Compromise is like bad tequila

Lawmakers must embrace the reality of divided government and the need to compromise.

by Michael Rietmulder

Forming a consensus on any issue in modern politics is no easy task. Neither is forming an aisle-crossing coalition. But the latter is going to be a necessity at both the national and state levels as the reality of divided government confronts both Democrats and Republicans.

The need for compromise is evident: Stalemate cannot be an option at a time when nearly one in 10 Americans is out of work and Minnesota faces a $6.2-billion deficit.

As President Barack Obama found out last week with his proposed tax deal, compromise is often met with stiff resistance from legislators holding fast to their convictions. Hence, he had to bring in the king of common sense liberals, former President Bill Clinton, to convince hostile Democrats to sign on.

“The deal taken as a whole is, I believe, the best bipartisan agreement we can reach to help the largest number of Americans,” Clinton said Friday during an impromptu White House news conference.

A day earlier, the House Democratic Caucus passed a resolution opposing the deal Obama had brokered with congressional Republicans. The compromise would extend all of the Bush tax cuts, not just those for the lower and middle classes and extend unemployment benefits for an additional 13 months. Perhaps the most objectionable provision in the eyes of House lefties is one that calls for a maximum estate tax rate of 35 percent with an exemption on the first $5 million. Allowing the cuts to expire would trigger a $1 million exemption per estate and a 55 percent top rate come Jan. 1.

In short, Republicans would get tax breaks for the rich and Democrats would get extended unemployment benefits.

Make no mistake, this bill is far from ideal and seems to ignore the swelling national debt by promising to spend more and tax less. But ObamaâÄôs give-and-take approach to the deal is a step in the right direction.

Here in Minnesota, DFL Gov.-elect Mark Dayton and a Republican-controlled Legislature are preparing for an ideological clash of their own. The GOP has given little indication they will budge from the “No New Tax” mantra promulgated by DaytonâÄôs predecessor. Dayton has all but guaranteed that he will persist with the tax-the-rich platform he campaigned on.

“I will continue to insist that those state and local tax dollars be collected more progressively, so that all Minnesotans pay their fair share for the essential services Minnesotans need,” Dayton said last Wednesday while addressing the media after Tom EmmerâÄôs concession.

Despite this reassertion of a campaign tenet, he also struck a conciliatory chord. During his prepared remarks, Dayton pledged cooperation and a desire to work with Republicans toward “shared solutions.”

“You were elected on your platforms and principles, I was elected on mine,” Dayton said. “I believe the collective wisdom of the electorate is they want part of what each of us offers.”

So when Minnesota lawmakers convene in January for the 2011 session, the question becomes who blinks first.

No DFLer has inhabited the governorâÄôs mansion since New Kids on the Block had a number-one hit, and in that time theyâÄôve undoubtedly developed a thirst for executive power. Conversely, the Republicans havenâÄôt controlled both chambers since the early âÄô70s and they will be ready to throw around their collective legislative weight.

Whoever extends their hand and makes the first concession will certainly take one on the chin from their base. Just ask Obama.

The tax deal heâÄôs put forth looks like something that would be favored by a country club Republican, not a South Side Chicago community organizer. One only has to look to the headlines of The New York Times columnists David BrooksâÄô and Paul KrugmanâÄôs latest offerings to realize this is the case. A moderate Republican, the headline to BrooksâÄô Thursday column reads: “ObamaâÄôs Very Good Week.” While the reliably liberal Krugman wrote under the heading: “ObamaâÄôs Hostage Deal.”

While many House Democrats have found the deal repugnant, Krugman, Clinton and Brooks agree that Obama extracted as many concessions from Republicans as he could before their numbers on Capitol Hill multiply next month.

“The White House negotiators did an outstanding job for their side,” Brooks wrote. “With little leverage, they got not only the unemployment insurance, but also an Earned Income Tax Credit provision, a college scholarship provision and other Democratic goodies.”

Dayton and his Republican colleagues should take note of the contentious, yet budding compromise in Washington. Any similar measures in Minnesota will be painful and require members of each party to do more than stand on opposite sides of the room trading rhetorical blows. That would only result in black eyes for Democrats, Republicans and the people of Minnesota alike.

As Clinton said Friday, “ThereâÄôs never a perfect bipartisan bill in the eyes of the partisan.”

Obama understands this. Clinton understands this. Hopefully Dayton and the Minnesota GOP do, too.

In the next few years, effective governance is going to come by means of compromise and sacrifice, requiring lawmakers to acknowledge that not every aspect of their agenda is attainable.

Compromise is like bad tequila. It tastes like swill and burns going down, but the second round isnâÄôt as bad as the first. You just have to hold your nose and swallow.


Michael Rietmulder welcomes comments at [email protected].