When should members of Congress seek common ground, and when should they seek to hold the high ground?
That’s a question they must ask themselves issue by issue – and one Arkansas voters will have to consider in next year’s elections.
Seeking common ground involves cooperation and compromise, while holding the high ground involves standing on principle. Both can be noble, and both can be counterproductive. Each member of Congress must decide when to fight and when to negotiate. As country singer Aaron Tippin sings, "You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything." On the other hand, as the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger sings, "You can’t always get what you want."
The tension between common ground and high ground is the story of America. The Founding Fathers were men of high principle but also men of compromise. They produced the Declaration of Independence, a high-ground document that says uncompromisingly "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." Then they wrote the Constitution, a common-ground document that defined the way our government would work "in order to form a more perfect union." Writing it required a summer of compromise.
Today the tension between common ground and the high ground exists on many issues. The national debt is a good example. For the past few decades, it was made worse by too much common-ground politics. Generally speaking, Democrats prefer more government than Republicans do, but everyone likes cutting taxes, and everyone knows that cutting spending always makes some voters mad. Common ground was reached by cutting taxes and increasing spending at the same time. The result was huge deficits. Everybody benefited except future generations, who don’t yet vote.
Now the debt is reaching $17 trillion, but Congress can’t fix the problem partly because members won’t come off their high-ground positions. Many Democrats still want more spending while many Republicans want tax cuts or at least no tax increases. (Republicans tend to like certain kinds of spending, too.) While both sides plant their flags atop their hills, the debt continues to expand with no end in sight.
Next year, Arkansas voters might see this tension between high-ground and common-ground politics play out in the elections for U.S. Senate. Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat, is sort of a common-ground senator. He’s an attorney by training who has spent much of his adult life holding public office. His dad was a senator when members of that body actually got along with each other. You don’t often see Pryor railing against the opposition. There are political reasons for this, of course, but also personal. It’s just not his style.
Many expect his opponent will be Rep. Tom Cotton, a Republican who is serving his first term representing the 4th District in southern Arkansas. A veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he’s a high-ground lawmaker who often speaks in military metaphors. He voted against the aid package that passed for Hurricane Sandy victims because too much of the money was wasted, and he didn’t vote for an early version of the Farm Bill because he thought farm payments shouldn’t be in the same legislation as food stamps. The Operation Sandy aid passed despite his objections, and we don’t yet have a Farm Bill. Pryor voted for both.
Whose approach is right? Should Arkansans elect Pryor, who’s more inclined to seek common ground? Or should they vote for Cotton, the high ground candidate?
There are many other factors Arkansans will have to consider, of course, including where the candidates stand on the issues and which party they represent.
But the high ground-common ground question is one voters should at least consider in every election, and it doesn’t have an easy answer. Even Pryor and Cotton — as well as Aaron Tippin and Mick Jagger — probably would agree that you’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything. On the other hand, you can’t always get what you want.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.