CULTURE OF LIFE/ CHOICE

In the comments, Ben – who we can all agree should start his own blog ASAP – offers a thoughtful response to the last post:

Don’t you think a person can consistently hold that (1) under current law, abortion is a matter of individual choice; (2) as long as abortion is a matter of choice, there is a single right answer that women ought to choose; and (3) since many women nevertheless make the wrong choice (in this person’s view), and the harm of making the wrong choice is sufficiently great, the law should not leave abortion to individual choice? This constellation of beliefs would explain, without contradiction, feeling pride in another person’s choice not to have an abortion while supporting legislative measures to take the choice away from them. Similarly, “Choose Life at Yale” can consistently pursue a two-pronged agenda: (a) as a stopgap measure, advocating for women to exercise their choice under current law in a particular way, and (b) on the assumption that (a) will not be 100% successful, advocating for denying women the choice in the first place. In this way, Palin’s rhetoric about her daughter doesn’t seem different to me than a moral vegetarian’s both feeling pride in a child’s decision to be a vegetarian and favoring the criminalization of meat-eating.

Absolutely, I agree that it’s philosophically consistent (a) to want abortion/ animal cruelty/ awful haircuts banned and (b), for as long as the practice remains legal, to support/ admire people who choose against it.  I think very few people, whatever the practice in question is, would maintain (a) and not (b).  Lots of people, however, maintain (b) and not (a) (and not just on bad hair-cuts).  That is, lots of Americans believe abortion is a choice that should be available but that should not be chosen.  Others wouldn’t go so far as to say abortion is always the wrong choice, but will admire and be more comfortable with people who choose against it.  These pro-choice voters who (whether always, or just usually) want people to choose life represent a huge chunk of our electorate. That’s the reality politicians on both sides of this issue face.

Fortunately for these “(b) but not (a)” voters, there are a lot of “(b) but not (a)” politicians out there.  Depending on where you set the bar, you could count most pro-choice members of Congress in this group.  So voters who are uncomfortable with abortion but don’t want it banned tend to have ample opportunity to vote for representatives who reflect their desire for abortion to be both legal and rare.

Anti-choice politicians need these voters to choose instead to vote for someone who shares their discomfort with abortion but not their opposition to banning it.  There are different ways to do this: emphasizing abortion restrictions that these pro-choice voters may support and the pro-choice candidate does not, chipping away at the sincerity of the pro-choice candidate’s desire to reduce abortion, and more.  Another is to shift the focus away not just from Roe v. Wade, but away from policy questions entirely, so that (b) is the only issue.

I say the way Palin talks about these issues is misleading not because I doubt that she and others maintain both (a) and (b) with conviction and consistency, but because (setting law-breaking aside) (b) is only an issue given her failure to achieve (a).  And emphasizing (b) in the way Palin does regarding her daughter, and the way some of her admirers do in talking about Sarah’s choice to birth Trigg, obscures the most significant policy question here – abortion’s legality – while appealing not just to voters’ negative feelings about abortion but to their positive feelings about choice.

And when anti-choice politicians talk about their respecting their daughters’ choices – particularly when they are fathers like John McCain – it helps take the edge off their anti-choice politics by making them seem tolerant of the whole range of choices women make, even or perhaps especially when they cite their admiration for pro-life choices.  I don’t have reason to doubt that John McCain or Sarah Palin would continue loving a daughter who chose abortion without throwing her out of the house.  But if they had their way with the supreme court, those daughters could be thrown in jail.  So I think non-coerciveness as parents is a distraction from coerciveness as politicians.

There’s also a class issue here, in that as long as abortion is legal but subject to the cocktail of restrictions anti-choice folks are pushing at the state and federal level, women from families like the Palins and the McCains can go on making their choices while those “small town voters” they vouch for have less and less choice to make.

WHOSE CHOICE?

Dahlia Lithwick notes the mendacity of choice language on abortion from anti-choice politicians like McCain and Palin:

In announcing that her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant last week, GOP vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin used this puzzling locution: “We’re proud of Bristol’s decision to have her baby.” Pundits were quick to point out that Bristol’s “decision” must have been at least somewhat constrained by her mom’s position–as articulated in November 2006–that she would oppose an abortion for her daughters, even if they had been raped…So what exactly, one wonders, was young Bristol permitted to decide?

