Statesmanship requires compromise

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier

Political analyst Robert Holsworth believes that statesmanship is becoming an increasingly rare practice. “If we think back to the definition of statesmanship we were taught in high school government classes, the essence of statesmanship is the ability to practice the art of compromise,” he recently told the board of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

His comments remind me of advice from an attorney friend on financial settlements.  He said that a fair settlement is usually one in which both parties are a little bit unhappy.

Holsworth’s advice is well taken. More statesmanship is needed.  The debate in Washington over extending Bush-era tax breaks ran perilously close to one where both the Republicans and the Democrats could be characterized as parties of “No.”
Unfortunately, much like in Washington, the political focus strays in Virginia too often in the direction of maintaining party power rather than finding ways forward on key issues like funding for transportation and higher education or achieving truly nonpartisan redistricting.

By their very nature, litmus tests of party loyalty, whether they be pledges to block new taxes or support health-care reform, make compromise, and therefore progress, impossible.

In addition to the ability to reach compromise, statesmanship is also characterized by leadership.  A favorite lesson in leadership comes from the teachings of Jack and Carol Weber at the University of Virginia’s Darden School’s Executive Education program.  Based on their career-long study of the topic, the Webers say that leaders are different from managers because they “speak for” things, instead of simply speaking about them.  They are passionate and colorful characters unafraid to take risks for things they believe in.  Leaders can be emotional but still come across as sincere, authentic, fully committed and unrehearsed.

Gov. Bob McDonnell has shown a lot of leadership in his first year in office.  He worked with the Virginia General Assembly to close the largest budget shortfall in the history of the commonwealth, while at the same time finding significantly more funding for tourism and economic development.  McDonnell also ambitiously launched numerous commissions (government reform, higher education, transportation, energy, etc.) The results of some of these will be seen in pending legislation.
On the other hand, he spent a lot of political capital on ABC privatization, with change remaining unlikely.  Skeptics might see this effort as worthwhile only to court favor among certain national retail lobbies.

The four-years-and-done rule for Virginia’s governor’s office means that work toward future political ambitions must start early.  As we’ve often said, allowing governors to succeed themselves would do much to keep our leadership’s strategic focus squarely within the commonwealth for at least part of their term in office.

2011 offers many of the same political challenges as 2010:

  • The state budget remains tight because of lackluster economic growth and reductions in federal stimulus spending that helped to close last year’s funding gap. 
  • Transportation remains underfunded and the governor’s plan to push reliance on bond financing to a higher level will undoubtedly create debate over whether the state’s increased debt service is a hidden tax increase.
  • The plan to restore $50 million in funding for higher education sounds like a big number but amounts to only a small portion of what has been cut previously through successive budget reductions.
  • And then, of course, there is redistricting, which is the ultimate opportunity for the maintenance of political power to take precedence over statesmanship. 

In the interest of meaningful progress for the commonwealth, let’s hope that when all is said and done, both parties might turn out to be a little unhappy.


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