Pragmatically Compromising or Selling Out?

Originally posted in the Washington Post on November 15, 2009.

Former congressman Mickey Edwards is vice president of the Aspen Institute, where he directs the Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership.

It is in the nature of our system of government that compromise is almost always required when some wish to make substantial change in the laws we live under. In the House vote, one issue group (antiabortion) forced another issue group (revision of the health-care system) to yield on one of its preferences in order to achieve others. That is the way of democracy.

Leaders must always weigh and rank priorities because they can seldom get everything they want. When one surrenders a lesser goal in order to achieve a higher goal, that is generally a sign of good leadership; when one surrenders a more important goal to win on a lesser goal, that is poor leadership. The trick is determining which goal is of the higher priority. In this case, the president and the speaker concluded that passing a health-care bill now was more important than either access to abortion or a more comprehensive government insurance program.

In 1965, Democratic leaders in Congress, working with President Lyndon B. Johnson, gave up hopes for a broad national health insurance program in order to enact smaller pieces of one — Medicare, to cover the elderly, and Medicaid, to cover the indigent. Today, those are considered by advocates of health-care subsidies to be monumental achievements.

It’s not a matter of weighing what you get against what you fail to get; it’s a matter of weighing what you get against what you would have gotten if you had failed to reach a compromise. Some leaders are visionaries whose legacies are inspirational, but other leaders are realists whose legacies are often solid, if incomplete, achievements. Both kinds of leadership are valuable, and people placed in positions of formal leadership quite frequently have to decide which kinds of leaders they will choose to be.

Bill George is a management professor at the Harvard Business School, and former chairman and chief executive of Medtronic. His latest book is “7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis.”

The lack of genuine leadership on the health insurance bill is discouraging, both from the White House and the Congress. The majority party has an unworkable plan to reform insurance that offers no real cost savings and enormous future expenses and doesn’t address the impact of quality and lifestyle issues.

Having chosen to put politics ahead of policy, the Democrats are left to compromise their values to force the bill through. I anticipate many more compromises of principles and good policy on the Senate side and in conference committee, turning the ultimate bill into a mishmash of laws that will have to be fixed later.

This is not leadership. It is painful to watch it unfold.

Yash Gupta is dean of the Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School.

Any important piece of legislation that comes before Congress must be based on a solid set of principles. Of course, politics is the art of compromise, but at some point one has to ask: Compromise to what end? One can compromise too much. When all the bargains and the concessions become so numerous that they obscure the original principles of the proposal, then it might be time to step back and decide to fight another day.

The nation has been through this before, with the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Medicare/Medicare bill of 1965. Both were strongly opposed, but in both instances the presidents, along with other leaders in Washington, were steadfast in adhering to the principles on which the proposals were based. They made sure the nation understood that these reforms would benefit the people.

By contrast, President Obama has done a poor job of selling his proposal. He never took a strong leadership role; he didn’t use his bully pulpit to spell out clearly why the nation needs this reform. The result has been a great deal of ambiguity and confusion. That, in turn, has given energy to his opponents, who have commandeered the issue and couched it in their own terms.

This could have been a crowning, shining achievement for the president, and when you think of all the goodwill and momentum with which he entered office, it’s hard to escape the disappointing conclusion that he has squandered a major opportunity.