If You're Gonna Compromise, At Least Get Something in Return

Posted on 03. Oct, 2009 by in Uncategorized

On Friday, the Labor Department released its jobs report and the results were, in a word, depressing. While the economy shed jobs at a much slower rate than it had earlier in the year, the unemployment rate inched up to 9.8 percent in September as the economy lost 263,000 jobs, exceeding economists’ expectations. Notably, 53,000 public sector jobs vanished last month.

Why is that important? It’s important because it underscores the damage that political compromises made in the service of bipartisanship can have on the country.

During last winter’s debate over the Obama administration’s stimulus plan, considerable disagreement arose between liberals and conservatives over how much money should have been allocated for state budgeting purposes. Conservatives argued that injecting money into state coffers would do little in the way of job creation and thus, the funds should have been cut from the bill. Predictably, they called for more tax cuts to help jump start the economy. Liberals, on the other hand, argued that this was a short-sighted:

Other things equal, public investment is a much better way to provide economic stimulus than tax cuts, for two reasons. First, if the government spends money, that money is spent, helping support demand, whereas tax cuts may be largely saved. So public investment offers more bang for the buck. Second, public investment leaves something of value behind when the stimulus is over.

Krugman’s reasoning seemed sound then (and it appears his views have been validated) but, perhaps in an effort to maintain his public persona as a pragmatic politician, President Obama decided to compromise. He heeded the Republicans call to cut the additional monies to states and boost the tax cuts in the legislation in the hopes of presenting a bipartisan bill to the public. For his efforts, Obama got zero Republican votes in the House and three in the Senate. Three total votes out of the 218 members of the GOP between both houses.

This brings us back to the public sector jobs lost last month:

In the past, government hiring had managed to somewhat offset losses in the private sector, but government jobs declined by 53,000, with the biggest number of cuts on the local and state levels. Even the Postal Service, which is included in the public-sector job statistics, dropped 5,300 jobs.

“The major surprise came from the public sector, where every level of government cut back,” Naroff said. “The budget crises at the state and local levels have caused an awful lot of belt-tightening.”

So, my question to the president is, was it worth it? Were the votes of Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter so important that you needed to cut $40 billion of state aid?

I fear that the White House and the Democratic Party haven’t learned much from the stimulus debacle because they’re setting themselves up to fail in the same way on health care, specifically in regards to the fate of the public option. There’s polling showing that the public would rather have Democrats pass a “partisan” bill with a public option than pass a bipartisan bill lacking one, yet the president continues to call for a compromise in an effort to secure Republican votes. This is a waste of time. The GOP has made it clear that it’s not going to accept a public option (or any other sort of reform). That’s especially frustrating considering that many elements of the current health care reform proposals were once favored by Republicans. But the president can’t negotiate with a fantasy version of the GOP; he has to deal with what’s in front of his face, which is an opposition party determined to stand athwart history yelling stop.

Otto Von Bismark called politics “the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best”,and the attainable is often achieved through compromise. Compromising can yield mutually beneficial results and I don’t mean to dismiss it as a plan of action out of hand.That said, sometimes you have to realize that there’s no deal to be made. In that scenario, you have to work for the best possible outcome as determined by your own goals, not those of another party. For that reason, I especially like John Kenneth Galbraith’s rejoinder to Bismark:

Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.

Passing a health care bill without Republican support might make the president queasy, but it’s something he should be able stomach. If he can’t, though, the disastrous effects of failure will become apparent to all of us.

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