Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Uncommon Ground (Charles)

Yesterday, the morning session opened with Special Agent David O'Connor of the United States Secret Service. For whatever reason, I was really interested in what he was going to say (perhaps it was the teenager in me being excited about espionage and danger). From what he told us, he has had a fascinating career. He protected Al Gore during his 1988 Presidential campaign, Pat Buchanan in 1992, and President Clinton in 1996 as part of his work on the First Family's detail. He gave us some details about the preparation for the Inauguration, but nothing earth-shattering. Perhaps this was because of the sensitivity of the issue; perhaps there is just nothing all that interesting about agent positions and crowd control. At any rate, it was a somewhat underwhelming performance.

On the other hand, Marc Pachter of the National Portrait Galley gave a fascinating presentation on the history of the Presidency and the use of imagery to define the Commander-in-Chief. He made his way through the Presidential portraits collection and enlightened us as to each portrait's significance. For instance, George Washington is dressed as a casual civilian in his portrait, showing his disdain for the trappings for royalty. Lyndon Johnson so hated his portrait that he had it banned from the White House. Pachter made the very interesting point that, rather than being an unnecessary distraction, the public's perception of the sitting President is a very important tool in governance. In 2008's post-election analysis, some media types have said that Obama's use of imagery somehow cheapened his campaign--Pachter would strongly disagree, saying that a politician's image is closely tied to how he or she will govern.

The last event of the day was titled "Common Ground." It was a travelling dog and pony show featuring the conservative Cal Thomas and the more progressive Bob Beckel. The two clearly had a good rapport with one another, and were very entertaining to watch. And that's about all I got out of the presentation. Basically, they wanted to change the culture of Washington by having people on all sides of various issues sit down and discuss things in a cordial manner. They said that this would lead to respect for both sides of an argument and allow politicians to have pleasant working relationships with one another. Fine. I think that is an admirable goal. However, Thomas and Beckel seemed to think that it would be the solution to all of our nation's problems. Their line of thinking was this: if you don't see your opponent as the enemy, you are more likely to be able to find some common ground and a compromise solution that works. Right. So just because I don't hate someone means that I will be able to agree with them?

The two pundits offered the example of the Obama's economic stimulus package. Republicans want tax cuts; Democrats want government spending. If you give them both a little of each (with the Democrats getting more--they are, after all, in the majority), then everyone wins. In gigantic legislation such as the stimulus, this is a perfectly valid solution. However, on more specific issues, there is less room to compromise, and to do so threatens the integrity of the argument. For instance, people against abortion believe that it is tantamount to the murder of an innocent child. No matter how many restrictions that pro-choice legislators offer as a way of compromise, no matter how much education, contraception, or adoption is put forward, the point still stands--it is murder. Where is the so-called "common ground"?

The same holds true on the other side of the aisle. Liberals who believe that the war in Iraq was illegal, badly managed, and an across the board violation of both Presidential power and human rights want the troops to come home. Now. Timetables, peacekeeping forces...these concessions by the right (or even the center-left) mean nothing. The soldiers should come home and President Bush should be held accountable for sending them in the first place. How can we expect them to compromise?

Supporters of gay rights believe that homosexuals will always be second-class citizens until they are afforded full marriage rights, protected from hate crimes and employment discrimination, and allowed to serve openly in the military. Civil unions are not enough. Local and state protections are not enough. Don't Ask, Don't Tell is not enough. What is compromise worth if it requires selling out your principles?

Thomas and Beckel contended that the American people want nothing more than solutions to their problems that work. No. Americans are smarter than that. We want solutions to our problems that are right. And of course, we all have different visions of what is right. I whole-heartedly agree that decreasing the level of animosity in our federal government will make it run smoother. But I do not concede that compromise is always a good thing. Politics should be about getting what you (or your constituents) want. Not for selfish reasons, but because you truly believe that it is right for the country.

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