These rhetorical somersaults are, as Lithwick notes, the same ones John McCain employed in talking about a hypothetical Meghan McCain pregnancy eight years ago. There’s no mystery here: Americans like choice more than they like abortion. Republicans know this, so they dress up their hard-line anti-choice positions as though they were just about choosing against abortion, while never conceding that there should be a choice at all (in my college days the student anti-choice group was called Choose Life At Yale; they published an ad comparing voting for John Kerry – who also advocates choosing life but is pro-choice – to voting for Jefferson Davis). And the media too often plays along, as when the New York Times profiled women in an abortion clinic making painful choices that weighed medical, religious, economic, and social factors; the Times held up these women, who were doing exactly what the pro-choice movement defends women’s right to do, as representing a middle ground in the abortion debate.

I’d add that watching Palin’s gymnastics on choice is probably the most interesting part of the 2006 gubernatorial debate re-aired on C-SPAN over the weekend. For someone who wants the government to criminalize a woman’s choices about her future, Sarah Palin’s rhetoric is awfully “personal.” She answers the first question on choice – about whether as a public official she would attend a public event to publicly support legislation banning abortion – by saying that she’s pro-life and “I don’t try to hide it and I’m not ashamed of it.” When asked whether a rape victim should be able to choose abortion, she objects that it wouldn’t “be up to me as an individual” whether that woman was forced to carry the fetus for nine months – leaving unsaid that if she had her way, it wouldn’t be up to the woman as an individual either. But Palin makes clear that she’d force the rape victim to carry the fetus by specifying only the life of the mother as acceptable grounds for abortion. Then she answers the follow-up question by saying rape is “a very private matter also, but personally, I would choose life.” The hypocrisy here is glaring: if Sarah Palin indeed wants that woman’s choice to be private, she should oppose government outlawing it. But she doesn’t.

So it should come as no surprise a minute later when she addresses euthanasia with the same rhetorical sleight of hand: “This is a very personal and private and sensitive issue and I do respect others’ opinions on it, but personally I do believe that no, government should not be sanctioning or assisting taking life.”

QUICK THOUGHTS ON OBAMA’S SPEECH

To choose a favorite talking head buzz phrase, I think Barack Obama did what he had to do tonight. And he did it quite well.

First, closing a convention that erred too far on the side of nice (that means you, Mark Warner), Barack Obama came out swinging against John McCain, and I think he managed to do it in a way that’s hard to characterize as “nasty” or “shrill” or “too angry,” unless you’re one of the people who characterizes Democrats that way for a living. He crossed that threshold John Kerry or Al Gore never quite did, where you take on political opponents with a toughness that suggests you could take on enemies as President. And he maintained his sense of humor while doing it.

Second, Obama also addressed the imaginary lack of specificity in his policy proposals (the only thing more imaginary may be the desire among voters to hear specifics of policy proposals) by laying out a series of them (including improvements to the bankruptcy law that his running mate helped worsen). He had to do it; it’s good that he did. But it’s an especially silly expectation coming from a press corps that lets John McCain continue praising himself for having championed policies he currently opposes. It’s a good sign that the speech gets compared to a State of the Union address (or is that too presumptuous!).

Third, Obama talked about his own story, not in the linear way he has in the past and others have at this convention, but by explicitly comparing experiences in his life to experiences of Americans he’s met. Of course it’s sad that he has a higher bar to clear here than would a White candidate. That said, he did a compelling job connecting Americans’ stories and his own and explaining how they inform where he’ll take the country.

And the uplift was there too.

As for the disappointment, of course some of the self-consciously non-that-kind-of-Democrat stuff (are we reinventing government again?) is bothersome.

And in a speech that was more aggressive than we’ve come to expect from Democratic nominees, there was some needless defensiveness. If you’re going to talk about the importance of fatherhood, why say it’s something we “admit”? Aren’t you undercuttng yourself? Why say “Don’t tell me Democrats won’t defend America,” as though you concede that that’s the perception – and why respond to the criticism you brought up by naming presidents from forty years ago? Obama seems unable to help himself from rehearsing potential counterarguments in a way that doesn’t really help him – as in “Some people will say that this is just a cover for the same liberal etc…” And I think Obama made himself seem a little smaller when he followed talking about the struggles his family has overcome by protesting that he’s not a celebrity. Finally, while he effectively seized the high ground on patriotism, it seems overly restrictive for Obama to say he won’t suggest that McCain takes his policy positions with any eye to political expediency – I hope he doesn’t really mean that part, which would seem to leave John Kerry’s “Senator McCain v. Candidate McCain” line of attack off limits.

