Ky. Voices: McConnell's leadership echoed legacy of 'Great Compromiser'

January 9, 2013 

The fiscal cliff agreement finally concluded on New Year's Day, saving the country from economic ruin. For months, Americans had been subjected to the back and forth from House Leader John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and most disappointingly, President Barack Obama.

As the deadline loomed, the plebeians were consistently fed a stream of gloom and doom by the media. It should come as no surprise that this angst failed to register with the political and elected leadership within the Beltway. The one thing that they have mastered is the ability to satisfy and pander to the ideological constituencies created by gerrymandered districts.

But at last, during the weekend preceding New Year's, rumors began to circulate that a deal was in the works. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had requested that Vice President Joe Biden join the talks in hopes of averting a Shakespearian fiscal tragedy. McConnell's strategy firmly rested upon the fact that he could work with Biden because the two had reached across the aisle before.

They reached a deal that passed the Senate 89-9. The next day, the House took up the bill and it sailed through on a 257-167 vote, which saw Boehner and about a third of the GOP vote with Democrats in staving off disaster.

Amazingly, in the last minute of the 13th hour, the president, Senate and Congress were able to do something for America, most of which was spawned by McConnell's leadership and his ability to persuade the vice president to join the talks.

This type of political skill conjures up visions of Kentucky's greatest orator and statesman, Henry Clay, the "Great Compromiser." Clay served in both the House and Senate and was elected three times as speaker of the House. He lost presidential campaigns in 1824, 1832 and 1844, in large part because he was not ideological and partisan enough to satisfy the proverbial base.

However, as a congressman and senator he is still revered 150 years later and, in fact, there are more portraits of Clay in the U.S. Capitol than any political leader.

Clay is credited with brokering deals that kept the Union together for almost half a century, from the Missouri Compromise in 1820 to the Compromise of 1850.

Clay passed away in 1852, and it should come as little surprise that the country divided just eight short years later. In today's political arena, some would argue that compromise undermines political campaigns and careers; however, as elected officials and statesmen, compromise should be the most important quality our representatives possess.

It should be embraced, not shunned, praised, not scorned, and most importantly represent enlightenment and service above self.

Clay's prowess and leadership are just as relevant and needed today as they were two centuries ago, especially when viewed through the lens of the current political deadlock. The cliff deal failed to enthuse either side, which probably means it will actually serve its purpose, to cut spending and raise revenue.

I am not alleging that McConnell is of the same cloth as Clay, it would be heresy to make such an argument at this point. But I feel confident that history and time will look back on McConnell's leadership and grace in the 13th hour, not with ideological disdain, but with great admiration and respect.

The Tea Party and ideologues have suggested that his willingness to end the stalemate and find compromise will make him vulnerable to a potential Republican challenger. This could not be further from the truth. It does make McConnell canon-fodder for media and political pundits who make a living on selling air time and entertainment, but not reality.

McConnell, as I am sure Clay did multiple times during his storied career, may have put his political future in jeopardy. But he did what the president and the Congress could not do: He found a middle ground. Instead of political backlash, the fiscal cliff compromise will endear to Kentuckians and Americans a statesman who did a rare thing — he put the country first, if only for a day.

Reach Patrick R. Baker at pbaker@asl.edu or 276-244-1243.

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