Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Robert Gates: "compromise" has become a dirty word

September 23, 2011 by Stefan Frank


Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates received the 2011 Liberty Medal award in a public ceremony Thursday night at the National Constitution Center for his steadfast commitment to the well-being of our men and women in uniform and unparalleled contributions to national security, defense, and intelligence.

In a video tribute to Sec. Gates, President Bill Clinton–the Center's board chairman–said that working for liberty means surpassing differences. He referred to Dr. Gates as "a genius of bipartisan alliances." But having served under seven presidents (from both parties) and given decades of his life to public service, Dr. Gates believes we are now in "uncharted territory when it comes to the dysfunction in our political system." Here are the three developments Gates outlined in his acceptance speech that he believes have put us in this predicament:


Dr. Gates believes we need to overhaul the process of setting electoral districts to ensure that candidates for Congress are forced to appeal to the moderates in their party and even members of the other parties, like candidates for president in a general election. Under current rules, Gates believes the party primaries force politicians to cater only to the "hard-core ideological elements of their base."

Wave elections

Similarly, when one party wins  a "wave election," the party in power tends to rule by force, making it more likely that the minority will seek retribution (or at least overturn policies and agendas) when the pendulum swings back. Gates called for more humility in victory, and a search for "broadly supported policies" to address the problems we face as a  nation. Gates cited the Cold War in the mid-20th century as the best historical example of a consistent political strategy implemented across multiple presidencies and congresses.

"Those who think they alone have the right answers, who demonize those who think differently, and who refuse to listen and take other points of view into account -- these leaders are a danger to the American people and to our future.”

The news media

While the reporting and distribution of news has become more democratic over time, according to Gates it has given rise to extreme and vitriolic points of view that are unfiltered and easily disseminated to a wide audience. He suggests that the democratization of news has actually contributed to the "dumbing-down" of the national political dialogue over the past two decades.

Dr. Gates said that these and other polarizing factors have crowded out the moderate center in politics, which he characterized as the foundation of our political system. "Just at the time this country needs more continuity, more bi-partisanship, and more compromise," he said, "all the trends are pointing in the opposite direction."

To read the full transcript, click here.

Stefan Frank is the National Constitution Center's Director of Digital Engagement and manager of Constitution Daily's Twitter account @ConDailyBlog. Follow us!

Sign up for our email newsletter