In the spirit of the Christmas season, let me highlight from last week's confusing Washington rhetoric a statement by the president that was shrewd -- even wise. On behalf of the spirit of compromise, he pointed out that even though, under the original constitutional compromise, he (implicitly, as a black man) "could not have walked through the front door" -- it was worth it because otherwise we would not have gained a union.
Of course, throughout history, calling for compromise may sometimes be a cover for sheer cynicism and lack of principle. Yet without the capacity to compromise at more or less the right moment, collective activity -- such as self-government -- is impossible.
I have been a convinced conservative now for almost a half a century of political activism (since I was 13 years old). And over that time, I have learned of the need to compromise. As a White House staffer for Ronald Reagan for six years, I had a chance to observe, close up, a principled conservative practice the art of compromise with rare excellence. I confess that at the time, as a new arrival to Washington, I often argued against the compromises. I was always concerned that we were about to sell out the principles we had come to Washington to vindicate.
But over time, it became obvious to me -- and virtually all my fellow compromise skeptics -- that President Reagan was right and we were wrong. He had seen enough of life to understand the difference between a debate -- and getting something needed done.
And, importantly, he was so closely tethered to his convictions that he understood when to stand firm -- as he did in negotiations with the Soviets when he refused to give up our strategic missile defense (star wars) research and deployment.
There are many changing mental aspects to getting older -- not all of them good. But experience usefully reveals the sheer impossibility of imposing ALL of one's views on a conflicted world. Even totalitarian dictators eventually fail at such efforts.
And, if you are lucky, experience also teaches you to look through the surface of things to their inherent utility or disutility. For example, consider the legislative process. Viewed on the surface -- politician by politician, individual motive by individual motive -- all legislative efforts are squalid affairs. But legislating is potentially raised above such squalor -- even up to nobility -- by the facts that the politicians are elected by the people and that their horrid process is necessary for self-government.
And so far, the three geniuses of America have been our love for liberty, our optimistic insistence on succeeding -- and thus our capacity for timely, principled compromise. The one great failure to compromise in American history was, of course, in the 1850s when we failed to solve the question of what to do about slavery expanding into the new territories. Six-hundred thousand Americans died as a result in the War Between the States -- although I concede that perhaps that was not capable of honorable compromise. But for our congressmen and the public, our reasons not to be open to compromise better always be of such stark moral dimensions as human slavery or liberty. On most matters, honorable, principled compromise is possible.
Right at the moment in Washington, listening to too many of our Washington politicians, they sound like -- in Cyril Connolly's words -- "jackals snarling over a dried well."
Starting immediately, it is beyond the doubt of rational minds of the right, center or left (yes, I concede to my fellow conservatives that I am stretching a point combining the words "rational" and "the left") that our national destiny requires us to re-establish fiscal balance, or let our great history and remaining great destiny rot and fail.
As Alan Greenspan observed recently, we will surely reduce our debt and deficit -- "the only question is: Is it before or after a bond market crisis?" And, as we have seen in Greece, Ireland and other parts of the world, a bond crisis doesn't come slowly. It strikes within hours when the collective judgment of cold and calculating investor minds around the world reach a harsh judgment.
How ludicrous our petty haggling will look to us the morning after. And what a painful and long-lasting economic agony we and the world economy will have if that dreadful day comes.
But as Thomas Paine said (and Reagan often repeated), "We have it in our power to begin the world over again." And we do. Congress and the president could start now -- before Christmas -- to begin to signal to the world that Washington is committed to laying the legislative foundations in the next six months for fixing our fiscal crisis. It's not even a world we have to begin again -- just a vaunted American skill we have to reapply.