Sunday, May 24, 2009

Quote of the Day (Barack Obama, at Notre Dame)

“I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it -- indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory -- the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.”—President Barack Obama, commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, May 17, 2009

Last week, President Obama reminded me of nobody so much as Thomas Jefferson. After a bitter election—and an even more controversial tie-breaking vote in the House of Representatives—Jefferson sought to smooth over the horrendous divisions in the country with a line in his first Inaugural Address: “We are all Federalists; we are all Republicans.”

That statement not only became one of the notable quotes of his Presidency, but served as the prototype for the conciliatory nod to the opposition that the vast majority of incoming Presidents have used ever since.

In the quiet of his study, however, it was another matter. Jefferson sought impeachment proceedings against a Federalist judge, Samuel Chase; hinted darkly that, if John Marshall issues rulings in the conspiracy trial against Aaron Burr that did not result in defeat for the former Vice-President, then the Chief Justice should himself be removed from his position; and signed legislation that, during the furor over his Embargo Act in Federalist-dominated New England, called for the land and naval forces to be used to suppress insurrections by American citizens.

Jefferson’s lifelong tendency, in the words of biography Alf Mapp Jr., of “taking things by the smooth handle,” went hand in hand with a penchant for pursuing his ends by other means—a kind of Mr. Inside, Mr. Outside game.

In attempting to put to rest the donnybrook over his abortion position at Notre Dame, President Obama provided a contemporary variation on this. For a politician who had won a primary endorsement in the 2008 campaign over Hillary Clinton from the pro-choice group NARAL, his attempt to acknowledge the sincerity of pro-lifers represented something like squaring a circle.

Probably 90-95% of my readers will not like what I’m about to write. So be it. If an essayist can’t take issue with readers because it flies in the face of what they believe, he or she not only does not dare look in the mirror, but also has abdicated any notion that reason and give-and-take can make a difference—ironically enough, the same point that Obama was ostensibly trying to make with his comments on seeking “common ground.”

Most of the commentary in the press focused on that phrase, “common ground,” to the exclusion of everything else in the address. I can’t say I was surprised or disappointed by what the President said, but I was by the reflexive positions that so many Catholics from the liberal-to-left side of the political spectrum took on the speech.

“Common Ground” vs. “Irreconcilable” Views

Contrary to what you might have read, the heart of the address was not in that plea for “common ground,” but in the passage I quoted above. In contrast to much of the rest of the talk, rendered in the second- or even first person, Obama’s stark acknowledgement—i.e., that he will not adjust his position one iota, that “the views of the two camps are irreconcilable”—has been toned down through a weak linking verb.

In the last election, the Democratic Party learned enough to know that it could not stifle the views of pro-lifers, as it did at the 1992 convention, without paying the price in a razor-thin loss.

Seventeen years ago, we had a President who declared that he wanted to ensure that abortion would be “safe, legal and rare,” then concentrated all his efforts on ensuring the second (and, at points, the first—more on that in a minute) and nothing at all on the third point. Yet the Democrat paladins paid a price when they famously sidelined Bob Casey—a lifelong liberal Democrat who happened to be pro-life—while offering speaking time to Republicans who happened to be pro-choice.

Pro-lifers got the intended message—their voices weren’t heard and their votes didn’t count. It helped put the Democrats in exile for eight years when it didn’t have to happen.

A False Contest: Obama vs. the Bishops

The analysis and commentary about the President’s speech last week devolved into the question of who won, Obama or the church hierarchy?

With their reliably certain heavy-handedness, the American bishops guaranteed that they would be cast as the heavies here. All too often these last few years, their moves have stigmatized instead of instructed. Their strictures on who is and who isn’t a Catholic in good standing based on one’s position on abortion have been stupid when they haven’t been self-defeating, because, to put it bluntly, they do not in the least admit of the spirit of charity.

But to accept a bishops-versus-Obama polarity is to fall into the same trap that allowed so many Democrats to accept the civil-rights passivity of two 20th-century liberal Presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (and, in the case of the latter, a chief executive who left African-Americans in their most disadvantaged legal and social position between the end of the Reconstruction and the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964).

