Compromise. It’s one of those magical words in politics. It is used as a paean to unity and a sword with which to cut through partisanship. Everything would get better if we just … compromised.
It is never quite that easy.
We kicked off Maine’s bicentennial celebration this past week. July 26 was the anniversary of the vote to free ourselves from the bounds of Massachusetts. And on March 15 of next year, we will celebrate Maine’s 200th birthday as the day we became a state. As part of a compromise.
Grade school history classes teach students about the “Missouri Compromise.” Our fledgling nation was balanced on a knife’s edge, with the moral stain of slavery threatening the promise of the high ideals contained within the Declaration of Independence. Instead of standing firm and facing the reckoning, our leaders compromised. They agreed to admit one free state to the union whenever a slave state was aboard, maintaining the detente in the Senate.
And so, on March 15, 1820, Maine joined the United States as a free state to offset Missouri’s slavery.
The effect of the decision was to kick the metaphorical can — in this case, the hard decision on slavery — down the road. Forty years later, on Dec. 20, 1860, South Carolina voted to secede. The Civil War followed.
All from a compromise.
This highlights why “compromise” isn’t always a good thing.
Some of this history can be instructive today. Congress is preparing to pass a budget for the first time in several years. It is a compromise between President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Yet all it really does is kick the can — hard decisions — down the road. Our national debt continues to balloon. Democrats have made political hay, laying this reality at the feet of the GOP-led tax changes from 2017. Let’s accept that for the sake of argument. So, even if the tax code magically reverted to the exact same structure as President Barack Obama’s final year in office, what would happen?
Our debt would still grow, just not as fast. Because most of our spending occurs in the so-called “mandatory entitlement” programs
Washington’s budget deal is a bad compromise. It promises everyone their goodies, but does not ask anyone to make a hard choice in the face of an ugly reality. It preserves a happy status quo without thought for the future. But the day of reckoning with our national debt is coming.
There are other ways to solve the problem. Now, national indebtedness is not anywhere near the same as the moral turpitude of slavery, period. In the United States, it took a bloody, horrific war to solve the latter. Could it have been avoided?
Maybe. Instead of compromising, leaders could have stood fast against slavery’s spread. If our own statehood was solely dependent upon expanding the geographic reach of human bondage, Maine voters could have said: No. Not on these terms.
But that is really hard. It requires, in modern parlance, voting against your interest. However, sometimes our private interests must give way to a higher calling.
“Compromise” isn’t a bad word. It has a role in a pluralistic society, particularly when dealing with questions of prioritization. Yet, it behooves us to always be aware of what compromises we are making today, and what repercussions might exist tomorrow or 20 years hence. When there are real problems facing our nation, “kicking the can” can only take you so far.