On August 11, 2011, at a time when bipartisan members of Congress were trying to work out an agreement on the federal budget, eight Republican presidential aspirants stood on an Iowa stage and dismissed any idea of compromise. When a media panelist asked whether there was any ratio of spending cuts to tax increases the candidates would accept, former senator Rick Santorum was the first to the answer: “No. The answer is no.” The debate’s moderator, Bret Baier, then put all candidates on the spot. He posed the hypothetical of a budget agreement of ten dollars of “real spending cuts” for each dollar of tax increases and asked, “Can you raise your hand if you feel so strongly about not raising taxes, you’d walk away on a ten-to-one deal?” The Republican audience cheered as all eight candidates raised their hands. In the minds of eight would-be presidents and their partisans, the most serious issue before our country, controlling the national debt, was not a subject for negotiation. Because there is no possibility that Congress would agree to deficit reduction without at least some new taxes, the effect of walking away from a ten-to-one deal would be no agreement, and no effort to contain our growing debt.
The reason candidates took such an uncompromising position is clear. Any flexibility on tax increases would have alienated the Republican base, those voters who would attend party caucuses and perhaps decide the presidential nomination. A Pew Research Center Survey conducted in early 2014 found that the percentage of “consistently conservative” respondents who always vote in primary elections exceeded the percentage of “mostly conservative” voters by a margin of 54 percent to 32 percent. The comparable numbers for “consistently liberal” and “mostly liberal” respondents were 34 percent over 19 percent. On the question of whether respondents had contacted an elected official in the past two years, the consistently conservative exceeded the mostly conservative by 50 percent to 34 percent. The margin for liberals was 45 percent to 22 percent.
Obviously, the most politically active people have the most influence. Citizens who vote decide elections, while those who stay home are powerless. Activists who call congressional offices and attend town hall meetings have more impact than people who do no more than go to the polls. Responding to the intensity, the natural approach of politicians is the same as that of people in business: tell customers, or voters, what they want to hear. Often when we complain about politics it’s as though we are speaking of some strange and disengaged group of officeholders who have no relation to the real world in which we normal citizens live. But in fact, politicians are very engaged. They are most responsive to people who are in front of them, those who make the effort to call the office or attend the meeting. And people who put themselves in front of politicians are those with strong opinions, those most inclined to pull politics toward its polar extremes. The greater political participation of the ideologically committed has affected the makeup of Congress. According to one report, “Today, the most conservative Democrat in the House of Representatives or the Senate is to the left of the most liberal Republican.” The result is that when many people go to the polls for general elections, they would rather pull the lever for “none of the above” than the names chosen by political activists. This is precisely why it is important for a greater representation of concerned citizens to make its presence known well before general elections, and especially in primaries.
Since George H.W. Bush’s famous line, “Read my lips. No new taxes,” many Republicans have made opposition to tax increases an absolute principle. Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform has persuaded nearly all Republican presidential and congressional candidates to sign pledges that they would vote against all proposals to raise tax rates or to reduce deductions and credits without matching rate cuts. Incumbents who support new taxes as part of a budget deal are certain to draw Tea Party opposition in primary elections, and support for such a deal cost President Bush reelection in 1992.
Nearly all Republicans agree on limiting taxes, but there is a significant difference between holding a political position and elevating it to the status of nonnegotiable principle. Transforming political positions into absolute principles makes government unworkable, as it is today. Some hard-core Republicans think that rigid adherence to a nonnegotiable position is consistent with conservatism. It is not.
Achieving compromise characterized the Senate tenure of Bob Dole, whose office as leader was, as it remains, on the second floor of the Capitol, a few steps away from the Senate floor. It consists of a couple of large, comfortable spaces sandwiching a cramped room with a single window. Most of that room is taken up by a conference table surrounded by chairs, with just enough space on the perimeter for staffers to stand. When Bob was our leader, his tactic for advancing difficult legislation was to ask any senator who had an interest to go to his office, which meant that room. Of course, we couldn’t decline the invitation if we wanted to have input into a bill’s progress. The result was a large number of senators huddled around a table, each accompanied by at least one staffer. The staffers, always holding sheaves of papers, positioned themselves along the walls like diagonally parked cars. I’m sure there must have been a ventilation system in the leader’s office, but its effects were not noticeable. Negotiations could last for hours, and the atmosphere became progressively unbearable. To say the least, there was a strong incentive to bring the meetings to a conclusion.
