Issues analysis
A Senate showdown vs. a moderating compromise
An evaluation of good and bad compromises

June 14, 2005
Fred Hutchison
RenewAmerica analyst

The aggressive filibustering of judicial nominees by Senate Democrats finally provoked Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to threaten to use the "nuclear option," code words for changing Senate rules to make it easier to stop a filibuster. Senator Frist and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid haggled to find a compromise with no success. Frist believed that he must protect conservative judicial nominees from filibusters by Senate Democrats. Reid was determined to block the confirmation of conservative nominees by using the filibuster. This collision of powerful men was a classic struggle for power, an obvious but unstated fact.

A Mexican standoff between two powerful men must be resolved by one of them backing down, or both going for their guns. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev was unnerved by President Kennedy's steely cool and backed away from the confrontation. Secretary of State Dean Rusk said, "We were eyeball to eyeball and the other guy just blinked." During the recent Senate showdown, neither of them blinked. Both men reached for their guns. Senator Reid threatened to close down the Senate with procedural tactics if Frist used the nuclear option. Frist called Reid's bluff and announced his intention to use the nuclear option.

A group of Senate moderates blinked. Seven moderate Republican Senators and seven moderate Democratic Senators, the "gang of fourteen," made a compromise deal. Seven Republican senators are just enough to prevent the Republicans from using the "nuclear option." Seven Democratic Senators are just enough to prevent the Democrats from filibustering. Therefore, the gang of fourteen had the power to make a compromise deal about the filibuster. The seven Democrats agreed to permit three of the nominees for federal district court, which their party had blocked in committee, to come to the Senate floor for a vote. The Democrats also promised that their party will not filibuster a judicial nominee except in "extraordinary circumstances," whatever that might mean. In return, the seven Republicans promised not to use the "nuclear option." The Senate showdown was blocked or postponed.

The moderating compromise was based upon trust. The deal makers presumed that the other side came to the table in good faith and will keep their word. Conservatives did not trust the good faith of the Democrats, but moderate Republicans did trust the Democrats and made the deal. Were the moderate Republicans right to trust the Democrats? Liberals did not trust the good faith of Republicans, but moderate Democrats did trust them. Were they right to do so? Was the compromise a loss of nerve, an unprincipled sellout or the rescue of the Senate from a donnybrook and the restoration of reason, order, harmony, and trust?

The High Noon dilemma

The classic movie western "High Noon" is about a pending showdown between a sheriff and a group of gunslingers and the efforts by pragmatic townsmen to prevent the fight. The sheriff, played by Gary Cooper, faced the return of his evil nemesis with his three henchmen on the noon train. At first, the sheriff's friends supported him in the impending showdown, but one by one they lost their nerve and tried to persuade him to leave town to avoid a gunfight on the streets of the city. The sheriff's deputy tried to send him out of town by force. The sheriff's fiancé, a quaker, played by Grace Kelly, threatened to leave him if he fought the outlaws. In the end, the sheriff was left standing alone in the street at 12:00 noon facing four determined gunmen.

Was the sheriff a fool? After all, the official date of his retirement was supposed to be at the end of the prior day, followed by his departure with his fiancé for his marriage and honeymoon. Technically, the outlaws coming to town were no longer in his jurisdiction. On the other hand, the outlaw leader was driven by a personal vendetta against the sheriff. His menacing presence in town was a threat to law and order and the safety of the community. Should the sheriff have fought to protect the citizens from evil after the entire town had forsaken him?

The moderate practical folk of the town had plenty of reasonable arguments why the sheriff should avoid the showdown. Gary Cooper played the sheriff as the strong silent type, and could not explain why he felt compelled to stand alone against the outlaws. As the movie cameras scanned the four outlaws marching down the street against one lawman who was alone in his valiant stand against evil, an electric thrill went up the spine of the movie viewers. This was drama. This was the story of a lonely hero. The character of one brave man was all that stood between the city and the malevolent tide of evil.

The sheriff somehow prevailed in the fight against all odds and was hailed as a hero. But if he had lost, he would have been called a fool. Who was right--the heroic sheriff or the practical people of the town? The movie leaves this question unanswered. How do we know when a heroic stand or a reasonable compromise is called for?

The difference between the movie and the Senate showdown was that both sides of the duel had moderate friends who tried to forestall the showdown. Another difference is that the sheriff's foes were clearly evil and dangerous. It is a matter of debate as to whether Bill Frist's foes, the filibustering Democrats, represent the forces of evil. Some liberal Democrats think Frist with his nuclear option represents the forces of evil. Howard Dean, the liberal chairman of the Democratic National Committee said unequivocally, "Republicans are evil."

