Compromise, yes — but how? A pre-debate suggestion

Compromise, yes — but how? A pre-debate suggestion
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“Partisans say respect and compromise are important in politics,” read a 2019 Pew Research headline about one poll, “particularly from their opponents.”

Respect? Compromise? When debates rage about how to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgMcConnell tees up Barrett nomination, setting up rare weekend session Jaime Harrison raises million in two weeks for South Carolina Senate bid Dozens of legal experts throw weight behind Supreme Court term limit bill MORE, or whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Pence's chief of staff tests positive for COVID-19 MORE lied about COVID-19?

We probably won’t see much “respect and compromise” from Joe BidenJoe BidenObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Brad Pitt narrates Biden ad airing during World Series MORE or Donald Trump on Tuesday, the first of three presidential debates. Polarization between the two parties runs too deep, the chief reason that bipartisan solutions in Congress have declined 30 percent since 1989.


Such division is hardly a secret. It’s why Biden can win support by pledging to “bring people together.” But what has caused it? Americans need to know more about that.

As someone who has taught classes in how debaters persuade, I see one way tomorrow’s debate can help. Listeners may not find out much from the candidates — they reflect such division — but they have another source: debate moderator and Fox News host Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceChris Wallace teases Sunday interview with 'bestie' Ice Cube Five takeaways from the final Trump-Biden debate Chris Wallace says he was 'jealous' of moderator watching final debate between Trump and Biden MORE.

Debate moderators ask candidates to explain views, but they can also educate, especially for the classroom holding the largest audience of the entire campaign — this year, an estimated 85 million Americans. It would be hard to explain the full story of how so many groups have sorted themselves out between the parties. But a moderator’s questions can help us learn about how astonishingly different the parties have become.

When Wallace moderated a debate in 2016, he asked open-ended questions. (“Please explain to me why you believe your plan will create more jobs and growth for this country and your opponent’s plan will not?”) Such questions allow candidates to offer a laundry list of ideas, many of them unlikely to pass, and cliche-solutions such as, “So we are going to have the wealthy pay their fair share.” Those take no account of the fierce divisions standing in the way.

Why not use a different approach? Wallace could 1) frame each issue with facts, 2) make clear with data how much the two parties clash, then 3) ask not for clichés but for concrete solutions that might unite a divided country.

Would he need to do that every time? No. But there are many issues on which he could. Consider these four:



The facts: For the first time in American history, most Americans under 16 are non-white. The U.S. Census predicts that by 2050, largely fueled by immigration, the United States will be mostly non-white. Republicans have introduced legislation in the Senate to cut the 480,000 legal immigrants we admit each year by 50 percent.

The clash between the parties: 84 percent of Biden’s supporters believe immigrants strengthen America. But only 32 percent of Trump’s supporters agree. And while 42 percent of Democrats believe a non-white majority would strengthen America, only 13 percent of Republicans think that. 

The question to ask: “If elected president, would you marshal bipartisan support to either pass or oppose such legislation — and why? If you oppose doing so, what number would you admit?”


The facts: Overall, according to one poll, Americans favor granting statehood to Puerto Rico and an increasing number support statehood for the District of Columbia —  a move that would create Senate and House representation for about 300,000 in D.C. and 3 million in Puerto Rico.

The clash: But while 69 percent of Democrats support that, only about 35 percent of Republicans do. “We’ll never get the Senate back,” Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyTrump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report Mark Kelly releases Spanish ad featuring Rep. Gallego Senate is leaning to the Democrats, big time, with a wave MORE (R-Ariz.) has said, warning that if Biden became president, he would seek statehood for both.

The question: “If elected president how would you create bipartisan support to either back or oppose such a move?”

Gender inequality

The facts: Working women still make less than 80 percent of what men make. For African American and Latino women, the figure is about 60 percent.

The clash: A recent Pew survey found that while 79 percent of Biden supporters feel women face obstacles making it harder to get ahead than men, only 26 percent of Trump supporters feel that way.

The question: “Vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisTrump knocks idea of a 'female socialist president' Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' Watch live: Biden participates in HBCU homecoming MORE (D-Calif.) has proposed making companies publicly disclose their salary structures for men and women — and fining companies that show a difference. If elected president, would you support the Harris plan? If not, would you marshal bipartisan support to diminish or eliminate the disparity? How?”

Racial inequality 

The facts: In 2016, Pew reported the median wealth of white households was $171,000 — 10 times that of black families ($17,100) and eight times that of Hispanic households ($20,600).

The clash: 54 percent of white Democrats believe being white helps people get ahead economically; only 12 percent of white Republicans feel that way.

The question: “What do you believe has caused that difference in wealth? If elected president, would you try to narrow that gap without further polarizing our country? How?”

Questions such as these might make listeners understand why compromise is hard. They might force candidates to offer answers worth hearing.

Of course, it’s possible that either Biden or Trump could win so handily in November that they won’t need to compromise. That was true in 1964, when the wave of sympathy after President Kennedy’s assassination and a Republican candidate considered far too conservative by most voters gave Democrats an enormous edge. 


This election appears to be close, however. The odds are that whoever wins will find creating unity hard to do. Finding out what they’d plan is worth a try.

“Compromise,” Pulitzer prize-winning satirist Phyllis McGinley once wrote, “makes nations great — and marriages happy.” I can vouch for the last three words, but what about the first four?

Compromise can’t just come from the other side. Unless we want another four years as bitter as the past four, we desperately need clarity about what stands in the way. That might not come from those fielding questions tomorrow night — but it could start with the one asking them.

Bob Lehrman, chief speechwriter for former vice president Al Gore, teaches speechwriting at American University in Washington. He has authored four novels and thousands of speeches, and given speechwriting workshops around the world. He wrote “The Political Speechwriter’s Companion,” recently released in a second edition, this time with collaborator and co-teacher Eric Schnure. Follow him on Twitter @RobertLehrman1.