Maybe it’s egotistical, but I can’t help but feel that Josh Eidelson’s last two News columns have been aimed more or less directly at me (“Party divisions are key to progress,” 4/4; “Dems lose out in courting McCain,” 3/21).
Earlier this semester, a skeptical Eidelson patiently listened to me gush like a giddy schoolgirl about how John McCain was going to solve all the country’s problems — McCain, I explained, was a true maverick who could unify the country and purge the worst elements from his party. But this week, Eidelson expressed a desire to “disabuse some left-leaning Yale students of their belief that McCain is an agent of progress” (“Party divisions are key to progress,” 4/4). I do find it disturbing that McCain is suddenly cozying up to the right wing in order to win the nomination, but I have always known John McCain is no liberal — and I haven’t cared. Yes, he is unapologetically pro-life. Yes, he supported the war in Iraq. Yes, on a range of other key issues he votes as a “conservative.” But I am sick to death of voting for politicians simply based on labels like “conservative” and “liberal.” Labels are next to meaningless — what actually matters are the bills and projects into which politicians genuinely put their political muscle.
Eidelson is right to remind us that we face real choices, that ideology genuinely matters, and that Yalies can’t afford to pretend that bipartisanship and open-mindedness are the only values worth caring about in politics, given that some politicians represent genuinely immoral forces on the rise in this country. Yet at the same time, it is an appalling error to assert that “clashing ideologies are thus what we should hope and expect to see represented in the halls of Congress,” as Eidelson does. Yes, clashing ideologies are inevitable, but the best public servants, rather than stoking this shouting match and joining the fray, will seek to rise above it to find compromises that everyone can get behind.
This is not just empty rhetoric. Some of the most serious problems of our time could actually be addressed, even solved, if only both parties would put some energy into finding compromise solutions to them. Eidelson referenced the Earned Income Tax Credit, a common sense policy which reduces the tax burden on the poorest members of the society, and at the same time gives them an incentive to work more and earn more. That’s one good example of a policy that both parties ought to support, as the College Democrats and College Republicans on this campus have.
There are other even bigger opportunities for compromise. In a speech before the Yale Political Union two nights ago, for instance, the environmentalist Lester Brown, head of the Earth Policy Institute, suggested a fundamental restructuring of our tax code. Currently, the federal government draws almost all of its income from a steep income tax — which, at a basic level, taxes and thus disincentivizes work. On the other hand, the United States currently has almost no tax on the consumption of gasoline or the burning of fossil fuels. In one stroke, the country could ease the burden of the income tax, seriously weaken its addiction to foreign oil, and take a major stride toward arresting the catastrophic process of global warming by lowering its income taxes across the board and compensating for this revenue decline with an enormous hike in the gas tax.
There’s something in this policy for everyone. Republicans could trumpet the income tax cuts as a way to streamline the tax code and reward work. Democrats could hail the corresponding gas tax hike as a desperately needed measure to save the environment and switch Americans over to cleaner, more advanced energy technologies that don’t depend on fossil fuel emissions. And all sides, presumably, could celebrate our newfound independence from the oil-rich but democracy-poor regimes in the Middle East.
Why is there no discussion of such a common sense middle way, yet almost endless debate over the issue of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? The heated rhetoric on both sides of the aisle notwithstanding, drilling in ANWR will have a negligible impact on either the environment or our long-term energy needs, yet ANWR has nevertheless become a signature issue for politicians in both parties. Rather than look for actual solutions to problems, the knee-jerk reaction in Washington is to simply march into battle.
I don’t mean to suggest that compromise is always possible. Some battles are meant to be fought and must be won — the civil rights heroes of the 1950s and ’60s are rightly honored for refusing to compromise. But there are so many issues today that can only be dealt with correctly if both extremes of the political spectrum cooperate. We are never going to save Social Security and Medicare unless Democrats agree to benefit cuts and Republicans agree to corresponding tax hikes. We are never going to drain the ethical swamp that is currently the U.S. Congress unless both parties agree to reduce gerrymandering and pass campaign finance reform proposals with actual teeth. And we are never going to win the war on terrorism unless both sides finally stop using Sept. 11 as a political weapon, stop impugning the patriotism of their opponents, and actually put up candidates with a genuine strategy for victory.
Partisanship is not avoidable, but it certainly doesn’t have to be celebrated, and it ought to be minimized. I don’t know whether McCain is willing to risk his neck in 2008 by advocating real compromises, or whether he will end up pandering to the party base like everybody else. I don’t even know if the kind of compromises I’ve advocated are possible. But I do know they have to be attempted.
Roger Low is a junior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.