The Paradox of Compromise


Twelve years ago I found myself in an ideological conundrum. I was (and remain) an ardent proponent of a single-payer healthcare system. In 2008 there were no opportunities to vote for someone who shared my position on the national stage. However, there was this young, charismatic senator from Illinois running for president on a viable alternative reform for health care. Then Senator Barack Obama made a call for a public option in health care a centerpiece of his campaign. In other words, he was proposing a state-run, comprehensive healthcare plan that would compete directly with private insurance.

The idea was simple. A public plan, without the need to provide dividends to shareholders, would be able to offer comprehensive insurance on a sliding scale. People could choose to participate or not. If they were able to get a better deal on the public plan, they could quit the private market and sign up. This would force private insurance companies to control their costs and offer better benefits in order to compete in the market.

It wasn’t single-payer, but it was a good idea. I decided to advocate for the public option. During the health care debate, I wrote letters to my reps. I wrote letters to the local newspaper. I spoke publicly in favor of the public option. I was passionate about this subject.

I lost.

I lost thanks largely to Joe Lieberman. But Obama himself was no small part of the loss. I’ll elaborate on this in a moment.

Regardless, the final outcome was referred to, often sneeringly by the conservatives, as Obamacare. Today it is referred to by its more formal name, the Affordable Care Act. It was vehemently and dishonestly attacked by Republicans. Once it passed, every effort on the right was dedicated to overturning the law, including lawsuits all the way to the Supreme Court.

I found myself in an awkward position. I didn’t like the Affordable Care Act. I saw it mostly as a huge handout to insurance companies by mandating a consumer base. It was bulky and complicated. Overall, it was bad politics and not what we were signing on for.

It was, however, better than the status quo. The Affordable Care Act wasn’t going to help everyone who needed help, but it would improve the lives of millions of people. As someone with a leftist vision of what the world should be, I do govern my politics by one simple rule.

Better is better.

And the Affordable Care Act was better. So, I defended it and supported it even though I took some flak from the left and the right in doing so.

Better is better.

However, that does not mean that I wasn’t bitter. The problem, as far as I could tell, had to do with President Obama’s awful negotiation tactics from the start. Sometimes it’s difficult to recall, but upon confirmation of Senator Al Franken to office, Obama had a filibuster-proof Congress. Democrats controlled the House and had a 60-vote majority in the Senate. The House was quick in passing his health care legislation, but then Obama did the unthinkable. In a vain attempt at bi-partisanship, the president put the future of his health care reforms in the hands of a committee evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, chaired by conservative Democrat Max Baucus. This hobbled the process long enough for Senator Kennedy, a leader in the healthcare movement who was battling brain cancer, to die. Kennedy was replaced by a rabid Republican and Obama lost his filibuster-proof majority.

It seemed to activists that President Obama, in his drive to have a bi-partisan bill under his belt, jumped to the compromise as the first offer. It was frustrating to activists who had signed on to and were passionately fighting to bring the Public Option to fruition. Every time we turned around, it seemed that Obama and the Democrats were sloughing away one progressive measure after the next. The coup de grace was the final deepest cut when Lieberman Liebermaned the Public Option in fulfillment of his strictures.

Progressive activists were outraged. This outrage was no small part of the well-known “shellacking” Democrats received in 2010. As Stephanie Taylor, writing for U.S. News pointed out, “By refusing to fight for the public option, Obama demoralized and disappointed the base—including independents.”

This devastating loss was a direct result of Obama’s compromise strategy. All negotiators know that one does not start bargaining from the compromise position. The strongest tactic is to request, nay demand, far more than you ever hope to get.

This tactic, however, carries its own political risks.

Though Biden had a much weaker legislative hand, it can’t be said that he led with the compromise. He started his presidency with an awe-inspiring, three-part Build Back Better Plan that included a $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, a $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, and a $1.8 trillion (including tax subsidies) American Family’s Plan. As a Biden skeptic, I know I was impressed.

Of course, Biden didn’t get what he wanted. No President does. And it was deja vu all over again watching Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema lieberman the whole process.

Regardless, Biden and the Democratic-controlled congress did manage to get some significant victories. The American Rescue Plan passed pretty much in-tact. The colossal Build Back Better, albeit whittled down, still evolved into the not-so-shabby Infrastructure Investment and Jobs act at $1.2 trillion and the Inflation Reduction Act, a mostly environmental bill coming in a $738 billion. Yes, he compromised. However, in setting his sights high he managed to compromise down to some significant legislation.

Are the compromises made by Biden part of the reason why his poll numbers are so low?

Still, it was disheartening to see popular legislation chopped to pieces by such political butter sticks as the Manchin/Sinema Show. In some ways, it felt like the Obamacare theater watching one progressive program after another kicked to the curb. I can’t help but think that this political atrophy is no small part of the reason why President Biden struggles with low approval ratings, with liberals showing lower approval of Biden as compared to Democrats overall.1

Fortunately for the remnants of American democracy, Biden didn’t suffer the shellacking that Obama did in 2010. Democrats, however, did benefit from the combined shock of the Dobbs decision overturning Roe combined with the overwhelming pungency of Batshit Crazy that was put up by the GOP as “candidates.”2 After all, in a democratic election, you don’t have to be popular. You only have to be more popular than the one you are running against. It’s not hard to be more popular than Batshit Crazy.

So, the hypothesis that I’m offering, subject to validation, of course, is two-fold. First, opening negotiations with a compromise is a clear sign of weakness from the start. However, opening with a high bid and negotiating down to a halfway point may result in better outcomes, but may also be perceived as a sign of weakness. Starting with a high bid may establish unreasonably high expectations that can only be disappointed by the final outcome. I refer to this as the Compromise Paradox.

I don’t have a solution to this conundrum except for better education on the ugly, sausage-making called the American legislative process.


  1. High inflation has certainly had an impact on Biden’s popularity, with many polls showing a majority of people blaming the President. When considering other features, like the pandemic, most people seem to recognize that The Pandemic holds a great deal of blame and that the President is not the sole cause of inflation. I’m not sure how this translated into votes.
  2. This is not to say that Obama didn’t have to deal with Batshit Crazy in 2010. It’s just that the Batshit Crazy of 2022 seemed to be of an entirely different caliber. There may have also been a matter of Batshit Crazy Fatigue. In 2010, the Batshit Crazy was new and exciting, but after twelve years of absolute Batshit Crazy…well, there’s only so much Batshit Crazy one can handle. The kind of Batshit Crazy that storms the Capitol based on a clear lie may likely be a dollop too much.

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