Invasion of the Permanent Campaign:
A Q&A with Amy Gutmann


Sept|Oct 2012 Contents
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“I reject the word.”

That sentence—uttered by incoming House Speaker John Boehner in December 2010 after Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes pressed him to characterize the work of governing as an effort to reach some sort of compromise—neatly sums up the prevailing attitude toward the concept in many political circles. Once regarded as perhaps the defining characteristic of American democracy—championed above all by none other than Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention—and with rare exceptions the only way anything has ever gotten done in this country, compromise these days “increasingly sounds like a dirty word in Washington,” says Penn President Amy Gutmann. That development has dire implications for the effective functioning of government, whether liberal or conservative.
In their new book, The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It (Princeton University Press, 2012; $24.95), Gutmann and her coauthor, Dennis Thompson, the Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard, analyze the factors that have led to the decline of compromise, describe the mindsets that foster or thwart reaching such agreements, and offer some thoughts on practical measures that could help revive the concept.

This is the third book that Penn’s chief executive—who is also the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science—and Thompson have written together, after Why Deliberative Democracy? and Democracy and Disagreement; they’ve also co-edited Ethics and Politics: Cases and Comments. The Spirit of Compromise is “a natural outgrowth of our previous work on democracy and addressing the puzzle of how democracy can deal with disagreement in society,” says Gutmann. “It’s also an outgrowth of real concern about the inability of contemporary American democracy, in particular of our Congress, to get beyond gridlock, polarization, and permanent campaigning for office.”

The “permanent campaign,” as Gutmann and Thompson describe it, represents a continuation of attitudes and tactics appropriate to elections into the sphere of governing, to the point that it threatens to take over, “like an invasive species,” in Gutmann’s words. It is aided and abetted by increasing polarization within the parties, the injection of vast quantities of money into the political process, and a media that views every issue through the lens of winners and losers and operates voraciously around the clock. As a result, the permanent campaign has steadily encroached on the territory of government, poisoning an environment in which earlier partisan champions (think Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill in the Tax Reform Act of 1986, or Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch in healthcare, HIV/AIDS treatment, and disabilities issues) could nevertheless craft agreements in which their parties both gained and lost ground, but which—crucially—“moved the country forward,” says Gutmann.

But despite the current prevalence of attitudes like Boehner’s (which are not limited, the authors note, to the GOP), Gutmann and Thompson haven’t given up on compromise yet. In “Making Democracy Safer for Governing” (page 29), they lay out several actions that could help create conditions more conducive to the compromising spirit.

Gutmann also spoke with Gazette editor John Prendergast about the book. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

What’s the difference between what you call a “classic compromise” and the much more popular “finding common ground”?

Everybody loves “common ground,” whereas “compromise” sounds increasingly like a dirty word in Washington. But strictly speaking, there’s a significant difference. There are common-ground compromises where we find the intersection of our interests, and we agree on them, and we put aside all of our differences. Those are very rare. As we say in the book, the common ground is increasingly barren in a polarized society. And then there are the classic compromises, which were created for situations where people strongly disagree, but both have something to gain by coming to some agreement. And they gain something by coming to an agreement, and they sacrifice something, not just abstractly, but to their political opponents.
So in the current context, the Simpson-Bowles Commission Report, or some version of that, enacted into law, would be a classic compromise. Democrats give up spending on social programs that many of them strongly favor, and Republicans give to Democrats the ability to increase revenues for government, something they don’t like. But both of them get things that they dearly prize, including being able to continue to have a fiscally sound government and fiscally sound society.

You make an interesting point that a good classic compromise is often internally incoherent.

Compromise, depending on the situation, can have a very negative or very positive connotation. And if you’re in a situation, which we are increasingly in, in which the alternative to sitting down and compromising with one’s political opponents is having America go off a fiscal cliff, compromise doesn’t sound so bad. It sounds like a virtue. However, the reason you never want to compromise unless the alternative is worse is because they tend to be internally incoherent. And they tend to leave people, especially people who are avid ideologues, with a sense of surrender to your opponents.
The Reagan Tax Reform Act was a classic compromise between strong Republican partisans like Ronald Reagan, strong Democrat partisans like [House Speaker] Tip O’Neill. By the way, there was no love lost between them, but they did respect one another, and they did have relationships, as did [Democrat] Dan Rostenkowski [chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee] and [Republican] Bob Packwood [chair of the Senate Finance Committee] and Bill Bradley [the Democratic senator who was the original sponsor of the bill in that chamber]. They had relationships in Congress, between the executive branch and Congress. And they were able to craft the largest and most significant tax-reform act in a century, and it moved this country forward. Is it internally coherent to lower tax rates on the rich but increase the percentage of taxes that the rich pay, close loopholes but lower tax rates? Many economists charged incoherence. But it really made a difference to the fiscal health of this country, and it simplified the tax code, and then of course politics as usual came about and started undoing some of the reforms.