The justification for the moral blinders of FDR and Wilson is one that echoes today in the progressive movement about abortion: The President is battling against the forces of greed and the enemies of the common good. He has so much to deal with already. Why trouble him about this single issue—and, at that, an issue of such intractable complexity and moral murkiness?

It’s so easy nowadays to forget that this line was once invoked in the old days whenever civil-rights advocates raised, no matter how gingerly, the question about what action would be taken on their issues. Maybe our lack of memory about it reminds us too comfortably how hollow that justification was then and remains to this day.

Advancing the Abortion Debate?

So, instead of considering whether Obama or the bishops won last week, I propose another standard: Other than saying that pro-lifers are really not bad people (a hardly unexceptionable statement—the reviled George W. Bush, of all people, said pretty much the same thing about pro-choicers), did Obama really say or do anything to change the dynamics of the abortion debate?

To answer, let’s look more closely at the paragraph that, in a single concentrated section, seemed to receive the most applause lines in the speech:

* “So let us work to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let's reduce unintended pregnancies.” Did Obama suggest concrete ways for how this could be done? No.

* “Let's make adoption more available.” But Bill Clinton suggested this over a decade ago, too. Really, who’s stopped any Democratic administration from implementing this, either through legislative or executive action—the Republicans? If you said yes, a follow-up question: Are you serious?

* “Let's provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term.” But this is being done already, by one much-maligned force in this debate, and was abandoned—with the acquiescence of a Democratic President, against the advice of a Democratic Senator—by an organization spoken of far more favorably.

Let me start by putting this in personal terms. My parish has a crisis pregnancy center, and I don’t think that it is the slightest bit unusual in that respect among Catholic parishes. For once, I think that the church hierarchy, benighted as it often is, deserves credit on this score, in that the overwhelming majority of archdioceses have something similar.

The Notre Dame audience’s applause at this unremarkable line suggests the forgetfulness about this aspect of the church. (Or maybe not forgetfulness but ignorance—the American media, to its deep and enduring shame, accepts at face value Barney Frank’s contention that for pro-lifers, life begins at conception and ends at birth.)

Indeed, while the Catholic Church has maintained such assistance, the federal government knocked out an old prop for maintaining assistance a dozen years ago. Bill Clinton caved in to the GOP-dominated Congress’ insistence on alleged “welfare reform” so he could say he fulfilled his pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” In the process, he ignored Catholic bishops’ contention that only the federal government has the resources to maintain existing welfare program.

Moreover, he gave short shrift to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s blunt warning that time limits on reception of benefits “will produce a surge in the number of homeless children such that the current problem of ‘the homeless’ will seem inconsequential.” Only now, in the wake of the current economic crisis, do we understand what Moynihan meant.

* “Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women." Why not leave out the word “sensible”—or, put another way, in what way does a “nonsensical” conscience clause exist? The Obama administration needs to clarify this, because nearly three months ago it was reported that it was seeking to end the “conscience clause” already in place under the Bush administration.

And then there’s that last phrase, “respect for the rights of women.” How would even the smallest restrictions on abortion constitute disrespect for such rights? Another question: do the pro-choice positions of Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt qualify them as respecters of such rights? Just asking.

Talk vs. Action

Obama’s call for “common ground” sounded, in all its reasonable-sounding, toothless earnestness, like Bill Clinton’s plea at the start of his second term for a “national conversation about race.” The problem is that without action, talk is meaningless, and without a fundamental rethinking of how one views not only people (Obama’s general point) but policy, talk is actually counterproductive.

If talk about civil rights could have changed anything, America’s national dilemma would have been confronted several decades earlier, when the otherwise hapless Warren G. Harding became the first sitting American President to call for anti-lynching legislation. But far more was required—Presidents who were willing to use the FBI to investigate civil-rights crimes, to send federal marshals into schools and universities to ensure access to equal education, and to use every tool at their command to cajole Congressmen to back legislation.

What could Obama have done or said at Notre Dame to make a difference in the debate? He could have:

* Proposed a ban on partial-birth abortion—a procedure that even past pro-choice Catholic Democrats such as Moynihan and Dick Gephardt opposed.

