Compromise, Moderation, and the American Constitution

Published December 17, 2013

Commentary Magazine

Those interested in a cogent defense of the budget agreement that passed the House late last week, and which sparked a storm of criticism from some on the right, should listen to this interview by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan.

Among other things, Ryan addresses the charge that the problem with the deal is that it raises spending now in exchange for future (and imaginary) cuts later. Chairman Ryan points out that this deal would result in a change in law now–and that unless a future Congress passes a new law, the entitlement savings it calls for will actually exceed the $85 billion figure often cited. (The reason that is quite unlikely is explained here.)

The reaction to the deal, from some quarters at least, also highlighted what I view as a problematic mindset among some on the right. We saw it manifest itself during the budget shutdown in October, when several GOP Senators refused to “abandon their infatuation with glorious martyrdom,” in the words of Michael Medved and John Podhoretz in their excellent essay in the current issue of COMMENTARY. The result was injurious to both the GOP and the conservative cause. But no matter; they had passed the purity test.

Then there are those who fancy themselves as “constitutional conservatives” who view efforts at compromise as per se evidence of lack of principles. Virtually every time they invoke the word “compromise,” it is a pejorative. This strikes me as somewhat puzzling for “constitutional conservatives.” In the past I’ve cited a lovely passage in Miracle at Philadelphia in which Catherine Drinker Bowen writes, “In the Constitutional Convention, the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory; as Washington presided, it sat on his shoulder like the dove.”

The Constitution was the result of a whole series of accommodations. There was even a deal struck that came to be known as the Great Compromise, by which every state was to have two members in the United States Senate, offsetting proportional representation in the House. Without the Great Compromise, Bowen writes, “it is hard to see how the Federal Convention could have proceeded further.” Which means the Constitution that some on the right say they revere would never have seen the light of day.

Some modern conservatives have a similar disdain for the word “moderation,” the spirit and temperament that allows for compromise. But if one reads The Federalist Papers–universally regarded as the best commentary on our Constitution and authored by two of the three most important founders (Madison and Hamilton)–one finds the word “moderation” used in a positive sense in almost every instance. In Federalist No. 37, for example, Madison refers to “that spirit of moderation” that is essential in understanding which public measures are in the public good, while in Federalist No. 85 Hamilton writes, “These judicious reflections contain a lesson of moderation to all sincere lovers of the Union.”

Now for the necessary caveats: Compromise and moderation can, in particular circumstances, set back the cause of liberty and the public good. It’s impossible to know whether a compromise is wise without knowing the details of any given deal. And we certainly need people in politics who insist not simply on compromise but also take steps toward certain ideals. Most of us gravitate toward one end of the continuum at the expense of the other.

In any event, my main point is that today–especially among those who claim fidelity to the Constitution and its authors and architects–the idea of compromise and moderation is held in contempt. The problem is that this attitude is at odds with the Constitution and the Federalist founders. To position conservatism as for all intents and purposes hostile to compromise and moderation is, I think, an act of philosophical and historical disfigurement, and unwise politically.

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