A CAMPAIGN ABOUT CHANGE VERSUS A CAMPAIGN ABOUT MCCAIN?

Reading Michael Crowley’s Mark Salter profile in TNR, you wonder how real McCainiacs can really keep a straight face while arguing that the Obama campaign is the one driven by a cult of personality built around a narcissist who feels he’s owed the presidency. Salter is apparently livid that Obama has stolen McCain’s themes of having matured out of a colorful childhood and been bettered by patriotism and commitment to public service. Did Mark Salter make it through his top perch in John McCain’s 2000 campaign without ever listening to a George W. Bush speech? Salter even jokes

“I often regret that we didn’t copyright ‘serving a cause greater than your self-interest,'” he cracks.

And Barack Obama is supposed to have an arrogance problem? Crowley also resurrects Mark Salter’s tirade against a college graduating class whose student speaker had the temerity to criticize McCain before he spoke:

Should you grow up and ever get down to the hard business of making a living and finding a purpose for your lives beyond self-indulgence some of you might then know a happiness far more sublime than the fleeting pleasure of living in an echo chamber. And if you are that fortunate, you might look back on the day of your graduation and your discourtesy to a good and honest man with a little shame and the certain knowledge that it is very unlikely any of you will ever posses one small fraction of the character of John McCain.

This isn’t some out of control staffer – this is the guy who survives every McCainland shake-up, ghost-writes everything, conceived, crafts, and protects the McCain mythology, etc. But his comments are striking in part because they echo the ethos that emanates from so much of McCain’s campaign: this sense that John McCain deserves the presidency, even if America isn’t good enough to deserve John McCain.

Who else would put up an internet ad about how the candidate as an elite boarding school student learned the honor code and committed to turn in other boys if they were cheating – and he’s applied those values ever since? Or one that just consists of speechifying by their guy and quotes from Teddy Roosevelt? Can you imagine if Barack Obama tried to pull that? Meanwhile McCain’s campaign brings up his POW experience at every conceivable opportunity while demanding he be recognized as too modest to talk about it – and how dare Wes Clark question whether it qualifies him to be president? (Remember the attacks on John Kerry for talking too much about his purple hearts)

Today Obama is predictably under attack from conservatives for the ostensible arrogance of giving a speech to a big crowd outside the United States. In that speech, Obama talks about his personal story and what he loves about America – echoing, though understandably not repeating his statement in his convention speech that “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” This is the most common intersection of autobiography and patriotism in an Obama speech: America is a great country which has made so much possible for me. With McCain, the formulation is more often: I love America, and I’ve sacrificed for America my whole life.

McCain is of course entitled to tout his military service, which is certainly more admirable than what he’s done in the United States Senate. And his campaign’s steady emphasis on McCain’s story and character I’m sure is driven in part by recognition that more people cast their votes on such things – ethos rather than logos in Paul Waldman’s formulation. But – aside from Crowley’s observation that McCain’s character appeal seems more attuned to what voters wanted in 2000 than in 2008 – I have to hope that it’s not just we “base voters” who find his campaign’s sense of entitlement grating.

Everyone seems now to agree that McCain’s wasn’t helped by the speech he gave the night Obama clinched his delegate majority. But it wasn’t just the green background – McCain came off like John Lithgow’s disapproving father figure in Footloose warning America away from the dangers of Barack Obama’s dancing. Or like Gore Vidal’s character (the Democrat) lecturing the debate audience not to fall for the titular Republican in Bob Roberts. It seemed like the best case scenario is you walk away convinced that however exciting it would be to vote Obama, you’d really better vote for McCain (and eat your vegetables). That speech brought home a sense of McCain as the candidate of obligation. Salter’s screeds bring home the sense that we’re doubly obligated to vote for McCain:

First, because voting Obama is a risky indulgence. Second, because after all McCain’s done for us, we owe it to him.

Which came first: the mandate that we have to vote for John McCain, or the low level of enthusiasm (14% in a recent survey) among his supporters?

Which is more arrogant and presumptuous: “We are the ones we have been waiting for” or “The American president America has been waiting for”?