* Proposed, more generally, a ban on abortion past the first trimester—a stance that liberal blogger Steve Waldman of has suggested would be palatable to most Americans.

* Advocated parental-consent laws (think of it this way—children are lucky to get even the most seemingly banal procedures, like having their ears pierced, without parental consent—why should they not know about something so important to the welfare of their child?)

* Urged bans on abortions pursued for reasons of sex selection.

* Called for a short “cooling-off” period in which counseling and alternatives could have been suggested for confused teens.

It’s ironic that though though many in the progressive movement have applauded Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s interest in foreign judicial rulings, they ignore that America has far fewer restrictions on women’s right to choose than most European countries. (For an example of this, please see the following map for a country-by-country breakdown.)

A Coarsening of Our Moral Fabric

“We’re not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes,” President Obama promised at the start of his speech—but that’s exactly what he went on to do. You can argue that, at this point—May 2009, with an economy in deep freeze and two Mideast wars simultaneously in a state of peril—it’s not the time to put abortion on the front burner.

But there’s a reason why movement toward full abortion rights remains problematic, even as the larger women’s rights movement and the gay rights lobby have made continuing, perhaps now unstoppable, advances: because abortion asks us, in the most essential way, what we will do to sustain life in extremis.

President Obama is right in one sense: Americans do hold contradictory positions on the subject. For all the vociferousness of the pro-life movement, for instance, many activists, if not most, would not return to criminalizing the procedure.

Contesting abortion in every way, such as denying diplomas to pro-choice politicians and lawyers, leads to endless moral confusion and, in a number of instances, to fanaticism and hypocrisy.

But more than 35 years after Roe v. Wade, abortion continues to roil the waters because, at some level, even many who defend the procedure regard it as an unfortunate necessity. They are, in effect, implicitly recognizing that abortion coarsens the national fabric.

The necessity to defend access to abortion at all costs has led the pro-choice movement to accept the unacceptable. A few years ago, an abortion clinic in my hometown had to be shut down temporarily for “immediate and serious” code violations. The trouble was that the clinic had not been inspected in five years, leading to a young woman—at the clinic for her third abortion—to be unconscious for three weeks, to suffer two strokes, and to undergo a hysterectomy. The clinic’s violations of regulatory practice were so many and so serious that if it were, say, a pharmaceutical firm, it would have been picketed and forced to close permanently.

A fight on every point related to abortion is neither necessary nor desirable. But, at some point, a clear, sharp distinction needs to be drawn to emphasize that American society does not regard abortion as the preferred way to resolve all, or even most, crisis pregnancies.

Abraham Lincoln accomplished something similar before the Civil War in promising not to interfere with slavery where it already existed, but in urging that it not be allowed to spread to the territories. That stance was enough to register his moral disapproval. It would do well for us to find a similar point now in the abortion controversy.

A Personal Note

I don’t approve of “fetus-waving,” abortion-clinic bombings or other fanatical actions. I know women who’ve had abortion and men who’ve procured it for them—and they remain friends.

I winced last fall when I heard a high-school classmate of mine offer what was, in effect, a bishop-knows-best denunciation of Barack Obama’s record solely because of his abortion views. I voted for President Obama in the last election and, by and large, approve of his current economic and foreign policy choices. I recognize his extraordinary ability to persuade and, at a more personal level, his commitment as father and husband.

But none of that relates in any way to what so many failed to perceive last week: the utter failure, as policy exercise and call to deeper moral seriousness, of Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame. His tremendous gifts—and, at present, his equally high standing in the public polls—are no reason for liberals—and especially Catholic liberals—to give him a free pass on his inability to deal substantively with abortion.

So many are excited about the promise of Obama’s gifts, the meaning of his electoral victory, and his current sky-high perch in the polls that they seem reluctant to call him back to earth. They do him no favors in accepting what, in any other national politician on any other subject, would correctly be seen as pablum.

We have heard much over the last few years—justified all too much by events—that the papacy is not, as given down by church fiat, infallible. We have also heard it said increasingly over this period that the authority of elected leaders, especially Presidents, should constantly be questioned. Again, the contentions of these critics have been constantly borne out by events.

