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 Myanmar, also known as 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’ 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.
Her supposed intransigence always has infuriated those more eager to do business with Myanmar than promote its democracy. Last week, in response to her opposition to U.S. firms dealing with Myanmar’s corrupt state-owned energy company, outgoing Virginia Sen. James Webb peevishly asked whether “an official from any foreign government should be telling us what sectors that we should invest in and not invest in.”
“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 . . .”
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.
Fred Hiatt is The Washington Post’s editorial page editor.