You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Compromise: Great in Theory, Not in the 110th Congress

Over the next few days, a group of Congressional experts will try to answer the big questions that came out of the Capitol last year: Were the Democrats as hapless as the press made them out to be? How could've they been more effective in meeting those filibustering Republicans head-on? What happened with the timetable for withdrawal? And, hey, where's Rahm when you need him? You can read their responses here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven.

From: Eve Fairbanks

To: Michelle Cottle and Norm Ornstein

Subject: Compromise: Great in Theory, Not in the 110th Congress…

Norm, I couldn't share your frustration more with the fact that it now takes 60 votes in the Senate to get anything done. And that's 60 votes the Democrats can't ever get, because the Senate Republicans are more interested in demagoguing the ideas of "fair debate," and in huffing and puffing every time Reid files for cloture, than they are interested in voting their consciences.

But answer this for me: Isn't it true that, the way quorum calls work (I won't get too into the weeds here), you could basically have a situation where only a couple of Republicans had to be on the floor for weeks but the entire Democratic majority had to stay up night after night? If so, I wouldn't blame the Democrats for blinking. When I imagine the Democratic leadership on two hours of sleep a day for weeks, I don't like what I see....

Is there any way to do a filibuster that's actually hard on the minority? And if there is, would it be worth doing anyway? Unlike you, I think there's something kind of meta and abstract about the obstructionism argument--whine, whine, whine, the Senate Republicans aren't letting government do its thing, etc. Republicans can always quote Jesse Helms as a retort: "Compromise, hell! That's what has happened to us all down the line--and that's the very cause of our woes. If freedom is right and tyranny is wrong, why should those who believe in freedom treat it as if it were a roll of bologna to be bartered a slice at a time?" I actually do think--and Norm, I suspect you do, too--that knowing how to compromise is one of the biggest political virtues; it's part of persuasion, it's part of being a great leader. But I think a lot of people just don't feel that way. “Compromise” is a word you almost never hear in politics now; we have the substantively different euphemism "unite" instead.

Instead of running stunts to label the Republicans obstructionists, wouldn't it be better to run stunts labeling them against the middle class, anti-kids, pro-war, etc.? Bring it home not that they've been blockers, but that they've ruined progress on this or that specific issue? That's why I brought up Schumer as a candidate for Majority Leader--he did that stunt vote declaring no faith in Gonzales that sooooo many Republicans complained about. It's designed to make us look bad in campaign ads, they whined. Yeah ... so what?! Bring the ads on! Make it hurt! Another rap against Schumer is that he's discouraging Democrats from working with moderate Republicans on legislation like the hate crimes bill because that would help these Republicans in their '08 campaigns. In this sense Schumer's kind of being "obstructionist" himself, and cynical. Again, I say: Yeah ... so what?! These high-minded moderates have made absolutely no effort to wield power within their caucus this year. If they're serious about working with Democrats, make it hurt that the rest of their caucus isn't.

Michelle, you said: "I've always suspected Dems cling to some high-minded notion of congressional comity and statesmanship…. Yes? No? Maybe?" Yes! Just look at Schumer. A lot of Democrats are creeped out by him and his warlike demeanor. If he were a Republican, he'd be treated like a genius. It would be great to change the tone around here, but you can't de-escalate if one side is still screaming.

(Read Michelle Cottle's response here.) 

Eve Fairbanks is an associate editor at The New Republic. Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic. Norman Ornstein is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, in 2006, of The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann.

By Michelle Cottle, Eve Fairbanks, and Norman Ornstein