BREAKING: BARACK TRIES TO RECONCILE HOPE, POLICY DIFFERENCES WITH OPPONENT

This article from the Paper of Record is just silly:

As Mr. Obama stands poised to claim the crown of presumptive Democratic nominee, he is, gingerly, fitting himself with the cloth of a partisan Democrat despite having long proclaimed himself above such politics. That his shift in tone was inevitable and necessary, particularly as Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, slashes at Mr. Obama as weak on Iran and terrorism, does not entirely diminish the cognitive dissonance.

As is unfortunately common with denunciations of partisanship in Washington, you get the sense reading Michael Powell’s Times news piece that not only does he see no need to tell you what he means by partisanship, he may not be so sure of it himself. Powell offers not one example of Obama’s post-partisan rhetoric against which we might judge his current stump speech (which is not to say there’s nothing in that rhetoric some of us – as ideologues more than as partisans – might take issue with). Instead, he just asserts that Obama promised to be a different kind of politician from the partisans we’re used to, and now he’s criticizing his opponent (without even giving him the benefit of the doubt!).

In other words, Obama promised to play nice, and now he’s being mean! And how:

“This is a guy who said I have no knowledge of foreign affairs,” Senator Barack Obama says, his voice hitting a high C on the incredulity scale, before he adds: “Well, John McCain was arguing for a war that had nothing to do with 9/11. He was wrong, and he was wrong on the most important subject that confronted our nation.” The crowd rises, clapping and cheering at this pleasing whiff of partisan buckshot.

Judging from the sternly disapproving tone the Times takes, you’d think Obama had said McCain’s daughter was ugly because she was the love child of his wife and his (female) Attorney General. But all the guy said was that his opponent had criticized him, his opponent was on the wrong side of an issue, and that issue was really important.

What does it even mean to say that this is partisan? Obama criticized co-partisan Hillary Clinton for backing the War in Iraq, so there’s nothing about Obama’s criticism that depends on party. Is Powell criticizing Obama for being overly issue-oriented? Or just for being overly critical of the man that everyone knows is the Most Principled Man in Washington?

But the article wouldn’t be complete without some criticism of the Obama campaign for disagreeing with the author’s criticism:

Mr. Obama’s advisers argue, gamely if implausibly, that he has not dipped his cup into a partisan well. “I don’t look at it as partisanship,” said Robert Gibbs, Mr. Obama’s communications director. “I look at it as a difference of philosophy.”

We expect this kind of silliness when it’s David Broder filling the editorial page with requiems for an imagined non-partisan past, or Unity08-backing celebrities sharing their heartfelt yearnings for politics without politics, or Howard Wolfson asking how Barack Obama can claim to support hope while opposing Hillary Clinton’s run for president. But on the news page we should really expect better.

THE MEANING OF THE WORD "CRIMINAL"

Media-appointed populist Mike Huckabee reassures CEOs everywhere that raking in the cash while laying off the workers who made it possible isn’t the kind of “criminal” activity that the government should do something about:

In one memorable riff at the Reagan Library early this year, Mr. Huckabee called it “criminal” for corporate CEOs to take fat bonuses while shipping the jobs of ordinary workers overseas, adding “If Republicans don’t stop it, we don’t deserve to win in 2008.” In a Christmas eve interview on CNBC, I asked Mr. Huckabee what he intended to do about it. His answer: nothing soon in the way of new laws or regulations. He said he would use the bully pulpit to shine a spotlight on the practices and seek increased responsibility from corporate boards of directors.

So breathe easy, rich guys: under a Huckabee administration, the only CEOs who get locked up will be the ones with HIV.

PERSONALLY ATTACKED?

A telling and all too common moment from this week’s debate:

EDWARDS:…And the most important issue is she says she will bring change to Washington, while she continues to defend a system that does not work, that is broken, that is rigged and is corrupt; corrupted against the interest of most Americans and corrupted…(APPLAUSE)

BLITZER: All right…

EDWARDS: … and corrupted for a very small, very powerful, very well-financed group.

BLITZER: We’re going to…

EDWARDS: So we have fundamental differences.

BLITZER: We’re going to get to all of these issues, including energy and Iran and everything else.

CLINTON: Well, Wolf, I’ve just been personally attacked again, and I…

Can anybody explain to me what’s personal about that attack? Brings me back to a certain incumbent’s decision four years ago that every criticism of his record was “political hate speech.”

And does she disagree with the idea that the system in Washington is broken, or that she’s been defending it?