The greatest drama in American politics isn’t unfolding in Iowa and New Hampshire, and it doesn’t involve Donald J. Trump. It isn’t the presidential race, and it isn’t being televised on prime time.
It is that rarest of things: a true philosophical collision, a real debate about the purpose of politics. It is about big questions, not personal advantage. Its resolution has great implications, not for who occupies the White House but for how the world looks from your house.
Last week, this drama moved to center stage, edging out Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s decision to forgo a presidential campaign and the House hearings on the Benghazi attacks. At the center of it is a debate about the character and purpose of American politics.
This debate has been generated by the continuing tumult on Capitol Hill, where no one is enthusiastic about the prospect of assuming the House speakership, perhaps the second most important position in American political life. And the stakes could not be higher, for the chamber is known as “the people’s house” and is regarded as a peculiarly and particularly democratic institution.
One element of a single public-opinion survey sheds light on the House proceedings: According to last week’s Wall Street Journal/ NBC News poll, Republicans by a margin of 56 percent to 40 percent believe the next speaker should stand up for principle rather than seek compromise. A popular notion, at least on the left, is that members of the Freedom Caucus, as the conservative insurgents are known, are extremists out of touch with the American people. This finding indicates that, if anything, Republicans outside Washington could be even more opposed to compromise than those inside the Beltway.
This represents a fundamental departure from American tradition, which at some critical junctures in American history has prized compromise.
The Great Compromise that produced the Constitution, the Missouri Compromise that cooled sectional tensions in 1820, even the Compromise of 1850 that fired the anger of abolitionists, were important passages in American history. So, too, was the 1990 compromise involving Democrats and some Republicans that led to a tax increase — and to the ascension of Rep. Newt Gingrich and the eventual GOP takeover of the House after 40 years of Democratic rule.
The current imbroglio is an extension of continuing American anguish over the virtues of compromise as opposed to the merit of sticking to principle. Our history is full of heroes who took one position (Henry Clay, for example, himself a onetime speaker, known as the Great Compromiser) or another (George Norris of Nebraska, celebrated in John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” for opposing the dictatorial tactics of Speaker Joseph Cannon), and a few (including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan) who embraced one view on some occasions and another view on others.
This philosophical conflict has never been resolved fully. It flares at times of peril and passion and has become the leitmotif of contemporary politics. It is a dispute that haunts Rep. Paul Ryan, a disciple of the late Rep. Jack F. Kemp of New York, who straddled ideologies and party lines even as he affirmed his conservative profile and Republican loyalties. Like Kemp, Ryan was an unsuccessful Republican vice presidential candidate.
The Wisconsin lawmaker didn’t want the speakership he may assume this autumn, and for good reason.
It is a powerful job but a lousy one. The speaker serves the institution as a whole and also his or her party — inherently incompatible roles. The speaker is responsible for party fundraising — perhaps the most odious aspect of the job from Ryan’s point of view, given his family responsibilities. The speaker must adjudicate among competing passions of his own party allies — the element that repelled and eventually doomed Speaker John Boehner.
Some of the demands made by the Freedom Caucus also have given Ryan pause. The rebels want the new speaker to “ensure conservatives have appropriate representation” on the House Republican Steering Committee. They want conservatives to have “appropriate representation” on House committees. They want the next speaker to “ensure that the position of the majority of the House Republican Conference is the position of the House and use the proceedings of the House to advance that position.”
That last demand would transform the House into an instrument of its most conservative members, which would please those conservatives until the political climate changes and a Democratic majority adopts similar procedures that would transform the House into the vanguard of liberalism.
Ryan — by temperament more theorist than referee — proffered demands of his own, which themselves have implications for the profile of the Republican Party. Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate and the chair of the Ways and Means Committee wanted assurances that his Republican colleagues will transform their comportment in the House.
“We need to move from an opposition party to being a proposition party,” Ryan said. “Because we think the nation is on the wrong path, we have a duty to show the right one.” Gentle words yet potent ones: They acknowledge that, even though Republicans run the House, they act as if they do not. They acknowledge that modern Republicans have become imprisoned by their “Party of No” label.
This comes at a time of dramatic change in the character of the Republican Party, shorn in the last generation of its liberal wing. Indeed, the percentage of Republicans who consider themselves “very conservative” has more than doubled, from 12 percent to 28 percent, in the last quarter century, according to a separate Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. (Over the same period, the rate of Democrats who consider themselves “very liberal” has exactly doubled, reaching 26 percent this year.)
When Boehner resigned last month, President Barack Obama issued the customary statement of praise, but buried within it was a notion that the new conservatives revile at every juncture. “In governance, you don’t get 100 percent of what you want,” the president said, “but you have to work with people who you disagree with — sometimes strongly — in order to do the people’s business.”
What all this comes down to is, what is the best way to do the people’s business? That question was at the heart of the Constitutional Convention and many other important moments in our history. And that question, more than anything else, is what is at stake on Capitol Hill.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.