THE NATION / POLITICS : With Political Rhetoric Incendiary, ‘Compromise’ Is the Forbidden Word

<i> Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books). </i>

OK, it’s not by any means the first government shutdown in U.S. history. But it is certainly one of the most mysterious.

Congressional Republicans have now given President Bill Clinton a spending bill encumbered with only one major condition: that the President agree to balance the federal budget, using economic forecasts from the Congressional Budget Office, within seven years. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is even willing to give ground on the all-important question of the particular numbers to be used in these budget calculations.

The situation looks like a natural for bargaining, deal-making, difference-splitting. But, so far, that hasn’t happened. Instead, the President vowed a veto. House Republicans, for their part, won’t hear of a spending bill that lacks the seven-year promise. “Compromise” is clearly the dirty word of the moment in Washington. What gives?

In part, what gives is presidential politics. In part, though, this is the upshot of the steady increase in the rhetorical temperature of U.S. politics. The heating-up has taken place in waves, with fire from one side lighting a flame on the other; partisans of left and right waste time when they argue over when the trend started and who is most to blame.


As Richard Hofstadter has explained, the political language of anger and mistrust in this country has usually come from the right. In the broadest terms, the liberal left has identified itself with political rationality and universalism; the right has reacted against rationalist policies and defended the particular interests and communities threatened by them.

Beginning in the late 1940s, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy carried on this traditional division of labor, invoking primal American fears in his campaign against communists, real and imagined.

During the Vietnam War, though, the American right lost its monopoly on paranoia, as the left’s opposition to the war moved from prudential and humanitarian concerns to accusations that the entire U.S. system was a corrupt conspiracy against the interests of the American people. The aftermath of Watergate institutionalized this paranoid style: Starting in the late 1970s, new laws and more aggressiveness by press and other investigators made government corruption a major staple of American politics.

By the mid-1980s, the two sides had reached a capacity for mutual assured destruction.

From then on, the race was neck and neck. The old right was joined by the intellectuals of the neoconservative movement--some of whose members had formerly belonged to the country’s tiny but fecund socialist and social democratic left. They had learned their polemical skills in the fierce battles over Trotsky, Stalin, communism and anti-communism. They lent a special edge to public debate.

The right, led by Gingrich, learned how to manipulate scandal politics for its own purposes. The left made a glorious counterattack on the nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court: The anti-Bork campaign introduced the novelties of, first, a successful use of mass media to influence a judicial nomination, and, second, the use of the argument that the opponent’s views were not just wrong but immoral.

The Bork defeat, in turn, energized the right to attack such political persons as C. Lani Guinier and Henry W. Foster Jr. The religious right grew more aggressive in promoting its vision of what should and should not be allowed into the public square. Polemicists on the left, no doubt convinced they are acting in self-defense, have risen to the occasion: In a recent description of a left-oriented book on public education, the not-unsympathetic reviewer Nicholas Lemann notes the volume “represents liberals who have learned how to write the kind of book conservatives based in think tanks have been publishing successfully for a decade--the all-out attack on the other side.”

In the race between the famous American pragmatism and the equally traditional American moralism, the latter is, for the moment, winning out in politics.

Consequences are varied. The recent assassination of Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin prompted discussion of a fact well known in Israeli politics: Among the country’s political extremists who think they do not have to abide by conventional laws and that pursuing Israel’s welfare can justify murdering fellow Israelis, a disturbing number are American-born immigrants.

Americans have seen enough in the way of blood and severed limbs to know such immoderation also has violent consequences closer to home. Even beyond overt violence, these years of escalating rhetoric have produced a public gravely disaffected from politics and mistrustful of the processes--raising money, doing favors, building coalitions, and, yes, compromising--that are, after all, necessary to democratic government.

To some extent, government deserves what it’s gotten. But even our manipulative, money-drenched, scandal-mongering, ambition-driven politics doesn’t merit the beating it has taken.

House freshmen were elected on a promise to resist just this sort of conventional politics. So they think of a hard line on the budget as their reason for political existence and of themselves as short-term residents of political Washington, rather than as people who will have to deal with their adversaries day-in, day-out for years to come. The idea of compromise holds less-than-zero attraction for them.

In contrast, we have a President who is temperamentally a political compromiser--and this reputation is killing him. President Ronald Reagan succeeded in compromising on important issues because people knew that, in his heart, he was a wonderfully rigid ideologue; but compromise seems natural to Clinton, and for this our current politics offers no forgiveness. So he had to make a stand somewhere; this is the unfortunate spot he chose. As a result, the President now looks no more able than the House to do a budget deal.

They’ll have to come to an agreement at some point. Whichever party to the dispute is perceived as having ceded more will be stamped with the dread “compromiser” label. Whoever looks to have bent the least will be declared the victor. Civilian onlookers, having been told by both sides that compromise would be disastrous, will see in the eventual deal yet one more piece of evidence that politicians are sneaky weasels.

It seems idle--no, masochistic--to yearn for the days of Lyndon B. Johnson’s arm-twisting and Sen. Everett M. Dirksen’s sonorous, pious justifications of political wheeling and dealing. But I do.*