The cost of compromise
I am just back from the Capitol, and talking to people at a Tea Party rally. Their view might be summed up as "bring it on!" They were chanting "Shut it down!" Several made the point that if non-essential parts of the government shut down, they'd be quite happy. If it's not essential, the view is, then the government shouldn't be doing it anyway.
I suspect there will be a deal. There is too much for both sides to lose in the blame game that would follow. But the strength of the Tea Party has already made it hard for their leadership to compromise, and will make selling any deal tough. President Barack Obama and the Democrats don't have quite the same problem but the cuts he has accepted have already upset supporters.
Compromise is a peculiar business, I reflected as I started reading a book called At the Edge of the Precipice, by Robert Remini, the former historian of the US House of Representatives. It is about the 1850 compromise over slavery. He writes that the man at the centre of this, Henry Clay, "understood the importance of compromise... each side must feel that it has gained something that is essential to its interest as the result of the compromise. To achieve that goal each side must surrender something important to the opposing side. Both sides can then claim victory."
His contention is that compromise prevented an early civil war that the North would have lost, having neither leadership nor material to win at that stage. The argument is that it prevented the splitting of the US into two nations and thus was a good move. All history is hindsight, but I am uncertain about praising an agreement on the grounds that it turned out that it came unstuck later with better results. It was hardly the argument at the time. And compromises depend who is at the table. The compromise was between white gentlemen, while the slaves themselves had no say. Perhaps they might have had some thoughts about the value of compromise.
What's this got to do with today's politics? Simply that like Mr Remini, most Americans admire politicians who can behave with dignity and find a way through a difficult problem, by giving and taking. Bipartisanship is one of the highest ideals of US politics. But many of the politicians might question the morality of this. Enough of them might see the matters of practicality and principle at stake as too important to allow the other side to claim any sort of victory.