But it was a major step forward, as were the reforms, which were compromises, that [Senators] Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch sat down—again because they had relationships—and put together. I think those are also great examples because two very strong partisans improved healthcare for children, improved care for victims of AIDS, improved the safety net for Americans with disabilities, and continued to argue for more of what they were most passionately in favor of. So even though compromises are internally often incoherent, they still permit the politicians who craft them to rightly claim victory for their side, and also to continue to push for those principles that they care most about. In Ted Kennedy’s case, universal healthcare. He never lived to achieve it, but he never ceased to advocate for it, even as he made compromises.

You also talk a little bit about the limits of compromise.

Not every compromise is a good one. And it’s impossible to draw principled lines around what’s good and what’s not good because that would be an obstacle to a good compromise. On the other hand, our principles guide us in the direction that we need compromise to go. If a compromise does not improve over the status quo from your perspective and mine and we’re the parties to it, then we shouldn’t compromise. And if it’s good from my perspective and not yours, and you agree, then you’re capitulating. So there are many criteria we give in the book that help you distinguish between good and bad compromises. But that’s not the purpose of the book.

The purpose of the book is to demonstrate that it is a hopeless mission to try to drive a lot of principled stakes in the ground as to when compromise is good or bad. It’s extremely contextual, and it requires all parties to use their judgment in moving compromises forward or not. However, the larger message is, if everything that your opponents in politics stand for is something you are adamantly against on principle, you’re also against the way democracy in America works to help people live better lives. Apart from a few very unusual situations when one party, as in the case of FDR, controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency in a filibuster-proof way, there have not been many times, and no times in recent history, where one party could govern without compromise.

Can you describe compromising and uncompromising mindsets?

What we’re seeing in American politics is a series of vivid illustrations of the uncompromising mindset. You stand tenaciously on principle; and you’re out to defeat, if not demonize, your opponent. And that appears to work very well in campaigns. It is the polar opposite of what works in governing, especially in governing in a non-parliamentary democracy, the kind of democracy we have. In governing, what works is what we call the “compromising mindset,” which is you respect your opponents, and you adjust your principles. You use principles, not as roadblocks, but as guideposts to direct how you’re going to try to govern.

Those are two distinct mindsets, but one of the remarkable features of politics and politicians is that they’re generally, outside of the permanent campaign, [not only] more than capable, but eager to mix them. The reason we elect politicians is not so they can run for office again the day after we elect them, but so they can govern in our interests. And in order to govern, you have to have a compromising mindset.

Most politicians traditionally have been attracted to office because they like to exercise power in governing. It is a malady of our politics today to have politicians who are elected so they can get the connections in Washington and then leave office and use their former connections to become lobbyists and make money outside of politics. That kind of revolving door is a symptom of the permanent campaign, and it’s very detrimental to governing.

That idea of a permanent campaign seems to be the key to much of what is problematic about our current politics.

The permanent campaign connects many of the most serious problems in our contemporary political life. So what has created the permanent campaign? And what are its manifestations? Among them are a 24/7 news cycle with extremely narrow horserace coverage—because that’s cheap and easy to report on. It’s not reporting; it’s just repetition. The horses are on steroids, and the steroids are funded by unlimited amounts of money coming into politics. And the need for continual fundraising and campaigning means the disappearance of relationships among legislators across the aisle.

Polarization is another important part of this puzzle, and it is, if not created, exacerbated by the permanent campaign because the uncompromising mindset finds its natural habitat in campaigning, and standing on principle and demonizing your opponent increases polarization. Indeed, without the permanent campaign, it would be far, far more natural and easy for polarized politicians to craft compromises. We address the problem of the permanent campaign because, unless voters see what the problem is, it’s all too easy to be taken in by the rhetoric of campaigning. It’s high-minded. It’s very simple and flashy and unsubtle.

The book recounts several Congressional battles, involving both successful compromises and failed opportunities. In writing about the crisis over raising the debt ceiling in 2011, which led to the formation of the so-called super committee, you describe that as a “shameful process.” What was so bad about that in particular?

