Henry Clay is Dead

Ah, it’s a feature here that no one really notices – right up there up top, in the menu – each Sunday there’s a new collection of pithy and amusing quotes – for those who don’t care for the long columns full of detailed analysis with a lot of that yes-but stuff and all that on-the-other-hand balancing of this and that. Yes that can be frustrating, and maybe things really can be distilled down into a few a few choice and clever words. That is why we have bumper stickers after all, and that’s what made Frank Luntz a rich and famous man. A few words can do a lot of damage, or a lot of good, depending on your perspective. But in lieu of snarky bumper stickers and extraordinarily frightening Republican Party catchphrases – designed to make the already-convinced even more smug and insufferable – here you get Menken and Nietzsche and Freud and Woody Allen. That’s the sort of thing that keeps you on your toes, and not of much use to those deep into sneering at others. These guys suggest complexity. Not many care for that these days, but there you have it. Somewhere in the quotes is Einstein saying that, as a rule, things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. Those are words to live by.

And if you scan the quotes archives – arranged by topic – you’ll find a recent array of quotes about compromise – as that seems to be the issue of the day. Those are instructive, as it seems over the last several centuries the idea that compromise is a good thing seems to have waxed and waned – it is admirable to never compromise, or to compromise for the greater good, depending on the circumstances, or depending on nothing in particular. One might consider Henry Clay (1777-1852) – the Great Compromiser – who worked out compromises on nullification and slavery that kept the nation together in the decades before the Civil War, at least for a while. But then there were the eight years of Bush the Younger, when that was no longer a model for how governance works best. Clay might have been a villain then, if anyone even remembered him, and Bush – never waver (moral certitude) – was the hero. That seems to be how one was supposed to govern – without compromise, ever. They called it strong leadership. And Bush’s whole party still operates that way now.

But in 2008 the nation flipped sides and elected a new president who explicitly identified himself as a man who would work with the other side, and who would consider their view of things, and without compromising the core values of the folks on his side, would make sure important and useful things got done. No one would get absolutely everything they wanted, but there would be bipartisan cooperation, and few food fights. There’d be a lot of listening and good-faith negotiations, where no one questioned anyone’s motives, as we all wanted the best for America. There’d be no more of that my-way-or-the-highway crap that had proved so disastrous. And no one who suggested labor unions might do some good for American workers now and then would be told they were de facto members of al-Qaeda and sided with all terrorists everywhere. There had been of enough of the nonsense, and the voters agreed. The polling even shifted on gays – their lives were no one else’s business, and they ought to have the same rights, and the same opportunities, as everyone else. Enough was enough. No one still remembered that there had ever been such a person as Henry Clay, but somewhere he was smiling. And that the new president was a black man was no small part of this. The nation had rejected the race stuff too – all the never-give-in notions about blacks being scary or lazy or weird had to go too.

So the nation saw an opportunity to move beyond partisan certitude and the constant listings of all the things, in excruciating detail, where there would be no compromise, ever, and which would never even be open to discussion, much less negotiation. It had been a pain in the ass to keep it all straight, even with all the help Fox News provided. But where the nation saw an opportunity the Republicans saw a sucker. They knew they could play Obama like a cheap fiddle – and yes, that’s a silly figure of speech, but it works well enough here.

Or maybe Obama misjudged them. As a way of getting things done, and keeping them done, bipartisanship is ideal. But it assumes the other party is rational, with pure motives – they too want what they think is best for America – and that they’re not bat-shit crazy. And back on February 5, 2009 – two weeks after Obama’s inauguration John Cole offered this:

I really don’t understand how bipartisanship is ever going to work when one of the parties is insane. Imagine trying to negotiate an agreement on dinner plans with your date, and you suggest Italian and she states her preference would be a meal of tire rims and anthrax. If you can figure out a way to split the difference there and find a meal you will both enjoy, you can probably figure out how bipartisanship is going to work the next few years.

And yes, that was prescient, as now Steve Benen sees how this has worked out:

Obama walked in the door on day one ready to compromise. All that rhetoric during the campaign about finding common ground and working with people of good faith with a sense of common purpose? Obama actually meant all of that. He sincerely believed he could work with both parties, bridge partisan gaps, and bring people together. That ’08 shtick wasn’t an act; this guy was genuine. The new president desperately wanted bipartisanship, and felt the country would benefit from it.

Benen is upset. The italics are his. The Republicans had other ideas. Being open to reason wasn’t what they did, or what they had done for years, since before the mid-nineties when in a fit of pique Newt Gingrich had the House shut down the government because Bill Clinton wouldn’t dismantle Medicare, and because Newt always seemed to get a seat in the back of the plane on Air Force One. Newt said that was reasonable. No one else agreed. And as for compromising with this new president with an outstretched hand… that was never going to happen. They just don’t have that in them, and Benen adds this about where we are now:

John’s “tire rims and anthrax” line came when Democrats enjoyed large majorities in both the House and Senate, and the nature of compromise in Washington effectively meant figuring out what Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Joe Lieberman, and Ben Nelson could tolerate.

What we didn’t know was that there would soon be a GOP-led House. The need for bipartisan compromise became literally unavoidable, but the same dynamic was made even more painful: we not only need to find a middle ground between Italian food and anthrax, failure to do so will mean economic collapse.

We really may be in a hopeless situation, even if Obama ran on Hope. And Benen recommends Jonathan Bernstein on just how far apart Democrats and Republicans are in the debt talks:

The Democrats … well, it depends on exactly who we’re talking about, but the median point among Congressional Democrats is probably something like this: keep spending at current levels with growth at GDP levels for most things, cut a fair bit from defense, let the Bush tax cuts expire, and fully implement ACA including the cost controls but with a public option added on. That gets the deficit under control – something that a lot of Democrats honestly seem to care about, perhaps because they’re concerned with good government and believe that large deficits undermine it.

