A Wacko Bird and the Question of Compromise

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Wacko Bird and the Question of Compromise

“What do you think of Ted Cruz?” There’s an interesting breakfast table question my wife asked a few days ago. Senator Cruz's (R-TX) name seems to be mud here in Washington. An article in GQ called him "The Distinguished Wacko Bird from Texas," a name he happily embraces. He’s the darling of “The Tea Party.”

Cruz believes Washington is seriously broken, a place where expedient, career-enhancing, and largely unprincipled compromises are the rule of the day. According to the distinguished wacko bird article, Cruz said, “I cannot tell you how many little old ladies clasped my shoulder and said, ‘Ted, please don't go to Washington and become one of them.’” “One of them” is code for politics-as-usual members of Congress.

So Cruz has become something of an obstructionist. There are issues over which he digs in the heels of his ostrich skin cowboy boots and simply will not budge, Obamacare being at the top of the list. Cruz told GQ, “Stopping bad things is a significant public service.”

While in some cases that is absolutely true, his attitude has not endeared him to either the Republican leadership or old guard Republican Senators. Nor has it made him a favorite among conservative pundits who have been waxing eloquent about the glories of James Madison’s principles in the Constitution, the value of compromise, and how Cruz doesn’t get it.

As Jonathan Rauch wrote in National Affairs, “At the end of the day, the Madisonian framework asks not that participants like compromising but that they do it — and, above all, that they recognize the legitimacy of the system that makes them do it. It asks them to acknowledge that the compromise-forcing constitutional structure is principled and admirable, even if some particular compromises are not.”

Rauch argues that there are some people — in this case “Tea Party” Republicans like Cruz — are ideologically opposed to compromise, a position that is contrary to the core principles of the Constitution.

I agree with what Rauch has to say about compromise. I also agree with Chuck Colson’s regular admonitions about incrementalism in politics. Few political victories are won all at once. Success comes from compromising to get something you want and then coming back for more.

At the same time, I have two reservations, perhaps the same ones as the jubilant crowds that greeted Ted Cruz at home in Texas where he’s something of a popular hero.

First, there are some issues that strike me as binary, that is, it’s hard to see what might be the middle ground between yes and no. On marriage, we’re doing our best to dig in our heels against those who want to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples (and more). Marriage in our laws will be exclusively between one man and one woman or it will be whatever. Compromises such as civil unions have been taken off the table by the marriage revisionists leaving no middle ground.

Religious liberty is another binary issue. We either have religious liberty or … or our religious liberty has been compromised. “Accommodation of religious believers” in this law or that bad law is not religious liberty; it’s condescension. “Freedom of worship” is not religious liberty since it treats religion as a hobby rather than a worldview. And “religious toleration” only means that you get to choose from a (changeable) government approved list of tolerated religions.

Compromise on the meaning of marriage or on religious liberty is surrender. One side loses; the other side wins.

Now what about Congress’s penchant for (addiction to?) spending and running up the national debt? It’s certainly not binary — spend or stop spending — but there seems to be a troubling way of life lurking in the background that may be binary.

On example. When the bill to end the government semi-shutdown passed on October 16, it included a $2.8 billion dollar earmark for a project in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s state of Kentucky.

I realize that the project benefits other states too, that it was apparently Senator Lemar Alexander from Tennessee who attached the project, and I’m even willing to believe it will save money. Fine. But isn’t it at least tone deaf to include pork in a bill settling a budget impasse brought on by spending too much money in the first place? According to CNN, Senator John McCain quipped, “These people are like alcoholics. They can’t resist taking a drink.”

Congress appears to many Americans to be more interested in continuing the game — with the same players — than doing the people’s work for the people’s good while carefully stewarding the people’s money.

We need someone who will knock the game over and call attention to the fact that something is out of whack on Capitol Hill. If that’s Ted Cruz, more power to him.