Monday, August 18, 2008

Nuance Shortage Part II

If there is any less relevant issue this election year than abortion, it might be flag-burning. Although, to be honest, the latter was only relevant because George H. W. Bush was able to make it so. Not only right-wing Christians, but some members of our press corps, however, don't seem to realize that most Americans don't care all that much about the issue anymore. This is one issue that I would like to disappear from our discourse, not because I am afraid of it, but because it just isn't that important in the grand scheme of things.

Yet, over at Time magazine, Nancy Gibbs uses the differing approaches to the issue of Sens. McCain and Obama as a way to write some really silly things.
Watching Barack Obama and John McCain handle pastor Rick Warren's questions about abortion, you could see the whole presidential race in miniature taking shape before our eyes. The clear answer beats the clever one any time ... unless you worry about the chaos that clarity can bring.

How does the clear answer "beat" the "clever" one? Who decides which answer is "clear", which one "clever"? What about the whole question of which answer may just be "correct"? Those would be interesting questions to ask concerning the differing approaches of Obama and McCain. To do that, however, would be to think, and why think when one can simply start painting portraits of the candidates, or (to use Somerby's favorite metaphor) write another chapter in the novel that is our current conventional wisdom on the Presidential campaign?
Before a friendly but still skeptical Evangelical crowd at Warren's Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., on Saturday night, McCain won a roar of approval when Warren asked him at what point a human being gets human rights: "At the moment of conception," McCain replied. The answer was clear, unequivocal and a great relief to restless Republicans who had endured a week of indigestion on the issue.


Meanwhile, Obama offered an artful dodge to the question of when a human deserves rights. "Whether you're looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity is above my pay grade," he said. Like many of his responses that night, it was a long, careful, nuanced plowing of middle ground. He did not suggest that the only rights that matter are a woman's over her body. He also affirmed his moral dimensions of the issue: he noted his willingness to limit late-term abortions, provided there is an exception if a woman's health is at risk; and he talked about finding the resources to help women who choose to keep their baby, and about trying to reduce the need for abortions in the first place. It reflected the careful effort Obama has made to reach out to the ambivalent middle, which is reflected in a Democratic Party platform that unequivocally defends the right to legal abortion but also calls for better access to contraception and comprehensive sex education. This is classic "common ground" language designed to break with past orthodoxy and reach out to independents who don't much like abortion but who don't want doctors and patients being carted off to jail for performing or having them.

What follows is an analysis of the murky waters McCain has stirred up by being so forthright. Now, this is all to the good, and Gibbs is correct to point out further down in the article that McCain's position simply ignores the scientific reality that "when life begins" is a debatable issue. Now, one could add that, from at least a Presidential policy stand-point, it is also irrelevant because it is so fettered with unanswered, and unanswerable, questions as to be meaningless. As such, Obama's answer is not only more honest, it has the virtue of being more clever, because it shows his willingness to show he does not believe he is "the Messiah" (a favored right-wing description of Obama). Furthermore, McCain's clear answer shows how little judgment he has, how little he has considered the refusal of reality to fit in with his own clarity, and the dangers inherent in being clear, rather than being right.

While I believe the conventional wisdom that McCain came off in this forum better than Obama, at least to the gathered throng at Saddleback and the conservative Christians who watched and listened intently, is probably true. Yet, I cannot help but feel, in the long run, it will come back to haunt McCain. It is all well and good to be convinced you are right, and to express your beliefs as forthrightly as possible. We aren't electing an Answerer-in-Chief, however, and as the past eight years have demonstrated, constructing policies around one's personal convictions when those convictions happen to be wrong (an putting out all sorts of misinformation to dirty the waters in the public debate) is a recipe for disaster.

Virtual Tin Cup

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