Monday, December 8, 2008

Decisionism Treads Upon Dangerous Terrain

Ross Douthat has been singled out for his share of praise as being a smart voice among the next generation of right wing commentators. And he was often a voice of reason during the campaign. His op-ed on abortion in yesterday's New York Times, however, substitutes ideology for logic and reason with predictable results.

Let's start with his initial premise, which he drops on us in his very first sentence. "An iron law of recent American politics," Douthat writes, "dictates that any Republican setback at the polls will be quickly pinned on the pro-life movement." But this is just wrong. Barack Obama beat John McCain because he ran a better campaign and wasn't saddled with eight years of the worst presidential performance quite possibly in American history. The Republicans owe their poor performance in 2006 to the horrible confluence of Katrina, Iraq, and corruption. And the last bad year for Republicans before 2006? That would be 1998, when the public punished Republicans for trying to impeach a popular and effective president.

The meaty part of the piece, though, is Mr. Douthat's claim that pro-life folks are really quite reasonable at heart. They're just trying to compromise, see? Now what will the first step toward compromise be according to Mr. Douthat? Pro-choice acceptance of tight limits on abortion in the final trimester? Pro-choice agreement that doctors at Catholic hospitals can opt out if they don't wish to perform abortions?

Not quite. "[N]o . . . compromise is possible so long as Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey remain on the books." In other words, if you pro-choice people would just give up on the notion that there is a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, we could work out our differences.

"Compromise" and "surrender" are not synonyms. Mr. Douthat writes for a living, so it's not too much to expect him to know that. Is it?

Litigators are quite familiar with this way of going about one's business. "I'm just trying to be reasonable," our adversaries say. "If you would just give up and accept my view of the world, we could work this out." This is always an interesting dispute-resolution strategy, but rarely a very effective one.

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