, look at that, an opportunity for mutually beneficial compromise! Both sides are happier with the status quo afterwards, and the resulting policies actually end up bringing down health care spending a bit!

When I see independent voters telling pollsters that they want politicians to compromise, I suspect they're eager for compromises like the hypothetical I just sketched, not the sort of compromise that Limbaugh imagines, or pretends to imagine. "You can't compromise with people who want to turn this country into a socialist state," he says, as if America's two-party political system, responsible for every decision required of government and implicated in many that aren't, is ever going to revolve around a single defining issue, epic in its ideological implications, that presents a single opportunity to either compromise or stand firm for freedom. Were there really a party that wanted to turn America into a socialist country, and it had sufficient Congressional seats to wield some significant amount of power, you could oppose its socialist agenda without compromise, and still compromise with it on all sorts of significant issues that didn't bear on the central struggle one way or another, but did impact the strength of the country and the comfort in which its citizens live. Ours is a country with a dizzying array of policy issues at stake. Lots of the "peripheral" ones, that don't have a thing to do with ideology, are damned important.

What independent voters perceive, correctly, is that Democrats and Republicans are exaggerating the ideological differences that actually exist between them on the relatively narrow American political spectrum; and that they're failing to strike compromises that are mutually beneficial as matters of policy because members of both parties -- with a frequency that might or might not be equivalent -- are focused on the politics of the matter, which they treat, sometimes rightly and other times wrongly, as zero sum. During the debt ceiling debate, the GOP did not do its utmost to reach what it regarded as the appropriate policy outcome on the narrow issue at hand, nor did it maximize its influence over what it regarded as the right policy landscape generally by strategically negotiating for as many concessions as possible on various other matters of import. What the GOP attempted instead was to maximize the political upside of the controversy, in hopes that it would help them to win more seats in Congress, or perhaps even the White House in 2012, so that they could theoretically improve policy in more dramatic ways at some theoretical point in the future.

Independents have observed, correctly, that things work out that way about as often as the ruthless autocrat starts wielding his power on behalf of the people as soon as he's finished accumulating enough of it. Most often, the strategic attempt to game the system fails in democratic nations, and there is no triumphant future moment at the ballot box. Occasionally one party or the other does manage a significant majority in Congress, paired with a friendly man in the White House -- always there are triumphant predictions about a permanent Republican or Democratic majority -- but the majority is never, ever permanent, and the friendly man in the White House always knows it. That is why he doesn't attempt to push through the least popular fantasies of his ideological allies even at the moment when their power is at its zenith. That's how it is with politicians. It's always after the next election that the political calculations start to matter less than doing the right thing for the country and its policy landscape.

Despite having watched that scenario unfold a number of times, Limbaugh is still a credulous enough partisan of the Republican Party that he persists in the fantasy that it'll drastically shrink government and harken in a reign of laissez faire capitalism in a glorious electoral revolution -- just as soon as its rank-and-file have the confidence to elect unapologetic conservatives. It didn't happen during the Reagan Revolution, nor did it happen during George W. Bush's tenure, despite the fact that Limbaugh enthusiastically backed his rise and "carried his water." But never mind that. Obama's on the ropes. This is no time for compromise that would marginally improve the country and push it a few notches in the conservative direction. It's time to decisively win an epic struggle against socialism and forever save America. With Rick Perry. Or something.

It's an absurd, utopian, childish, and lamentably influential way of looking at American politics. "Compromising with Democrats is how we got where we are today," Limbaugh writes. Ah, yes. The most powerful, prosperous country in the history of the world, where a serious problem among the poor is that they consume too many calories, and the worst thing likely to happen to the rich is a small increase in the marginal tax rates they pay on the final dollars of their six or seven figure incomes. Those post-war years of relative comity sure put us in a terrible pickle.

Chris Christie was right. It is necessary, if a country is going to prosper, for its politicians to compromise on those occasions when the result is a mutually perceived improvement in the status quo, secondary political consequences be damned; although Christie doesn't say so, it is necessary because small, marginal improvements in policy are a lot easier to accomplish, and therefore end up being more important in aggregate, than landmark moments of sweeping ideological triumph, which almost never happen, and don't come about via carefully conceived strategic planning.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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