If we can stylize Bill First as the sheriff, his more moderate colleagues were successful in blocking him from appearing for the showdown at high noon. The panic of the moderate, practical and reasonable men depicted in the movie might have had a counterpart in the revolt by the gang of fourteen. To the nervous moderate, a violent showdown must be avoided if at all possible. To the man of heroic principle, "Let justice be done though the heavens fall." (Lord Mansfield, 1772) On the other hand, spokesmen for the gang of fourteen said that the moderates did not act from frayed nerves, but demonstrated real courage and principle in this situation.

What is the "thing in itself"?

Perhaps half of the political analysts are delighted with the triumph of reason and moderation by the intervention of the gang of fourteen, and half are horrified by the betrayal of principle. Many conservatives and liberals wanted to have the showdown and fight through to victory. These individuals of strong convictions regarded the compromise as an unseemly failure of nerve at best, and a dastardly betrayal at worst. But is not the very nature of a democratic legislature to make compromises? According to Aristotle, it is virtuous for a being or entity to act in accordance with its true nature.

Is it possible to tease out which of these two perspectives have more validity in the situation? Yes, if we understand the nature of a compromise, and the nature of an heroic stand on principle. Aristotle taught his students to differentiate between the inner "essence" of an object and the outer superficial "accidents." Immanuel Kant made a similar distinction between the "thing in itself," or the "noumena," and outer appearances or the "phenomena." What then is the "thing in itself?"

What is the "thing in itself" of a principled compromise, such as the compromises of the American Founding Fathers in determining the formulas of representation in the House of Representatives and the Senate? In contrast, what is the "thing in itself" of an unprincipled compromise, such as the deal British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made to appease Hitler?

Appeasement is a word taken from theology. The pagans offered sacrifices to appease the angry demonic gods. This was bad appeasement. Christ offered Himself as a sacrifice as propitiation for human sin to appease the outraged holiness of God. This was good appeasement and also an heroic stand by one man against the powers of darkness to His own personal loss. Both appeasement and compromises can be good or bad, depending on the circumstances.

A virtuous appeasement or compromise involves a fitting sacrifice or a setting aside of personal interests, in order to bring forth a greater good for the benefit of others. An unprincipled sellout involves a loss for the greater good while selfish and cowardly individuals save their own skin.

Cowardly Chamberlain and courageous Churchill

Chamberlain rationalized his unseemly appeasement of Hitler by saying he was seeking "peace in our time." What he really meant was momentary peace for the British, while he handed the Sudetenland (Western Czechoslovakia) to Hitler. The Czechs did not regard being crushed under Hitler's feet as "peace." After Chamberlain made his cowardly deal with the devil, Hitler said in disgust, "Why do I have to deal with nonentities?" Even the devil is nauseated by an unprincipled man.

Compare the unprincipled sellout of Chamberlain with Winston Churchill's unequivocal stand. In Churchill's radio address of June 22, 1941, on the occasion of the German invasion of Russia, he said:

    "Hitler is a monster of wickedness, insatiable in his lust for blood and plunder.... We are resolved to destroy Hitler and every vestige of of the Nazi regime. From this, nothing will turn us. Nothing. We will never parley; we will never negotiate with Hitler or any of his gang. We shall fight him by land; we shall fight him by sea; we shall fight him in the air, until, with God's help, we have rid the world of his shadow and liberated its people from his yoke."

How do we tell the difference between heroic virtue like Churchill's and the stubbornness of foolhardy bravado displayed in the suicidal charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava?

"Cannon to right of them, / Cannon to left of them, / Cannon in front of them, / Volleyed and thundered. / Stormed at with shot and shell, / Boldly they rode and well / Into the jaws of death, / Into the mouth of Hell, / Rode the six hundred." (Excerpt, "The Charge of the Light Brigade," by Alfred Lord Tennyson.)

Pierre Bosquet observed the charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean war and exclaimed, "It is magnificent, but it is not war!" Does magnificent heroism for the sake of heroism have a place in a civilized culture?

The golden mean and transcendent virtue

Greek Philosophers Aristotle and Plato fundamentally disagreed on the nature of virtue. This was an interesting situation because Aristotle was Plato's student. King Philip of Macedon invited Aristotle, the practical-analytical philosopher, and not Plato, the heroic-poetic philosopher, to be the tutor of his son. The young student is known to us as Alexander the Great, the great conqueror who never lost a battle. Paradoxically, this student of the pragmatic philosopher became one of the most romantic and heroic figures in history.