It was the process and what it showed about the dysfunctionality of Congress that was so shameful, not the super committee per se. But the super committee failed to use its super powers. And that demonstrated how supreme the uncompromising mindset had become, even at a time when the country needed, and the vast majority of Americans—including the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans—wanted a compromise between two extremes.

The agreement was that all the super committee would have to do is have a majority vote for a compromise, and all of the normal blockage rules of the Congress would be suspended. Simple majority, no amendments, no filibuster. It would have gone through. And yet they couldn’t do it. And they couldn’t do it because not one member of that committee would cross strong partisan lines, even though by the lights of the majority of their constituents on both sides, this country sorely needed a compromise to move us forward.

Had one member been able to do that, had there been a John Roberts of the super committee, that person and the committee would have gone down as winning glory in American politics. So just as the super committee failed to use its super powers, and that was a shameful episode in recent American history, had it gone the other way, which would have only taken one courageous, farsighted person, it would have been the opposite. So it was possible.

Forced to bet, I would not have bet on the super committee. It’s easy to be pessimistic because of what’s happened. But it isn’t that hard to move this country forward in the right way. And one member of that super committee could have done it, with the cooperation of those on the other side. Maybe that person would have been voted out of office. Maybe not. But let’s assume he would have been. That’s a small price to pay for getting the glory of moving this country forward with a major agreement on short-term stimulus, long-term deficit reduction, and avoiding the fiscal cliff. The alternative is kicking the can down the road, and they’re going to have the same problem again come December [when the Bush tax cuts expire, and automatic spending cuts triggered by the failure of the super committee are scheduled to go into effect].

Has the Citizens United decision made things worse? You talk in the book about the time legislators must devote to fundraising. But now there’s this whole other level.

Really the biggest problem is the most mundane, which is, if we elect people to govern us well, they need time to do it. And raising that much money takes a lot of time. It takes staff. It is a huge distraction. And one could imagine there should be a campaign season, and campaign seasons are distractions from governing. But when it’s all the time, it’s a very big, very big problem.

And so regardless of the source of the revenue, the time commitment is really the thing.

Well, it’s a very big neglected problem. There are many other problems attached to getting large amounts of money from single donors, including one’s implicit, if not explicit, obligations to them.

You mentioned John Roberts earlier. What does the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act say about compromise?

We really don’t know what goes on in the chambers of the Supreme Court. And I think it’s good that they can deliberate in secret so they don’t have the 24/7 news cycle derailing their deliberations before they actually come to conclusions. And once they decide, they then make public their reasoning, which is a really good aspect of judicial deliberations: they actually account to the American public. They’re not accountable through elections, but they are accountable through giving their reasons for it.

The prediction was 80 percent that it would be struck down. And almost nobody predicted that it would be a 5-4 where Roberts wrote the majority decision. Whether it was a compromise, we don’t know, and we may never know. It may have been a compromise, but not characterized that way by the two liberals [Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer] who joined Roberts in overturning the federal mandate on Medicaid, and Roberts, who joined the four liberals on upholding the Affordable Care Act under the tax provision, but not under the Commerce Clause. But it reads like a classic compromise, and it operates that way.

Neither side is totally happy about the results. Obviously those defending the Affordable Care Act are more pleased with the results than those opposed to it. But for those three—for Kagan, Breyer, and Roberts—if it took those votes to yield this result, those of us who think that it’s better not to explode the whole Affordable Care Act, I think, should applaud them. And certainly Roberts showed that, as Chief Justice, caring about the public sense of the court as not simply another partisan institution, what he did was, I think, admirable and totally justifiable.

How will the compromising mindset fare up to and after the election?

We’re not in the business of prediction here. But now that we’re in campaign season, you’re not going to see a lot of the compromising mindset on display. [But] after the election, before the fiscal cliff, there’s going to have to be. There has to be enough of a compromising mindset because those who are elected into office, if they let us go off the fiscal cliff, the approval rating of the Congress and president will make Congress’s 10 percent approval rating look high. So there will be an opportunity right after the election to see the beginnings of a compromising mindset coming into its own.

What we argue in the book is that it’s not that you should want all of the compromising mindset. You just should want the permanent campaign of the uncompromising mindset not to take over government like an invasive species that doesn’t allow any governing to happen. So the prediction is we will see more opportunities for compromise. I would not say we’re going to see a total change in mindset. Far from it. But what we’d hope—and what our book provides reason to support—is that some of those legislators who have relationships in Congress step forward in the spirit of Simpson-Bowles and start crafting something that over time might become a big compromise that stimulates the economy in the short run and really bites the bullet on some serious deficit reduction.

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Illustration by David Goldin






©2012 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/31/12