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Compromise in Politics is a Necessary, Not Negative, Process: Lee Hamilton '52

May 25, 2011

7485May 25, 2011, Greencastle, Ind. — "For a politician, 'I will not compromise!' seems like a sure-fire applause-getter -- at least, when preaching to the choir," writes Lee Hamilton. "It’s not so good for the nation as a whole, however." The veteran statesman and 1952 graduate of DePauw University offers his thoughts in a newspaper op-ed.

"There is room in politics for elected leaders who won’t back down on their principles," writes the Democrat who served 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and later co-chaired the 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study Group. "But if they dominate the political sphere, representative government becomes impossible, as making progress on the many ills that beset us takes a back seat to declarations of principles."

Hamilton continues, "This does not mean that political leaders need to abandon their principles. One secret to Ronald Reagan’s success as president was his ability to communicate his firmly held beliefs and his vision for where he wanted to take this country -- and at the same time to recognize that in a country as large and diverse as ours is, he needed to be able to listen to the other side, determine where he could show flexibility, and find common ground. Pretty much every clause of our Constitution was the result of talented and committed politicians going at it hammer and tongs, and then seeking the best compromise they could find in order to move forward. I simply do not see how this nation could have been formed or could have survived without the skillful use of compromise. What is representative democracy about if it does not entail the accommodation of different points of view?"

The spirit of compromise may be weakened these days, but it "is not dead," according to Hamilton. "You can see it in the work of the bipartisan group of senators who recently came together to make the confirmation process for executive-branch nominees more efficient and 92145rational. And you could see it last winter when President Obama and congressional leaders agreed to allow tax breaks for the well-to-do to continue in exchange for securing an extension of unemployment benefits for the jobless. These deals leave everyone unhappy to a degree, but also with something they wanted. They allow the nation to square its shoulders to confront the next challenge. Without them, we’d be stuck arguing endlessly over irreconcilable positions; government would become dysfunctional. And whatever a politician who rejects compromise might think, his constituents definitely did not send him to Capitol Hill to allow that."

Access the complete text at Ohio's Circleville Herald.

Now the director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, Lee H. Hamilton returned to DePauw on March 15 to address "The U.S. Role in the World After Afghanistan and Iraq" in a Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture.  A summary including video clips can be accessed here.

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