Aristotle taught that virtue is found at the "golden mean." At one end of the spectrum is deficiency, at the other end is excess and the golden mean lies in the middle. Deficiency and excess are vices and the golden mean is a virtue. For example, cowardice is a deficiency of manly bravery, foolhardiness represents excess of bravado, and the golden mean is the virtue of courage. The Charge of the Light Brigade was not the golden mean. Stinginess is deficiency, extravagance is excess, and liberality is the golden mean. Moroseness and bufooney are opposite extremes, and good humor is the golden mean. Quarrelsomeness and flattery are opposite extremes and friendship is the golden mean. Many more pairings of two extreme vices plus a moderate virtue have been developed by Aristotelian philosophers.

Plato's concept of virtue was radically different. He viewed the material world as a shadowy and deeply flawed replica of ideal archetypes in the transcendent realm. To prefer the earthly to the glorious transcendent realm is a vice. To love both realms equally is also a vice because it fails to correctly appreciate the greater value of a higher level of being. Platonic virtue requires a measure of contempt for the earthly world and passionate zeal for the transcendent realm. Truth, beauty, and justice are not happy medians for the Platonist, but are absolutes.

Who is correct about virtue--Aristotle or Plato? The Bible teaches both kinds of virtue and therefore, both are valid. "Let your moderation be known to all men." (Philipians 4:5) "...because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth." (Revelations 3:16) How can these seeming opposites both be correct?

According to Watchman Nee's theology, the Bible sometimes addresses the affairs of the soul and sometimes speaks to the spirit. "Soul" is translated from the Greek word psyche and includes the mind, affection, and will. The psyche is the main faculty God has given us for practical life in this world. Most of our labors in the work-a-day world are performed with the faculties and energies of the psyche. The golden mean guides the virtue of the psyche. For example, both workaholism and sloth are destructive to the psyche. A balanced moderation in our toils is healthy. Cycles of toil, rest, and renewal must be respected. Work requires diligence but not an intemperate frenzy. The process of work has natural cycles of ebbs and flows.

"Spirit" in the New Testament is a translation of the Greek word pneuma which literally means "wind" or "breath." It is used in the bible for both the finite human spirit and the infinite Spirit of God. The human spirit is incorporeal, meaning a non-physical entity. It is the part of us that knows God. The spirit is given to us for life in heaven and for heavenly moments and virtues on earth. The love of God, love of the truth, zeal for God's purposes, and hatred of evil are virtues of the spirit. Lukewarmness is a vice to the spirit. Compromise is betrayal. No sacrifice of earthly treasure or status is too much to ask from the spirit's point of view if it is necessary for the triumph of good and the defeat of evil.

Spiritual maturity is evidenced by both the virtue of moderation of the psyche and the virtue of zeal of the spirit. Maturity requires discernment and balance to know when moderation is called for and when uncompromising zeal is required of us.


Now then, was the deal of the gang of fourteen virtuous or vicious? From the perspective of the order and harmony of the Senate, the deal was virtuous. From the standpoint of policy outcomes, it was not so virtuous. With the nuclear option off the table, the Democrats might start once more with filibustering conservative nominees to the Supreme Court. If this happens, the court will be more likely to shelter abominable things such as abortion, the right to die, homosexuality, and banning God from the public square. However, if Democrats keep their word and abstain from filibustering judicial nominees except in extraordinary circumstances, the compromise might do some good. On the other hand, if the Democrats interpret the nomination of a conservative as an extraordinary circumstance, all bets are off.

In 1987, the Democrats in the Senate Judiciary Committee waged total war against Robert Bork, a brilliant conservative nominee for the Supreme Court. Since that time I have heard many unjust and intemperate words about Republican court nominees from Democratic Senators Pat Leahy and Ted Kennedy during judicial confirmation hearings, with the full backing of their Democratic colleagues. Qualified nominees, whose only fault was to be conservative in their convictions, were slandered on many points and denounced with the rhetoric of extreme hyperbole by Senators Leahy and Kennedy, while the other Democrats on the committee looked on with approval. During the recent filibusters, we had more of the same, except that the obstructionism was more automatic and mindless. After that painful history, I remain skeptical of the good faith of Senate Democrats.

Will the seven moderate Democrats keep faith and stand against the mischief of Leahy and Kennedy? I may be proven wrong about this, but I remain skeptical. Based on past behavior, moderate Democrats are easily swept away on the tides of group-think. They lack the temperate virtues of men who keep their word. The seven moderate Democrats had unanimously voted for the filibusters of Republican judicial candidates prior to the deal of the gang of fourteen. Unreasonably partisan individuals who are suddenly reasonable in a crisis cannot be trusted to remain reasonable after the crisis passes. The compromise of the gang of fourteen was well intentioned, but the moderate Republicans were naive to trust the good faith of the moderate Democrats because of their track record of bad faith.

RenewAmerica analyst Fred Hutchison also writes a column for RenewAmerica.

© 2005 Fred Hutchison

The views expressed by RenewAmerica analysts are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.

They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31