“Common ground” and the political high ground

If you reach out the hand of friendship and have it slapped away, it’s pretty clear to all observers just who it is that wants to have a quarrel.

1. Barack Obama is strongly in favor of reproductive freedom, including the access to abortion services.

2. But his general principles and political style lead him to seek common ground with people strongly opposed to abortion.

3. The strategy for doing so is to work together on ways to reduce demand for abortion services: (a) reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies by improving access to sex education and contraception and (b) increasing support for pregnant women who decide to carry to term.

4. But the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention are actually in favor of unwanted pregnancy, as a deterrent to non-marital sex. So the USCCB and the SBC oppose the contraception-and-sex-education part of the plan. They’re much more interested in saying “abortion is murder” than in actually reducing the number of abortions at the cost of allowing some people to experience sexual pleasure.

5. They want to split the proposed program into two separate bills, so the administration can make itself unpopular with the pro-choice movement in passing the pregnancy-support bill while the Republicans in the Senate get to filibuster the pregnancy-prevention bill to death. (Of course, Obama and Axelrod would have to take leave of their senses to agree to any such thing.)

6. Atrios thinks this makes a joke out of the search for common ground.

7. Matt Yglesias thinks this is more Obama rope-a-dope: by making an obviously good-faith effort to find common ground, Obama puts his opponents in the position of either supporting stuff they don’t like or demonstrating their bad faith.

8. Whether Atrios or Yglesias has the better of that argument is left, as the math textbooks say, as an exercise for the reader.

Now things may well be different in areas more subject to detailed bargaining; we might wind up with a worse health bill, for example, because Obama chose to narrow the bargaining range by taking single-payer off the table to start with. If he’d started with that as one of the options, the wingnuts could have had a “victory” by settling for something reasonable. Since instead he proposed something reasonable, they can only satisfy their constituencies by producing a bill that’s a lot less than is reasonable. The same may be true of climate and the stimulus.

On the other hand, in foreign policy there’s every advantage to seeming to be the more reasonable of the two parties to a dispute. How much less support does Ahmadi-hejad have, inside Iran and outside, than he would have were GWB still in office.

“In war, politics, and diplomacy, take the high ground.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com