The Republicans? Without invoking the Bachmann fringe, we can just look at what they’ve voted for already this year: return the size of the government to around where it was before Woodrow Wilson was in office – except for the defense portion of the government, which should be roughly where it was at the height of the Cold War at an absolutely minimum. And tax cuts. It might add up, it might not; I don’t notice a whole lot of GOP concern about that (with, to be sure, some exceptions, such as Senator Tom Coburn). That was no wild bluff; virtually every House and Senate Republican voted for bills that would have implemented that agenda, including entirely unforced (albeit second-hand) votes on a Constitutional amendment this week that, title and dubious enactment mechanisms aside, was basically an attack on both the Great Society and New Deal understandings of the role of government in the US – which they would be glad to tell anyone who is willing to listen to them.

And Benen adds this:

Much of the American mainstream probably believes we have the same two modern major parties that have existed for generations – one’s center-right and the other’s center-left. They should bicker, argue, and compromise, as the system has always demanded of them.

Maybe Benen is thinking of the days of Henry Clay, but Clay is, of course, quite dead. And that leads Benen to argue that the status quo right now isn’t normal at all. He points to this detailed item from Brendan Nyhan – the differences today between the two major parties hasn’t been this dramatic since the Civil War. And Benen adds this:

The mainstream may not fully appreciate what it means to expect bipartisan solutions in this setting.

On the other hand Clay died and all the compromises on nullification and slavery came to nothing in the end, and so we did have that war. Maybe THAT’S normal. Ask a Republican about that. Many of them are pushing for nullification again. And a news flash – Henry Clay, like Generalissimo Francisco Franco, is still dead.

And elsewhere, Benen offers this:

I don’t think it’s online anymore, but Matt Taibbi had a fantastic cover story for Rolling Stone in October 2006 about the Republican-led Congress, shortly before Democrats won both chambers.

“These were the years,” Taibbi wrote, “when the U.S. parliament became a historical punch line, a political obscenity on par with the court of Nero or Caligula – a stable of thieves and perverts who committed crimes rolling out of bed in the morning and did their very best to turn the mighty American empire into a debt-laden, despotic backwater, a Burkina Faso with cable.”

The article included one of my favorite all-time quotes: Jonathan Turley told Taibbi, “The 109th Congress is so bad that it makes you wonder if democracy is a failed experiment.”

And maybe it is:

It seemed literally impossible at the time, but five years later, we appear to have found a Congress that’s even worse.

And he cites Norm Ornstein, the congressional scholar, arguing here that “Americans have complained for years that their government is broken. This time they’re right.”

And Ornstein offers this:

Dana Carvey had a character during his years on Saturday Night Live who was a crotchety old man complaining about how much better everything was “in my day,” the imagined halcyon times of his past. After almost 42 years immersed in the politics of Congress, I have to check myself regularly to avoid falling into the same trap. When I came to Washington in 1969, for example, the city was riven with division and antagonism over the Vietnam War, which segued into the impeachment of a president, followed by many other difficult and contentious moments.

In this case, though, Carvey’s old man would be right: The hard reality is that, for all their rancor, those times were more functional, or at least considerably less dysfunctional, than what we face with Congress today.


Ornstein wrote this last week, before Congress set itself on a path to crash the American economy on purpose. His piece is well worth reading, and shines an important light on structural impediments that prevent the legislative branch from functioning as it should.

But Benen thinks Ornstein goes a little too easy on congressional Republicans:

Congress is still capable of functioning as an institution. Indeed, over 2009 and 2010, we saw our share of frustrating legislative disputes, but an enormous amount of successful policymaking was completed. Had the Senate been able to operate by majority rule – the way it used to – the 111th Congress would have been even more impressive.

The problem with the 112th isn’t a structural impediment; it’s the result of a radicalized Republican Party that has no use for compromise, evidence, or reason. We have a congressional GOP abandoning all institutional norms, pushing extremist policies, rejecting their own ideas if they enjoy Democratic support, and engaging in tactics that were once thought unthinkable from policymakers who put the nation’s needs first.

Ornstein’s piece had a clear headline – “Worst. Congress. Ever.” – and Benen is fine with that:

After six months on the job, that seems extremely likely. Indeed, if this Congress deliberately causes a global economic catastrophe, the competition for the worst Congress ever will end quite quickly. But the public needs to understand that Congress, at an institutional level, doesn’t bear all of the blame. The stark raving mad Republican Party does.

Tom DeLay, Dennis Hastert, Trent Lott, Bill Frist … who wouldn’t trade the current crop to get those guys back? I’d do it in a heartbeat.

And Benen adds that he had never been more inclined to wonder if our democracy is a failed experiment than he is now.

Well, join the club. But that happens when a second Great Compromiser comes along, and he finds that when a faction representing less than twenty percent of the voters – or almost thirty percent depending on the poll – holds the House of Representatives, where all legislation to pay the bills originates, and on principle will not consider compromise ever, on anything, there is nothing he can do. There is nothing to be done.

And you cannot run a government that way. When Henry Clay’s compromises came to nothing we had that Civil War. But maybe that’s the point. And maybe there’s a clever quote about that somewhere. But it would be bitter.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Bipartisanship, Broken Government, Cival War Again, Compromise, Henry Clay - Great Compromiser, The Uses of History and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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