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Posted at 5:23 PM ET, 12/17/2010

Do Republican presidents really refuse compromise?

By Ezra Klein

In his article on Obama and "triangulation," Matt Bai quotes Robert Reich making an argument I hear an awful lot:

“Again and again, we have Democratic presidents who say, ‘Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the better,’ and ‘This is the best I can do,’ ” says Robert Reich, the liberal economist and former labor secretary under Mr. Clinton. “And over and over we have Republican presidents who say, ‘I am going to hold out for my principles.’ ”

What's the evidence for this? George W. Bush presided over the largest expansion of Medicare since Lyndon Johnson founded the program. It was so controversial among his party that Tom DeLay had to break a slew of ethics rules and hold a 15-minute vote open for more than three hours to pass the legislation. No Child Left Behind began life as a Democratic idea, and both Ted Kennedy and George Miller voted "aye." George W. Bush also signed McCain-Feingold into law, despite the fact that both he and his party opposed it.

As for Ronald Reagan, well, there's been an organized effort to saint him as an unyielding exemplar of conservatism, but read Josh Green for a more balanced look at his legacy.

Both Bush and Reagan managed to pass a lot of tax cuts. And Bush invaded Iraq and massively expanded the security state, though I think that had more to do with 9/11 and Dick Cheney than it did with "Republicans presidents" in general. But broadly speaking, I don't really see the evidence that Republican presidents don't compromise, while Democratic presidents do. And on a related note, this is a good point from Bai:

One of the Clintonian compromises that most offended liberals — the 1996 deal with Republicans to balance the budget — is an achievement that Democrats routinely tout now while bemoaning the fiscal recklessness of the Bush years.

By Ezra Klein  | December 17, 2010; 5:23 PM ET
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So your proof of compromise is Bush supporting two of his pet issues?

Posted by: endaround | December 17, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps the problem is that they don't refer to it as triangulation, and it becomes a 'conservative' principle. Then, the common-sense thing becomes a conservative idea! But when a democrat does it, it's 'triangulation' and the worth of progressive ideas is questioned and certainly not the norm.

Posted by: goinupnup | December 17, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

Maybe my memory is terrible, but I don't remember Democrats supporting the expansion of medicare either.

I remember it as the "Republicans love their mothers" campaign.

Posted by: will12 | December 17, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

Actually, According to Pres Clinton, the tax increases and budgets for FY 94 and 95 which were passed by the Democratic congress of 93/94 were responsible for putting the budget in balance. Another important piece was the Pay-go rule passed in 1990 by the Dems and signed into law by Bush 41. By 1995, when Gingrich became speaker, the heavy lifting had already been done.

Posted by: marvyT | December 17, 2010 7:13 PM | Report abuse

Good to Ezra in calling the bluff that Cons. Presidents do not compromise. Successful Politics and Presidencies are all about the art of 'possible'.

Posted by: umesh409 | December 17, 2010 9:51 PM | Report abuse

marvyT is exactly right, although, sure, I'll give the Republican Congress some credit.

Posted by: Hopeful9 | December 17, 2010 9:54 PM | Report abuse

I understand that you were in your early teans at the time, but Matt Bai is attempting to mislead. The weasel phrase "one of" is a dead giveaway. One of how many. If all Bai is claiming is that the budget balancing compromise was one of the thousand compromises that made liberals angry, he might be right.

However, the Clinton caves which enraged the liberals I know are welfare reform and the crime bill. Welfare reform was not a compromise. It was shockingly more extreme than anything Reagan ever proposed.

Liberals are not convinced that 3 strikes and you're out (life without parole for 3 felonies even if none is very extreme) is good policy. Many liberals think that locking up senior citizens because they stole 3 cars 40 years ago (and drove them across state lines) is bad policy.

Bai's position is that such a view is rigid extremism and all reasonable people must agree that someone who stole 3 cars in 1994, 97 and 2000 (and drove them across state lines so they were Federal offences) will just have to be kept in prison in 2050 if he lives that long.

That is the implication of a bill signed into law by Clinton. You can defend it or note that Bai has successfully mislead you.

Your choice.

Posted by: rjw88 | December 17, 2010 11:06 PM | Report abuse

Forgot to say this is a good post Ezra.

