Wednesday, June 28, 2006

COLUMN -- Instead of cleaning the barn, Democrats wade in deeper

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:28 AM |  

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

I wrote my June 14 column, "There's a greater enemy to truth than outright lies," with no intention of writing a trilogy. But events of the past two weeks warrant a third look at how bullsh*t affects our political process.

Bullsh*t, says Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt, is not the same as lying. Lying requires that a person know what the truth is and deliberately state the opposite. Bull doesn't require knowledge of the truth; the truth is irrelevant. The intent is only to create an impression that serves the speaker's ends. Bull is the greater enemy of truth.

Speaking at a legislative breakfast last week, Democratic pundit Blois Olson acted a textbook example of bull.

To portray 6th District Congressional Candidate Michele Bachmann as out of the mainstream, Olson raised the specter of evangelical Christians rethinking the distinction between "after-sex" contraception and abortion and concocted the impression that social conservative Bachmann would join a group of Republicans out to "outlaw and eradicate all forms of contraception."

Bachmann called him out. Olson apologized for any misrepresentations he "may have expressed." Bachmann said only that if such a group existed, she would not join it.

Inquiring minds? Most comments on last week's column ignored the finer points of what is or is not b.s., preferring instead to swallow it. They demanded to know Michele Bachmann's position on contraceptives.

"Inquiring minds want to know?" proclaimed one writer, ironically parroting the ad slogan of the less-than-truthful National Enquirer.

The people demanding that Bachman come clean on contraceptives inevitably claimed they already knew her position. In their minds, her non-comment was hiding an unpopular view. Their intent was exposing views they hoped would damage Bachmann politically.

More bull, please. Bull is unavoidable when a person is required to give a simplistic answer to a simplistic question on a complex issue. Olson faked simplicity by inventing a Bachmann association with "eradicating contraceptives." He ignored the underlying moral concerns raised by evangelicals. He simply invoked them to demonize Bachmann. He produced bull.

Bachmann refused to take the bait. For sure, it is appropriate for voters to question candidates on their positions on issues, including contraception, which has been and continues to be a political issue. It is also the prerogative of a savvy campaigner not to punch the tar baby and get sucked into opponents' agendas. Voters can infer what they will from her non-comment. Not as entertaining as slinging a little bull, but it leaves Bachmann's opponents with nothing to do but whine while she pursues issues of more political consequence.

Contraception fails as a wedge issue. Democrats hope to make contraception a wedge issue dividing social conservatives from their base of couples with 2.3 planned children. It won't work.

A wedge issue becomes a wedge issue when the base is divided and when the party being "wedged" won't legitimately respond. Republicans are successful using same-sex marriage and abortion as wedge issues because they are concerns that evolved into politics, not politics looking for a wedge.

Opposition to abortion resonates morally with the mainstream. People are not willing to go all the way to a government ban on abortion, but they will support "common sense" measures like parental notification and 24-hour waiting periods. The mainstream might oppose a constitutional amendment defining marriage, but many people are still somewhat uncomfortable with the notion of same-sex marriage.

For the most part, Democrats have attacked wedge issues with non-responsive b.s. They fight GOP legislation, label it divisive, but dance around whether abortion as birth control is a moral issue or same-sex marriage is something that ought to be unequivocally supported. They strive for the impression of thoughtful and caring without actually addressing the conflicting emotions of a divided base.

Contraception doesn't work as a wedge issue when few social conservatives believe contraceptives should be outlawed. Few people are worried about such a proposal. Pushing the idea makes Democrats look silly. Republicans refusing to make contraception an issue is a relief to those tired of R-rated political debates.

Lesson learned. No one has a lock on the truth, but when the truth is consistently regarded as irrelevant, it's time to demand better. No one gets it right every time, but pundits and politicians have the obligation to at least try to get it right. Any lesser standard is b.s.

Update: The ever-vigilant Eva Young complains that the headline on this column is misleading. I generally don’t write headlines, didn’t write this one, but did see it before it went to press and didn’t object. I liked the barn reference and thought it worked. Nonetheless Eva has a point -- the headline could lead to inference that those commenting on the column were all Democrats, which is not necessarily true -- and would be bullsh*t, except the column content neither said nor implied that connection.

“Democrat” is only used in the column to identify Blois Olson as a Democratic pundit, which is why he was on the panel -- an opposite to David Strom who is definitely a conservative commentator generally taking Republican positions. “Democrat” is also used in analysis of contraception as a wedge issue -- in the same context used in the NY Times in the article that spawned the controversy. Both uses are accurate.

But score one for, Eva. She correctly understands what bullsh*t is. I am eagerly awaiting to see that understanding demonstrated on her website.