Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Romney's Stephen Douglas Problem

When Stephen Douglas was running for re-election to the United States Senate from Illinois in 1858, he was in some sense running two races at once. He already had his sights set on the Democratic nomination for president in 1860. The latter was far more likely if he were to succeed at the former. But winning the Senate race in his state might require that he say things that could cost him the national nomination.

The most tricky issue in 1858 was slavery in the territories. The new Republican Party had as its foundational principle that slavery should not be allowed to expand into any new territories, putting it on "the course of ultimate extinction," in Abraham Lincoln's phrase. This was generally a popular position in free states, but was anathema to southern Democrats. Douglas tried to finesse the issue by removing the federal government from the matter entirely: he stood for the concept of "popular sovereignty," under which the people of the territories themselves would decide whether or not to allow slavery. Rather than take a clear stand for or against slavery in territories, Douglas sought to elide the problem by being for the idea of democratic choice--regardless of what that choice was.

The Douglas dilemma came to mind this week now that it is undeniable that Mitt Romney's path to the 2012 GOP nomination is clear. Like Douglas, Romney's political instinct is to try to avoid unequivocal statements on thorny issues. Clarity, he seems to think, is the enemy of his ambition.

Romney's recent interview with Diane Sawyer has a prime example. Sawyer asked Romney about one of his most blatant political transformations, from pro-choice to pro-life. Note how Romney responded:
I would love the Supreme Court to say, "Let's send this back to the states," rather than having a federal mandate through Roe v. Wade, let the states again consider this issue state by state rather than having this--the setting that we have now with a federal mandate being imposed in all the states.
This is Romney's "popular sovereignty" position: get the federal government out of the issue entirely. He even subtly associates Roe with the unpopular health care "mandate,"claiming the states rights mantle in opposition to an overbearing federal government.

What his position tries to mask is Romney's profound discomfort with the issue:
I believe that--that--that the right course for--for the nation would be for individuals to be concerned with both those lives. And I know people come down on both sides of that issue and feel very deeply about it. But I'm pro life--that's my view.
Romney seems to be trying to say several things:

1) The president doesn't have the power to affect this--the Supreme Court does--so it does not really matter what I think.

2) If the Court did reverse Roe, it would simply send it back to the states, so liberal states like New York and Massachusetts would continue to have it, while conservative states like Kansas, which have come close to banning abortion in practice, could do so outright. So pro-choice moderates, don't worry too much--your states would get to keep it, in the unlikely event the Court overturned the decision.

3) If you're pro-life, I am too. If you're pro-choice, I can't change anything. So whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, vote for me.

For strong pro-life voters, this won't do. If abortion is intrinsically evil, it is not enough that some states outlaw it. They want a constitutional amendment banning on it--they don't want to abolish the "federal mandate" Romney criticizes. They want to reverse it and create a new federal mandate that no state allow abortion. Their problem is not with a mandate per se, but with the substance of the current mandate.

Similarly for strong pro-choice voters, the principle of a woman's right to choose is not something that can be allowed to exist some places and not others. The language of "rights" means that one's ability to exercise one's rights should not depend on whether one is in Massachusetts or Kansas.

This is what Romney does when he knows that "people come down on both sides of that issue and feel very deeply about it." He tries to appeal to both, but he can't. The positions are irreconcilable. That doesn't, however, keep him from trying.

And that is Romney's core weakness as a candidate. It is the same one Lincoln recognized in Douglas. In their fifth debate in 1858, Lincoln blasted Douglas for "his declaration that he 'don't care whether Slavery is voted up or down.'" Lincoln, by contrast, was clear and unequivocal: he thought slavery was wrong and should be voted down.

Lincoln knew who he was and what he believed. He did not try to be all things to all voters. In the second debate, he instructed the audience to vote against him if they were not truly with him:
If it be true, that on the grounds which I occupy ... my views, though partly coinciding with yours, are not as perfectly in accordance with your feelings as his are, I do say to you in all candor, Go for him and not for me.
Can you imagine Mitt Romney saying that in the fall debates with President Obama? Me neither. The very question it raises--what are the grounds Romney occupies?--is damning.

There is no easy political lesson here. Douglas, after all, won that race in 1858. As Lincoln ruefully noted, "Douglas had the ingenuity to be supported in the late contest both as the best means to break down, and to uphold the Slave interest."

But Lincoln also correctly noted that Douglas had won an immediate, and not long-run, victory: "No ingenuity can keep those antagonistic elements in harmony long." The things Douglas had said in fending off Lincoln in 1858 ended up so alienating southern Democrats that they refused to support him as the nominee in 1860, the party split, and Lincoln became president.

Romney's ingenuity has allowed him to survive the Republican primaries. It may even get him the presidency. Whether the reckoning comes this November or during a Romney presidency, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that "No ingenuity can keep those antagonistic elements in harmony long." Someone so lacking a center cannot and will not be a successful leader, even if he does manage to be a successful candidate.

Monday, April 2, 2012

If We Listen

I took a few days off last week and fulfilled a long-standing desire to go to the New York Mets Spring Training camp in Port St. Lucie, Florida. (Don’t worry—I’m going to resist the urge to write one of those pseudo-intellectual paeans to baseball.) It couldn’t have been better: three games in three days, great seats, great weather. Just about perfect.

As you might expect, there were lots of fathers there with their kids, carrying around baseballs (and sometimes bats) in hopes of getting an autograph from a favorite player.

But my favorite moment was a reversal of that typical scene.

At Wednesday afternoon’s Mets-Nationals game, there was a family sitting behind me. Mom, Dad, son, grandparents. I was expecting to hear the Dad explaining the game to his son.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, it was the son (maybe 11 or 12 years old) patiently explaining the fine points of the game to his grandparents. From their accents, I’d guess they were immigrants from eastern Europe, and from their comments, it sounded like this was their first baseball game--ever.

The boy did a fine job of explaining what was going on, and his grandparents sounded genuinely interested in learning. It was probably my favorite part of the whole experience.

At one point, when a there was a runner at first base, the grandfather asked why the runner was not standing on the base.

“Well,” the grandson said, “he’s taking a lead.”

“Why does he get to do that?”

“He’s allowed to steal second.”

“Well, that’s not fair,” the grandfather said, with some indignation in his voice.

And it seemed to me, that’s just what I’d expect a kid to say the first time he heard about that little quirk of the game.

I couldn’t help thinking that this was a microcosm of an important part of the American story. This couple had come from Europe, probably many decades ago, and had made their way in the States, made a good life for themselves, raised a family. And while they had not had the time, or maybe the inclination, during all those years to become a fan of the American pastime, their son evidently had, and then in turn his son had become quite knowledgeable about the game at a relatively young age.

And now he was teaching his grandparents.

Just two generations from knowing little or nothing of America and its ways, to an expert in grade school. That’s what immigrants do—when they get the chance. They absorb the American experience, they make it their own.

And, if we listen, they sometimes remind us that what we take for granted, what we think makes sense because we’ve never really thought about it, might be a little strange, or even unfair.

If we listen.