I don’t recall Bob Dole subjecting himself to many turns in his hot box. I do remember numerous occasions when I left the room desperate for a breath of air, and wandered into the Republican Cloakroom to find Bob sitting comfortably in a large leather chair, always with the same question: “Got it worked out yet?”
Whatever the antecedent of “it” on any given day, Bob wasn’t asking what we were discussing or whether legislative ideas were to his liking. He was the leader of what has been called “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” and his aim was to make us deliberate, like it or not. And under his leadership the process did move forward. The results were seldom perfect by anyone’s reckoning, but perfection wasn’t the goal. To “work it out” was to reach a result that, for all its imperfections, was at least tolerable to enough legislators for it to become law.
Bob Dole understood that legislating requires negotiation and compromise. That is why he herded us into that unbearable hot box, and that is how he operated when he was chair of the Senate Finance Committee, the committee responsible for writing our tax laws. Tax legislation is complex and always unpopular with someone. If it relieves the tax burden somewhere, it increases the burden somewhere else. It may be “revenue neutral,” that is, its intended effect may be no net change in the amount of revenue government raises, but tax legislation is not neutral toward everyone, and some people will always claims that, for them at least, it is a new tax. Bob Dole could not have agreed with the eight candidates on that stage in Iowa, because he knew how the legislative process worked, and he knew the importance of compromise.
Today, the legislative process does not work, because members of Congress do not work things out. And as the partisan audience in Iowa demonstrated by their cheering, their supporters don’t want them to work things out. There’s no way of knowing whether all of the eight who raised their hands in Iowa actually believed that a ten-for-one budget deal would be bad policy, or whether they were simply playing to the crowd. Whichever it was, times have changed. It’s not just that politicians no longer seek after compromise, but that partisans no longer tolerate it.
Politics is about inclusion, and it has been since the writing of our Constitution. Our system was designed to hold together in one nation people with very different interests and ideas. Holding together competing interests requires compromise, which is just what our complex legislative process encourages.
Religion can work either for or against compromise. Most often, especially in dogmatic forms, it has opposed compromise. To believe that one’s political positions are the same as God’s and that those who disagree are God’s enemies is to make negotiation impossible. Religiously fraught topics such as abortion and gay marriage are called “wedge” issues because they are intended to split us apart. A political process that values compromise allows both sides to express themselves respectfully. Because religion often insists on hardened positions, there is good reason for keeping it out of politics. Still, the meaning of religion is to bind us together and the ministry of the church is reconciliation. This means that religion’s message to politics should be to respect differences, which often requires compromise.
The big change of the last quarter century has been that government is no longer an effective place to work out our differences, so it is not functioning as the framers of the Constitution intended. Impassioned advocates have been so insistent on pressing their agendas that they have undercut the purpose of the constitutional system. The loudest voices on talk radio and at town hall meetings don’t want to work things out, and many voters in primary elections punish politicians who seek compromise. By enshrining their political positions as absolutes, they render compromise impossible, and they attack the purpose of the system that our forebears so carefully created. What America needs is many more activists in politics—not activists who work for their own causes, but men and women who are committed to the higher calling of our republic, the fundamental and profound calling of making government work. Inspiriting such activists would be a great gift of religion to America.
Faithful people have much to offer American politics, much that can mend what is so obviously broken. But to make this offering, we will have to show up and speak up. This may seem an unpleasant prospect for many of us, but nothing in religion says that we should be content with the pleasant.
John C. Danforth is a former United States senator from Missouri and also served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. An ordained Episcopal priest, he is the namesake of the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, which publishes this journal. Danforth’s latest book is The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics, from which this excerpt was taken.