Thursday, April 21, 2005

Let's Compromise: Do It My Way

David Brooks offers up another fine bit of sophistry in today's New York Times. And yes, it's another example of what I call the Dover Beach column, wherein the lofty-minded pundit sadly surveys the madness of partisan conflict from a spot high above the fray, and then proceeds to offer a lofty-minded solution that happens to coincide with one party's agenda.

In this case, the subject is abortion, and here is the gist of the Brooksian argument: (1) Roe v. Wade whisked abortion policy from the legislative to the judicial arena, making compromise impossible and empowering extremists on both sides of the issue; (2) legitimately frustrated Republicans who can't pursue legislative remedies on abortion are now poised to Do the Bad Thing and assault both the judiciary and the essentially conservative traditions of Senate debate; and thus (3) the solution is to give Republicans what they want by overturning Roe. Neat, eh?

As is generally the case with Brooks these days, his transition from bipartisan-sounding analysis to endorsement of a partisan position is greased by a big fat planted axiom of extremely dubious quality: the idea that making abortion a legislative issue will facilitate "democratic debate," compromise, sweet reasonableness, and in general, a de-emphasis of the issue in our political system.

Give me a break. Without Roe, abortion politics would be a 24-7 preoccupation of both Congress and many state legislatures, with those determined to eventually outlaw abortion altogether offering an infinite variety of incremental, poll-tested restrictions. How do I know this? Because that's precisely what's happened in the limited sphere of legislation allowable under Roe. Look at the last "reasonable compromise" offered by Democrats in Congress, the Daschle Amendment of the late 1990s, which would have banned third-trimester abortions with an exception for the health of the mother. It was not only opposed by some abortion rights advocates, but by right-to-lifers and Republicans generally, who weren't interested in any "solution" other than their own contrived "partial-birth" ban, which recognized no exceptions.

Moroever, look at what's happening in the U.K., one of those wise jurisdictions where abortion policy is set through "democratic debate." The Tories have made abortion a big issue in the current parliamentary campaign by proposing an incremental restriction of the period where abortion is allowable, in an overt attempt to peel off Labour-leaning Catholic voters.

The truth is that abortion politics are toxic not because the courts have intervened, but because the issue involves very fundamental differences of opinion on matters that are more important to some people than politics itself. It's possible to make the argument that letting "democratic debate" decide abortion policy is the right thing to do, but Brooks' idea that it will reduce the passions involved in this issue, or keep right-to-lifers from demonizing judges or seeking to override Senate traditions, is absolutely wrong.

We just learned in the Schiavo saga that conservatives are willing to demonize judges if they don't interpret federal and state statutues to suit them. Accepting, as Brooks does, the thread-bare argument that they are only interested in reasserting the right to "democratic debate" is tantamount to total surrender to the GOP position, which is, of course, where Brooks would have us go.
-- Posted at 10:22 AM | Link to this post | Email this post

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