In a graphic illustration of how the ideologues on the Right and the Left have seized the political discourse, two of the smartest people in the nation's capital -- a Republican and a Democrat -- received giant sucker punches from their own political parties last week for having the audacity to embrace policies that were reasonable bipartisan compromises designed to move the country forward.
The first patriot to fall victim to the sword of partisan ideologues was Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican who proved to be such a consistent opponent of every major policy initiative pursued by the Obama Administration over the past two years that he is known as "Dr. No" (a reference to his previous career as a practicing physician). One of Sen. Coburn's calling cards throughout his 15-year legislative career as a Congressman and Senator has been his outspoken opposition to federal spending and his efforts to take specific actions to arrest the runaway U.S. debt.
As a member of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility, Sen. Coburn last week expressed his support for a plan that cuts federal spending while raising some taxes in order to make a substantial dent in long-term federal deficits. Sen. Coburn conceded the plan is not perfect, but argued that it was an important policy initiative in order to get our hands around the debt crisis and point the country down a road of fiscal responsibility by trimming $4 trillion off the federal debt.
For his act of pragmatism and bipartisanship, Sen. Coburn "left Republicans dumbfounded" over his support of a plan "that violates GOP principles" regarding tax policy. And the head of Americans for Tax Reform, one of those ideological PACs, said that Coburn's shocking betrayal "damages the Republican Party" by putting his fingerprints on such a compromise plan.
The second patriot to take it on the chin last week for placing pragmatism above ideology was President Barack Obama, a Democrat who would surely call himself a liberal if it weren't so unpopular to use such a term. President Obama campaigned against the so-called "Bush tax cuts" that were cleverly written so as to expire in 2010, allowing former President Bush to secure the political benefit of enacting tax cuts while escaping both the fiscal responsibility (e.g., substantial shortfalls in revenue) and the political judgment (e.g., a vote on whether or not to extend) when the bill for those tax cuts came due.
Faced with the reality, however, of an overwhelming Republican win at the ballot box last month and a difficult negotiation posture with unemployment benefits about to expire for millions of suffering Americans, the President cut a deal with the Republicans. In essence, I'll go for extending those tax cuts for another few years if you'll extend those unemployment benefits and we can split the difference on what to do with the other stuff caught up in this mess -- the payroll tax on Social Security and the estate tax dilemma. The President threw in the towel on his ideological position about tax rates on millionaires, the Republicans coughed up the votes for extending unemployment benefits.
Within hours of announcing the deal, though, the President was the target of an all-out assault from the liberal base and a mini-revolt from Congressional Democrats. Commentator James Carville insulted the President's manhood, columnist Paul Krugman wrote a stinging rebuke of the compromise that implied President Obama can no longer be counted on to lead the Democratic Party, and of course we all saw the Democratic leadership in Congress essentially refuse to approve the deal in its current negotiated form.
There is nothing courageous about hewing to an extreme ideological position and refusing to budge, just as there is nothing embarrassing about ditching your ideology for a compromise position that moves the country forward. This is the essence of our representative democracy and, in fact, is a reflection of the realities we face in our homes and neighborhoods every day. What parent doesn't try to find an accommodation that encourages their kids and lifts them up while still teaching important life lessons, rather than holding fast to a "my way or the highway" position that just provokes and frustrates them? Or what cul-de-sac resident doesn't figure out a way to cope with the barking dog, rather than taking scientific measurements of the decibel range in order to prove the technical violation of noise abatement laws?
This is how we behave in a pluralist society that includes citizens from all walks of life, all political philosophies and all points of view. The art of compromise is a patriotic virtue to be applauded, not some sort of wimpy vice to be attacked.
It was a rough week for pragmatism in Washington, the city where we theoretically send elected officials to represent our interests and make policy by working with other elected officials sent by other Americans. For the sake of our country, the best hope is that the partisan reactions from the ideologues last week were just the harmless byproducts of a lame duck session -- and not a harbinger of things to come in the next two years.