In U.S. Sen. Bob Dole’s final public message before he died on Dec. 5, he provided a lesson in civics that too few in today’s politics are willing to abide.
In a column for USA Today that he finished writing (in longhand) on Nov. 23, Dole emphasized the importance of principled compromise. Principled compromise was a virtue respected and practiced by the nation’s founders, yet even many of today’s conservatives who say they revere the founders nonetheless treat compromise with contempt.
This is foolish. From James Madison through Ronald Reagan, principled compromise always has been a tool toward constructive victories, not a sign of surrender. Yet today, many members of Congress barely even speak to members from the other party, much less try to hammer out productive agreements with them.
This isn’t just polarization; it’s malignant obstinacy.
“Teamwork is needed in Washington now more than ever,” wrote Dole. “During my years in Congress, Democrats and Republicans were political combatants, but we were also friends. I learned that it is difficult to get anything done unless you can compromise — not your principles but your willingness to see the other side. Those who suggest that compromise is a sign of weakness misunderstand the fundamental strength of our democracy.”
And: “proud partisans [should] validate American democracy by proving we need not agree on everything to agree on some ... Our history is rich with political debate and deep divisions, but collectively we share a common purpose for a better America. We cannot let political differences stand in the way of that common good.”
This was the final message of a wise and good man, a great public servant, one who knew he was dying and wanted to make one last plea to his countrymen. The plea was remarkably similar to that made by another legendary soldier-statesman, U.S. Sen. John McCain, in what effectively was McCain’s valedictory address before he succumbed to brain cancer.
McCain insisted on the virtues of passing legislation that may be “imperfect, full of compromises, and not very pleasing to implacable partisans on either side, but that might provide workable solutions to problems Americans are struggling with today … There’s greater satisfaction in respecting our differences, but not letting them prevent agreements that don’t require abandonment of core principles, agreements made in good faith that help improve lives and protect the American people.”
And, McCain noted, that is exactly what the U.S. constitutional system was designed for: “incremental progress, compromises that each side criticize but also accept, just plain muddling through to chip away at problems and keep our enemies from doing their worst.”
Madison, the “father of the Constitution,” embraced this approach wholeheartedly. His original proposal for the Constitution envisioned a Senate chosen by members of the House and featuring proportional representation, a president chosen by the legislature and ineligible for more than one term, and a veto power over legislation exercised together by the president and a group of judges.
Yet the constitutional convention produced a document in which the Senate featured equal representation for each state, with senators chosen by the states, with a president elected via an Electoral College and allowed to serve multiple terms, and with no judges involved in the veto. Still, rather than using the new document’s major diversions from his plan as reason to oppose it, Madison wore himself to a frazzle in his unflagging, and successful, efforts to get it ratified.
Dole’s penultimate paragraph cited yet another soldier-statesman, Dwight Eisenhower, who said: “Together we must learn how to compose differences … with intellect and decent purpose.”
These men were wise. We should heed them.