That makes it all the harder for me to understand now why the Notre Dame address should be hailed when it doesn’t measure up to most acceptable political standards, let alone Obama’s prior powerfully effective rhetoric.

Let me put this in as unmistakeably as possible: Not even a Democratic president is infallible. At the height of his influence and power, even FDR could not push across his dubiously motivated court-packing scheme. Americans were right then to hold him to a higher standard, and they should do the same now to the current incumbent who’s been compared with him so often in other ways.


bjn2727 said...

I have several points in this essay argument in which I have serious disagreements with you. I think that you would agree that with me that we can agree to disagree.
First, and perhaps foremost, is that the speech itself was a commencement, not a forum on Abortion. A sitting President, no matter which side of the fence, deserves respect. The press again abrogated their responsibility by turning this into something it was never meant to be.
Where is the logic on inviting George Bush to speak at Notre Dame previously? Where was the "Pro Life" indignation over a President whose Death Penalty and pro war hawkish attitudes seem to me just a tad hypocritical to the cause. Was it because of his fanatical anti abortion, stem cell research stance?
Selective attention on the pro life end.
Why was the press not able to manufacture a "cause celeb"(sp) out of that one?
I watched the speech, and thought under the circumstances, he did a remarkable job.

MikeT said...

"A sitting President, no matter which side of the fence, deserves respect." True, and I don't go in for shouting in the middle of these things.

But Bush himself had more than a few people picketing him at Notre Dame--and that was before he invaded Iraq. They wore black armbands then in protest. I'm sure he had people shouting him down elsewhere, at other educational settings, when he attempted to speak.

I have more than a few bones to pick with the press, but "turning this into something it was not meant to be" is not one of them, for this reason:

Presidents and politicians have often used commencement addresses to address serious policy issues--think of George Marshall unveiling the plan named for him at one, or Kennedy delivering his "make the world safe for diversity" speech at American University on relations with the USSR. This is a bipartisan tradition, and whether he spoke of abortion or his own program, Obama would have done something similar.

Beyond passing partial-birth abortion legislation, Bush did not actually get much done on the pro-life front. And, as I mentioned in the post, several pro-choicers voted to ban partial-birth abortions, which is why this legislation passed by wider margins than other pro-life legislation.

Bush also, as I indicated, gave credit to pro-choicers as people with whom he could disagree without doubting their basic decency.

There are serious questions about the different forms of stem-cell research, how much they promise and what they might require in terms of moral compromises. Precipitous decisions about them are not good to make.

There are any one of a number of ways that one's opposition to certain policies might be regarded as "fanatical" (Randall Terry's Operation Rescue comes to mind), but Bush's on abortion and stem-cell research are not what spring to my mind.

Just to clarify--what counts as "fanatical" in your eyes-- people who choose to effect change legislatively and peacefully, or fringe groups that use violent means? Many people who agree with the peaceful, nonviolent route are ones you might know. Do you classify them with the second group? Labeling them "fanatical" might be something you'd want to rethink.

Bush's views on the death penalty, among other things, were wrongheaded but not beyond what a number of Democrats in the era were prepared to do. (Bill Clinton made sure a mentally challenged man was executed in the middle of the 1992 campaign so his candidacy could not be charged as "soft on crime.")

Not every means used to oppose abortion deserves to be employed. That's why I disagree with the bishops on how far they'll go to counteract abortion. Banning pro-choice politicians from the sacraments, for example, is punitive and ineffective.

At the same time, there are laws that can be passed to show that we as a society don't think abortion is desirable. Take a look at the link to the map in my post again--even European countries that are pro-choice have more of these, and in far greater variety, than the U.S. does. That, I would suggest, is the bright line about what deserves to be called "fanatical" or not, not mere opposition to abortion. Obama has not endorsed a single one of these, lest he lose the pro-choice vote--which no Democratic President or Presidential candidate can afford to do if he hopes to get through even the primaries.

Obama's speech on race in the campaign was remarkable; unfortunately, I can't say the same about the Notre Dame address. He gave no indication of how to get out out of the impasse we're in on this now. I'm sure I'll support him on other things again, but this address was not Obama at his best, or even particularly good.