The general opinion about the Leadership and Compassion Forum hosted by Rick Warren at Saddleback Church on Saturday is that McCain won the night. Most commentators seem to think that McCain’s direct and black-and-white responses were more effective than Obama’s detailed and nuanced answers. The oft-quoted example? Abortion, of course.
The question was, at what point of time does an embryo/foetus/baby get human rights. The candidates were asked this question separately, and neither heard the other’s answer.
Here’s McCain’s answer:
At the moment of conception. (APPLAUSE). I have a 25-year pro-life record in the Congress, in the Senate. And as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president. And this presidency will have pro-life policies. That’s my commitment. That’s my commitment to you.
And now, Obama’s:
Well, you know, I think that whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.
But let me just speak more generally about the issue of abortion, because this is something obviously the country wrestles with. One thing that I’m absolutely convinced of is that there is a moral and ethical element to this issue. And so I think anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue, I think, is not paying attention. So that would be point number one.
But point number two, I am pro-choice. I believe in Roe v. Wade, and I come to that conclusion not because I’m pro-abortion, but because, ultimately, I don’t think women make these decisions casually. I think they — they wrestle with these things in profound ways, in consultation with their pastors or their spouses or their doctors or their family members. And so, for me, the goal right now should be — and this is where I think we can find common ground. And by the way, I’ve now inserted this into the Democratic party platform, is how do we reduce the number of abortions? The fact is that although we have had a president who is opposed to abortion over the last eight years, abortions have not gone down and that is something we have to address.
I am in favor, for example, of limits on late-term abortions, if there is an exception for the mother’s health. From the perspective of those who are pro-life, I think they would consider that inadequate, and I respect their views. One of the things that I’ve always said is that on this particular issue, if you believe that life begins at conception, then — and you are consistent in that belief, then I can’t argue with you on that, because that is a core issue of faith for you.
What I can do is say, are there ways that we can work together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, so that we actually are reducing the sense that women are seeking out abortions. And as an example of that, one of the things that I’ve talked about is how do we provide the resources that allow women to make the choice to keep a child. You know, have we given them the health care that they need? Have we given them the support services that they need? Have we given them the options of adoption that are necessary? That can make a genuine difference.
Obama’s answer has been variously described as a gaffe, a waffle and a disaster by the pundits. As far as the angry netroots go, a typical reaction is something like:
News flash: There’s not a job on the planet above the pay grade of the President of the United States. If you can’t solve every problem and are humble about it, that’s fine — but you can’t get away with being unsure about the most defining moral issue in politics.
So what do I have to say about the matter? Nothing much, except that reading all these reactions makes me strangely pessimistic about the future of democracy. It is stunning how far America has moved away from its intellectual beginings. To win an election these days, you have to deal in soundbites. Nuance and complexity are the enemies of a political career.
As someone said, come November, Americans will get what they deserve.