Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

From the Center

Neither Joe Biden nor Kevin McCarthy is often accused of greatness. Both the transitional president and transactional Speaker are frequently denigrated when compared to more illustrious predecessors. But the two men did something important this past week, when they steered the nation’s economy away from disaster, and as importantly, demonstrated that the lost art of compromise isn’t quite as archaic as many of us had assumed.

The fight over the debt crisis isn’t over yet, and both Biden and McCarthy have an immense amount of work to do in the coming days to corral enough votes from their respective parties to finish the deal. But for most of the calendar year, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that both men were captives of their respective party bases, and neither could afford to look for common ground without enraging the most ideologically extreme members of their congressional caucuses.

The threat to McCarthy is more immediate, after he was forced to grovel for the conservative votes that he needed to win the speaker’s gavel earlier this year, and it was widely assumed that those same members would refuse to allow him any leeway in negotiations with the White House. But Biden’s challenges are just as existential, as the centrist president was very aware that a progressive primary challenge next year could doom his chances for re-election. Both have given their party loyalists plenty of red meat over the last few months, and it appeared that their brinksmanship would prevent any realistic chance for collaboration. But their tough talk seems to have given them just enough credibility within party ranks to quietly look for a solution that was not ideal for either of them, but perhaps just tolerable for both.

On almost every aspect of the agreement, the pathway toward the eventual compromise was apparent. Biden wanted a new debt limit in place for several years: McCarthy wanted it to be just one year. So they settled on two years, after the 2024 election. McCarthy achieved more of the budget savings he wanted, but Biden preserved his spending priorities. The Republican proposal for new work requirements for government assistance programs but with Democrat-backed exemptions and protections for specific groups of recipients. The energy permitting reforms are not nearly as ambitious as the GOP had wanted but go much further than Democratic alternatives. And the cuts in IRS funding that Republicans wanted were greatly reduced and were then shifted to other domestic spending programs.

Not surprisingly, the most conservative Republicans and most liberal Democrats are outraged. They represent districts that are absolutely safe for their party, so most know that they will never face a competitive general election campaign. The only possible way they could every lose a re-election campaign is to an even more doctrinaire primary opponent, and so protecting themselves from being outflanked on the far right or left is simply a matter of self-preservation.

But Biden has to win swing states to get re-elected, and McCarthy recognizes that he can only maintain the House majority by holding onto districts that both parties have won in recent years. Neither has the luxury of ideological purity, but both must find a way to placate ideological purists. Both men will be put to an extremely difficult test over the next several days, and both know that every concession they want to make within their own party will cost support from the other. McCarthy needs a majority of his caucus to remain speaker: Biden must put together at least one hundred Democratic House votes to finish the job.

These challenges are nothing new. Ronald Reagan used to muse about the most implacable conservatives “driving off the cliff with all their flags flying.” More recently, Nancy Pelosi would admonish her most progressive members for ignoring the needs of their more endangered colleagues. Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill worked together to save Social Security. President Bill Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich teamed up to balance the budget and pass seminal trade and welfare reform legislation.

But these were supposed to be 20th century artifacts on a contemporary, polarized political landscape. Somehow, Biden and McCarthy managed to resurrect the art of compromise in an extraordinarily uncompromising time. And both deserve kudos for their imperfect but necessary work.

This should not be construed as an endorsement of either man. But if they can wrap this up by next Monday, they will have accomplished a laudable task by overcoming daunting political obstacles. Neither will get the credit he has earned.

Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his webinar "Politics In The Time of Coronavirus." Or read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).