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For America's future, parties must find political common ground

By Michael Fitts, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael Fitts: The heart of American system is political compromise
  • Americans elect leaders to solve problems, but few show an interest in compromise, he says
  • Fitts: When politicians fail to make common ground, results can be catastrophic
  • He says there's a risk of defaulting on U.S. debt if parties can't agree on lifting the limit

Editor's note: Michael Fitts is dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- As Americans come together to celebrate Independence Day with parades, backyard barbeques, and fireworks, we should also look back on our history and reflect on what has made us the great republic we are today: political compromise.

Our need for compromise is as great as ever. But as the 2012 election cycle heats up the prospects for bipartisan action to address our country's most serious problems decrease with each passing day. The United States is engaged in two wars (at least) overseas, faces an ever-increasing deficit, high unemployment, and soaring health care costs -- all during a sustained economic crisis.

While the recent golf summit between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner was a rare show of bipartisanship, compromise on real issues remains elusive.

The White House and Congressional Republicans risk defaulting on the country's debt as they continue to squabble over raising the debt ceiling. Many in Congress question whether Obama is flouting the War Powers Resolution with continued American military "support" in Libya. And so far the current crop of Republican presidential contenders are speaking to just one side of the electorate when offering their prescriptions for what ails America.

The reality is that Americans elect leaders to solve problems. A basic truth many of our elected officials in Washington fail to grasp is that to confront major problems and reach some level of viable agreement, effective political leadership requires compromise.

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When our leaders refuse or are unable to compromise, the results can be catastrophic. In an equally uncertain time immediately following World War I, President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, saw hopes for lasting peace in the League of Nations, stating prophetically in 1919, "I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it." But he and Senate Republicans refused to compromise and as a result Wilson's dream for American involvement in helping lead a peace-preserving world body was shattered.

More recently, in 1993, then-newly elected President Bill Clinton devised a plan to "to fix a health care system that is badly broken," and provide all Americans with basic health care. Several factors led to the plan's failure a year later, from closed-door White House task force proceedings to Republican intransigence. The net effect was that for the next 15 years, "health care reform" was the third rail of politics and debate was stifled.

Alternatively, compromise makes progress -- even incremental progress -- possible. Yet moving toward the middle has frequently proved hazardous to one's political reputation.

Business considered President Franklin Roosevelt a traitor to his class for enacting New Deal legislation, while his left-leaning supporters felt the legislation was too accommodating to business. President Ronald Reagan twice angered his conservative base: first by agreeing to payroll tax increases with then-House Speaker Tip O'Neill in order to save Social Security; second, by negotiating nuclear arms reduction agreements with the "evil empire," the Soviet Union.

Today, many debate what our Founding Fathers intended. The fact is, our founders intended our three co-equal branches of government to lead figures like Reagan and O'Neill to think through their differences and compromise with one another. Our Constitution was born in compromise after Benjamin Franklin helped break the deadlock in 1787 over the divisive issue of proportional representation. Then, the center of our young, fragile republic managed to hold because political adversaries looked to Congress and the courts as mediating institutions.

Early in the 20th century, the aptly named federal judge Learned Hand observed, "The solution to any problem will almost always be compromise based on experience." He added, to underscore the point, that no court could save "a society so riven that the spirit of moderation is gone."

Unfortunately, we now live in a world where compromise has become a dirty word.
--Michael Fitts
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Unfortunately, we now live in a world where compromise has become a dirty word. The reasons are complicated. One is simply the social stratification in our country -- we tend to work, live, and vote with people who think as we do. Another is the splintering of our media outlets. Liberals have MSNBC and the Huffington Post. Conservatives have FOX News and the Weekly Standard.

Adding to the polarization of American politics is the absence of big tent political parties that are inclusive of moderates as well as staunch partisans -- and which as recently as 25 years ago mediated many of these divisions out of the spotlight. At the end of the day, this leaves decision-making to occur in the media glare with public leaders subject to charges of inconsistency and hypocrisy.

While unilateral disarmament by either Democrats or Republicans is not an option leading into 2012, I do see some ways forward. The first is simply for each of us to recognize the degree to which we are complicit in the bloodsport of politics. Too often we see disputes over hot-button issues as battles to the death between the forces of right and wrong.

Second, we should identify and support leaders who have a genuine record of promoting real solutions and forging thoughtful compromises. History is replete with examples. In the wake of World War II President Eisenhower, a Republican, left the New Deal intact. Fervent anti-communist Richard Nixon created the opening with China. Bill Clinton backed welfare reform.

Finally, we must make special efforts toward educating future leaders to bridge and heal our societal fissures. With the increasing segmentation in our society, our universities are one of the last bastions where people from diverse economic and political backgrounds come together on a sustained basis. They are, and must continue to be, institutions that instill an ethic of respect and teach people across the political spectrum how to engage with one another in the spirit of open and respectful dialogue.

In these days of overheated partisan rhetoric, a call for moderation is unlikely to rally the party faithful. But as Walter Isaacson wrote in his biography of Benjamin Franklin, "Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make great democracies." That should remain our common and ultimate objective.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Fitts.

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