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He’s No Henry Clay

The president’s aversion to compromise.

May 17, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 33 • By FRED BARNES
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"I go for honorable compromise whenever it can be made. Life itself is but a compromise between death and life, the struggle continuing throughout our whole existence. .  .  . All legislation, all government, all society, is formed upon the principle of mutual concession, politeness, comity, courtesy; upon these, everything is based.”

He’s No Henry Clay

Those are not the words of President Obama, though he would have you believe they express a sentiment he personifies. Rather, they come from a Senate debate in 1850 and were spoken by Henry Clay, known then and now as the Great Compromiser.

Clay authored the three greatest compromises in American history, two limiting the spread of slavery outside the South (1820, 1850) and one on tariffs (1833). Obama has talked about compromise, but has neither sought nor produced a single one. 

Obama has succumbed to the temptation of large majorities. The lopsided Democratic margins—59-41 in the Senate, 254-177 (four vacancies) in the House—allowed him to win approval of his health care plan without making a single meaningful concession to Republicans. And he’s pursuing a partisan, no-compromise strategy with his remaining initiatives this year.

This approach is politically risky. On health care, Obama not only spurned Republicans, but also defied public opinion. By compromising, he surely would have wound up with a more popular bill. As it is, Obama-care is the target of a drive to repeal it. Repeal now outpolls the bill itself, 54 to 38 percent.

When threatened with defeat on the economic stimulus package last year, Obama’s tactic was to peel off just enough Sentate Republicans—three, it turned out—to win approval. This is not the same as reaching a compromise, and the stimulus isn’t regarded as even faintly bipartisan. It soon lost favor with the public.

With the financial reform currently being debated in the Senate, Obama pushed for passage without compromise—until every Republican and one Democrat blocked his way with a successful filibuster. This forced Obama and Democrats to yield ground to Republicans. But the current legislation is still a long way from being what could fairly be called a compromise.

It’s true that compromise is not always feasible in politics. It may not have been on health care because Obama and Republicans had different goals. The president wanted (and got) a measure that vastly expands the federal government’s control over the health care system. Republicans preferred to roll back government and give individuals control over their own care.

But Obamacare was an exception. When the two sides of a debate share the same goals but differ on the means of achieving them, a compromise along the lines enunciated by Clay is quite possible. His formula remains as relevant as it was in 1850.

For a compromise to work, Clay said it must be win-win. “Each side must feel that it gained something that is essential to its interest as a result of the compromise,” writes historian Robert Remini in his new book At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union.

This principle could be applied to financial reform. Republicans want to prevent any further bailouts of financial institutions “too big to fail.” Democrats are bent on increasing Washington’s role in regulating Wall Street. These goals are not mutually exclusive.

Nor are the goals of the two sides on immigration reform and cap and trade. Republicans insist that steps—such as erecting hundreds of more miles of fence—to secure the southern border must come first. The top Democratic priority is a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in this country. The two are compatible.

Cap and trade legislation aims to reduce our reliance on unfriendly countries for oil and to curb greenhouse gases. Democrats want to do this through increased government intervention in energy markets and the economy. Republicans—a good number of them anyway—would prefer a carbon tax that could achieve both goals without either a bigger government role or a powerful, new bureaucracy in Washington. These goals don’t conflict.

Obama’s mistake, and it’s a major one, is not understanding the value of compromise, both for him and the country. By relying solely on Democratic majorities, he’s caused his popularity to collapse and jeopardized  passage of his agenda. Clay knew better. “Many men who are very wise in their own estimation .  .  . will reject all propositions of compromise, but that is no reason why a compromise should not be attempted to be made,” he said. I’m not sure which men “wise in their own estimation” Clay had in mind. But if he were around today, we’d recognize the target of his advice instantly, wouldn’t we?

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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