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The difficulties of compromise

John Mielke is the vice president of Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin

Most boardrooms, union halls and families include people who can be frustratingly opinionated. They engage in virtual policy debates for which no votes are counted, and the only result might be a change of opinion. To them, political issues are crystal clear.

But real policy arguments, from which outcomes are new laws determined by counting hands, take place in legislative bodies.

Here, issues constantly are swirling about like ocean currents. This motion happens even if you try to ignore it or can’t see it. It makes the water cloudy.

Every lobbyist dreams of having the horsepower to navigate the current with no compromise and no course correction. Victories such as that exceedingly are rare.

Sometimes your directive is to just maintain a strict ideological position, regardless of outcome. That is simple. It’s easy to dig in, not give an inch and go down in flames. You even can feel good about the loss knowing you didn’t compromise your principals.

More often than not, if your objective is to gain ground, you are required compromise. Reaching a compromise is much more difficult than a principled defeat. But not for the reasons you think. Often, the difficulty is not in getting concessions; it’s getting permission from your own constituency to make concessions.

This highlights the common but uncomfortable question: Just how much can you compromise before those who you represent think you have gone off the deep end?

This question is complicated by the fact that you are negotiating on behalf of others who will judge your performance with the clarity of hindsight.

The same is true for elected officials. When talking to voters they are faced with a dilemma: avoid specifics and speak in vague aspirational terms or be clear and risk rejection by the faithful for acknowledging the need for concessions.

This is not to imply that right and wrong do not exist. Core principals are real and act as anchors keeping people from aimlessly drifting about with the tide. But in this world, few victories are whole and pure, most are small and incremental.

If voters want a politician to be more candid, they must recognize that compromise is not necessarily a sign of weakness. They should understand that it is possible to adjust tactics without adjusting principals.

I admire people with strong beliefs. I just hope they recognize that it is possible to be simultaneously ideological and pragmatic.

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