Last week I posted a blog focused on the tax deal between President Obama and Senate Republicans as a good example of political compromise, - bringing people together with widely different opinions in order to get something concrete done. Such compromises are the essence of effective governance, especially in highly complex organization, whether in business or government.
Are there limits to compromise? Are there times when our sense of right and wrong should guide our actions? Are there occasions when principles should trump compromise?
For example, in 1953 IBM President Thomas J. Watson, Jr. published the company's first equal opportunity policy letter - one year before the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education and 11 years before the landmark Civil Rights Act - which said: “It is the policy of this organization to hire people who have the personality, talent and background necessary to fill a given job regardless of race, color or creed.” And he put IBM’s money where his mouth was – writing to two Southern governors that IBM refused to adopt “separate but equal” policies, and that if those states didn’t like that, IBM would locate its plants elsewhere.
Another notable example is President Lyndon Johnson’s personal leadership in overcoming fierce southern resistance and convincing Congress to pass the aforementioned Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. President Johnson realized that his party was going to pay a huge price for his actions. “We have lost the South for a generation,” he is alleged to have told an aide right after signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He was only wrong in that support of civil rights has lost the South to the Democratic Party for far longer than one generation.
If the December 16 tax deal represents a good example of effective governance and compromise, two days later we saw another historic example, this time of principle over compromise, when the Senate repealed the 17 year old Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy.
Many of us saw the repeal of DADT as amounting to ending the government-sanctioned discrimination that treated gays and lesbians in the military as second-class citizens. Polls showed that almost 80% of the country was in favor of allowing openly gays and lesbians to serve in the military, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, Michael Mullen. As he signed the bill repealing DADT, President Obama actually quoted Admiral Mullen: “Our people sacrifice a lot for their country, including their lives. None of them should have to sacrifice their integrity as well.”
I view the repeal of DADT as akin to President Harry Truman’s 1948 Executive Order that integrated the armed forces - another historical example of principle over compromise. Like LBJ in the 1960s, President Truman had to overcome the strong resistance of Southern senators like Richard Russell from Georgia, - who for decades was the Senate leader of the opposition to the civil rights movement. Senator Russell tried to undermine President Truman’s orders by introducing bills to grant soldiers the opportunity to choose to serve in segregated military units, all of which were defeated.
Senator John McCain led the opposition to the repeal of DADT. “Today is a very sad day,” he said after the vote, and warned that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military would do great damage to the armed forces and the nation.
It is also alleged that along with Senator Lindsey Graham, McCain tried to make a deal with the White House offering to deliver the votes necessary to ratify the START treaty if the President would pull the repeal of DADT off the Senate's agenda. In a triumph of principle over compromise, the White House declined the offer. The START treaty went on to be ratified by a 71 to 26 vote, with both Senators McCain and Graham voting against ratification.
I was surprised to see Senator McCain’s strong stand against the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Just a few years ago, in February of 2008 I wrote in a blog: “Whether you agree or not with John McCain ‘s positions on issues - and I certainly disagree with a number of his positions, especially on social issues - you have to respect his style and character. Last summer, he visited the AlwaysOn Stanford Summit, where I participated on a panel. He spoke to us and answered questions for quite awhile. At the time, McCain's campaign was pretty much dead. Yet, he was very gracious, more than held his own, and you could tell that he commanded the full respect of an audience that did not quite share all his positions.”
Sadly, I could not write such words today. MSNBC political analyst Chris Matthews devoted a segment of his December 20 Hardball program to the question What happened to John McCain?. The McCain of today seems like a completely different human being than he was just a few years ago, said one of his fellow analysts. All said that they were deeply disappointed.
Columnist and author Joe Klein was harsher in a Time Magazine piece:
“I used to know a different John McCain, the guy who proposed comprehensive immigration reform with Ted Kennedy, the guy - a conservative, to be sure, but an honorable one - who refused to indulge in the hateful strictures of his party's extremists. His public fall has been spectacular, a consequence of politics--he "needed" to be reelected--and personal pique. He's a bitter man now, who can barely tolerate the fact that he lost to Barack Obama. But he lost for an obvious reason: his campaign proved him to be puerile and feckless, a politician who panicked when the heat was on during the financial collapse, a trigger-happy gambler who chose an incompetent for his vice president. He has made quite a show ever since of demonstrating his petulance and lack of grace.”
How do you decide whether compromise or principles are in order? That is a very important question, one that each of us has to answer for ourselves. Most of our decisions are based on pragmatism - the gives and takes of daily life that allows us to get along and work with people around us, even if we hold widely different views on many matters. But, some decisions require us to go deep into ourselves, examine our basic values, and find our moral compass to help tell right from wrong.
For me, the best such moral compass is The Golden Rule, which essentially urges us to treat others as you want to be treated. The Golden Rule asks us to put ourselves in the shoes of our fellow human beings, reflect on the impact of our actions and words on them, and act accordingly. This, in my opinion, explains the difference between the tax deal vote of December 16, when compromise was in order, and the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell vote of December 18, when principle and their personal moral compass should have guided the vote of every senator.