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Thursday, March 23, 2017 12:15 am

In praise of pragmatism

Lee Hamilton

 As you watch the health care proceedings on Capitol Hill, imagine what things might be like if we lived in more functional political times. In particular, what if Congress were run by pragmatists?

It would not change the issues at hand. On the one side, you’d have the Republican majority in Congress, which for the most part believes that the health care system should be left to the private sector. On the other side would be Democrats who, to varying degrees, see an important role for government to play.

What would change would be how the two sides reconciled their differences. Rather than maneuver the proceedings for political gain or worry first about their political bases, they’d be dead-set on a health care overhaul that improved the system and was politically sustainable.

I don’t think our system can work without such an approach to our problems – health care and everything else. So what do I mean by “pragmatism”?

At heart it’s a mindset, a preference for a practical, workable solution to problems. It recognizes the diversity of our country and the need for compromise, negotiation, dialogue and consultation in order to reconcile conflicting interests and viewpoints. Pragmatists ask themselves how they can best navigate the differences, factions and political frictions inherent in any substantive issue so that everyone can leave the table having achieved some gain.

Let’s be clear that this is hardly an easy approach. On Capitol Hill, you work under intense scrutiny and pressure in a dynamic, always-changing, politically supercharged environment.  You can’t make the world stand still while you work through the problems.

And if you’re trying to hammer out agreement, you have to keep the conversation moving; when a group or a participant threatens to walk out, you have to calculate whether you can get the votes you need without them. If not, you have to keep them at the table, even if it means nights that stretch into the early morning. And always, of course, you have to try to keep things as courteous and civil as possible.

You also have to be very careful of labels. When you’re trying to solve problems, labels get in the way. I’ve had my share of fraught negotiations, and what I focused on most was trying to figure out whether people at the table wanted to solve the problem and advance a solution, not whether they were Republican or Democrat. And you’re constantly counting votes, because you don’t get anywhere without a majority of them.

So you have to pause, hesitate, weigh the situation, calm the passions, figure out what’s achievable – and then decide whether or not what’s possible is actually worth getting.

Because there are risks to pragmatism in politics. For starters, some issues should not be compromised. To my mind, they include basic values involving torture and the right to vote.

And the pragmatic approach tends not to produce dramatic breakthroughs; it’s incremental, step-by-step, unglamorous work. It means downplaying ideology. This is difficult in these partisan days, yet I was always wary when I heard a fervent ideological speech in the middle of negotiations – it’s an expression of principle, yes, but it raises the question of whether the person giving it is going to help you reach an agreement or not.

Which is why you get a lot of criticism as a pragmatist. People inevitably accuse you of not doing enough or of giving away too much. You’re often accused of abandoning your principles. You have to ask yourself what’s really important in this negotiation, both to yourself and to the others participating. How much can you give to get support for that principle, how much do you have to give up, and is it all worth it?

Yes, indeed, I’d argue, because the country would implode without the pragmatists. The challenge that our political leaders face is how to get through the thicket of conflicting principles, interests and dogmas in a sprawling democracy like ours. All too often, politicians lock themselves into a position. They give a speech to loud applause, then another, and soon enough they have no room to maneuver. In the end they, too, often have to rely on the pragmatists to get things done.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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