Posted by: Hopeful9 | December 17, 2010 11:24 PM | Report abuse

I'm not able to remember any instances where Bush 43 compromised. Perhaps that's what's why Reich is so piqued about Obama's being so willing to compromise: the assault on liberalism during the Bush years was particularly strong and particularly effective.

And ... the income inequality charts that have exploded in the past 10+ years clearly show that the R side is winning the economic war. This makes compromise to further exacerbate the inequity galling to most (all) liberals.

Posted by: David_PA | December 18, 2010 12:37 AM | Report abuse

funny how the reality involved, the specifics of who benefits and the costs are not at issue. Just "who" compromised! and games of one upmanship continues.

sad comparisons indeed

Posted by: Beleck31 | December 18, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse


Are you maturing into a rational analyst as opposed to the hyper-partisan liberal hack that characterized your positions throughout the last few years?

Posted by: lancediverson | December 18, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

The examples chosen by Ezra actually undermine his point. Republican presidents haven't always been 100% conservative, but that's quite different from compromising with the opposition.

As noted above, Bush 43 did not compromise with Democrats - he sometimes took on Congressional Republicans, as with immigration, but that's not the same thing. (It actually shows intransigence - he didn't even like to compromise with his own party.)

Similarly, Reagan wasn't always completely right wing (though pretty often) but that's not because he compromised with Dems, so much as that he had some views which were not conservative dogma. (E.g., a willingness to talk to Gorbachev.)

It would actually be odd if any one individual, especially one with presidential responsibilities, was completely doctrinaire. However, these aren't examples of compromise, but of the opposite - leaders sticking to their beliefs. Obama doesn't exactly (yet, at least) give the same impression.

Posted by: NYBobSmith | December 18, 2010 11:04 PM | Report abuse

What nonsense. I recall President George W. Bush signing the Lieberman-Edwards Iraq War resolution of 2002.

Posted by: krazen1211 | December 19, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

What nonsense. I recall President George W. Bush signing the Lieberman-Edwards Iraq War resolution of 2002.

Posted by: krazen1211 | December 19, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

The deficit reduction act passed and signed by Clinton in 19993 had NO Republican votes. It raised taxes on the rich, and liberals supported it.

Posted by: sveik | December 19, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

W's expansion of Medicare was wholly in acccord with his basic principles. It was a corporate giveaway. The drug industry was his biggest contributor industry. His support for fighting AIDS in Africa flowed from the same source.

Posted by: gVOR08 | December 19, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Klein,

The point was not that Republicans actually do hold firm on "principle", but that they steadfastly make the claim. And as a political tactic, it seems to work. The voting public, the media, and the Democrats all fail to hold them accountable or responsible.

President Obama, by contrast, claimed to believe the public option (and expiration of the top-end tax cuts) was the "best idea" and challenged Republicans to present a better idea. But he lacks the political courage to lead on the point. He makes categorical statements, that appear principled, but he never forces Republicans to make tough votes, or holds their feet to the fire with detailed analysis and argument. He makes assertions, which sound principled, but there is no political muscle behind them. And he steadfastly refuses to present and sell a detailed, historical analysis to the American people. He half-heartedly asserts that Republican ideas have failed, but is not willing to do the hard work to change consciousness and conviction. And legislatively, he pre-emptively signals his willingess to cave before the hard negotiation even begins.

Posted by: NicDem | December 20, 2010 3:04 AM | Report abuse

These examples almost prove the proposition. I see them as perfectly consistent with their ideologies. Reagan was not for lower taxes; he was for a more regressive tax system. And he got it with the FICA tax hikes...and a slew of other "reforms", like eliminating the deduction for interest on student loans. (I very much remember paying a 10% off-the-top "origination fee" to the federal government when I took my student loan in the Reagan years.) Similarly, just how was Medicare D inconsistent with Bush's ideology? Medicare D was a massive giveaway to leading corporations, one of dozens during the Bush years. It was perfectly in keeping with the philosophy of a man who saw the national debt double during his term.

Posted by: chase-truth | December 20, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Please Ezra don't be one of those commentators who overuse the meaningless term triangulation. There should be another term to describe those pundits:

Strangulation - Definition: The desire to choke political pundits who overuse the meaningless term "Triangulation" <- joke


Posted by: chrisgaun | December 20, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

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