Chief Justice John Roberts last week did something that, in polarized Washington, may turn out to be more important than saving Obamacare.
He showed that compromise can be consistent with principle. More than that: He showed that compromise, for someone who respects and knows how to use the democratic process, can be the best way to advance principle.
It would have been unhealthy for the country if five Republican-appointed justices had nullified the Democratic-approved health-care law. Honoring what he called “a general reticence to invalidate the acts of the Nation’s elected leaders,” Roberts led the court away from that fate.
But in honoring the principle of judicial deference, Roberts didn’t abandon his cherished principle of federal restraint. On the contrary, he managed to shape a decision that in coming years may severely restrict federal authority.
Whether or not you share his enthusiasm for such restriction, there is a lesson here that has been lost on many Washington politicians, and it’s not just that compromise is essential to the proper functioning of a democracy. It’s that compromise can be a practical means to a principled goal.
A similar lesson is unfolding halfway around the world, in the Southeast Asian nation of Burma, where democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi recently sprung from house arrest into the whirl of day-to-day politics.
Despite my admiration for Roberts’s behavior last week, I’m not elevating him to her plane. In modern history it’s hard to find anyone who can match her combination of steely determination and good-humored lack of bitterness. Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel are two who would make that very short list.
But she, too, is in the process of marrying conviction to practicality.
Now 67, Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Burma’s independence hero, a general who was assassinated when she was 2. She spent much of her life abroad but returned to Burma in 1988 to care for her dying mother and was swept up in a movement for democracy.
She electrified crowds with her modest eloquence and confounded soldiers by walking, alone and unarmed, directly toward their guns. Her democracy party overwhelmingly won an election in 1990 that the ruling generals effectively annulled. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 but did not travel to Norway to accept it because she feared the generals would not let her back into her country. She spent most of the next two decades locked up, separated from her two sons, and apart from her husband when he grew sick and died.
Now she has been allowed to run for parliament (she won, easily) and travel abroad. At every step she has been criticized by some for sticking to principle too stubbornly and by others for being too willing to compromise with the generals and former generals who still call the shots.
Her supposed intransigence always has infuriated those more eager to do business with Burma than promote its democracy. Last week, in response to her opposition to U.S. firms dealing with Burma’s corrupt state-owned energy company, outgoing Virginia Sen. James Webb (D) peevishly asked whether “an official from any foreign government should be telling us what sectors that we should invest in and not invest in.”
But at the same time she has alarmed some of her supporters by embracing this chance at reform, even though there’s no guarantee (as she well knows) that it will bear fruit. She speaks warmly of President Thein Sein, takes her seat in a parliament the regime still controls and urges foreigners to invest, as long they do so in a “democracy-friendly and human-rights friendly” way.
“I strive to be as practical as my father was,” she told the British Parliament, recalling that when a British general accused him of switching from the Japanese to the British side during World War II because the British were winning, he replied, “It wouldn’t be much good coming to you if you weren’t, would it?”
She deflects canonization and any romanticizing of what she’s been through. Finally accepting her prize in Oslo last month, she began one sentence this way: “Of the sweets of adversity — and let me say that these are not numerous . . .”
But she went on to note that the most precious of those “sweets” was “the lesson I learnt on the value of kindness. Every kindness I received, small or big, convinced me that there could never be enough of it in our world. To be kind is to respond with sensitivity and human warmth to the hopes and needs of others.”
It’s too much to expect us normal folks to match Aung San Suu Kyi’s serene ability to find humanity in those who have treated her most vilely. But tea party Republicans and MoveOn Democrats might learn, if not from her then from the chief justice, that a studied embrace of compromise can be a means to advance principle, not betray it.
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