Saturday, August 18, 2007
Conservative pundits (and candidates) should avoid uni-dimensional analyses of our candidates' positions on multi-dimensional issues
Hugh Hewitt writes on his blog today:
"If the defense of traditional marriage is one of your key issues, Fred Thompson can't be your candidate."
Hugh and I agree about most things, and I like and respect him immensely, but I'm disappointed in the single-dimensional analysis of Hugh's post. It's based on this post in which NRO's K-Lo quotes a Thompson campaign statement which includes this sentence: ""Fred Thompson does not support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage."
It would be equally true — but equally shallow and potentially misleading — for me to write of Romney:
"If curbing the power of the federal government to override the States and intrude in Americans' personal family lives is one of your key issues, Mitt Romney can't be your candidate."
I know beyond any doubt that Hugh is as thoroughly familiar with principles of federalism as anyone on the planet. I know that he supports the notion at least most of the time. And I know he must have read the rest of the Thompson campaign's statement, which makes very, very clear that Thompson's lack of support for a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is based on Thompson's very traditional federalist belief that laws affecting family relationships are for the state governments to make — not the federal government. Thompson also pointedly insisted that one state ought not be able to force its views on another, and that he's against these issues being decided by courts instead of state legislatures.
Here's the question that Hugh ought to be putting to the Thompson campaign, if he wants to flesh out the rest of Fred's position in a fair way that acknowledges his federalism concerns: "Sen. Thompson, if you were a state legislator voting on a proposed state statute that would permit gays and lesbians to marry, how would you vote?"
Fred, or any politician in his shoes, would probably answer that in the first instance by saying, "But I'm not running for any state legislature; I'm running for president of the United States, and you should vote for me, or refuse to, based on what I would do in that office." And that too is a valid point.
But I don't think presidential candidates can avoid sharing their views even on subjects that they would not be in a position to decide or directly influence as president. Someone at that level should have a well-developed, fully integrated viewpoint, including views on matters that traditionally — and I would say appropriately, for I agree with Thompson's federalism point — are matters for the states to decide upon. That fully-integrated viewpoint in turn gives important indications as to how a candidate will react when some new twist or turn on one of these issues pops into public discourse.
Being willing to stake out a position in which one believes, but which polls and focus groups and traditional wisdom about "party bases" tells us may be unpopular with primary voters, is something that ought to distinguish Republican candidates. I'm not sure how Fred would answer the "If you were a state legislator" question. But when and if it's asked, if it hasn't been yet "on the record," I hope he'll address it directly, and let the chips fall where they may.
Likewise, if Mitt were pressed by this question — "Isn't your support of a federal constitutional amendment depriving states of their rights to define marriage inconsistent with the principles of federalism?" — he should freely admit that. And then he should explain why he thinks that's justified in this particular instance.
The hints of that explanation are in Hugh's post: "[P]roponents of the amendment have long pointed to the threat of sudden, judge-imposed changes in the law that would see DOMA struck down without warning." That's a short-hand rendition of an argument that I know Hugh has elsewhere discussed in more length. It's basically a concern that depending on how Justice Kennedy interprets the sweet mysteries of life in any given Court Term, the SCOTUS might suddenly turn America upside down by purporting to require every state to give full faith and credit to, for example, gay marriages from Massachusetts — notwithstanding the existing federal statute from the Clinton era designed to prevent that.
Romney's arguing for a prophylactic federal constitutional amendment that would not only tie the hands of the Supreme Court, but of state courts and state legislatures. That would be a radical step. Conservatives, including even conservatives who vehemently oppose gay marriage, can disagree in good faith as to whether it's justified by the current risk. And one can't meaningfully assess that risk without also talking about SCOTUS appointments. If the GOP can hold the White House in 2008, then there will almost certainly be a chance to add to Dubya's good works in the Roberts and Alito appointments, such that Justice Kennedy's mysticism would be unlikely to be a factor when and if a constitutional challenge to the existing federal Defense of Marriage Act makes it to the SCOTUS docket.
All of which is to say: You simply can't discuss these things intelligently — or fairly! — in one dimension. They're genuinely multi-dimensional problems. And it's not fair, when conservatives are discussing our various candidates' positions, to frame the issues in a way that truncates half of one candidate's rationale. If pundits like Hugh or me have a "job," it's to illuminate and educate.
That's also part of the challenge for our candidates. And for them, being candid, even when it means telling people other than what you think they want to hear, is what ought to define our side. Otherwise, our candidates are just Hillary in a necktie, triangulating madly every time they speak to a different audience.
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(1) Carol Herman made the following comment | Aug 20, 2007 10:09:21 PM | Permalink
Last night, listening to Drudge, he spotted Fred Thompson's problems: NOT ENOUGH ENERGY.
I guess you'd pick it up if you then heard the voice clips Drudge played.
But somebody's gonna notice that Fred Thompson sleeps on his feet.
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