Who do you want for president: a baby killer or a baby saver?
That's the rhetorical prod with which the right wing is poking the rears of evangelicals and Catholics to try to get them to vote for John McCain. Prior to the recent Saddleback Church debate, the mainstream media weren't talking about it, but now they won't stop (especially Fox, of course). The abortion issue—it's alive!
McCain is considered by many to have won the church battle due to his bumper-sticker brevity, whereas Barack Obama's arugula-flavored nuance went above the heads, and pay-grade, of the iceberg-eaters watching at home.
Pastor Rick Warren wanted to know when the candidates think human rights begin:
Obama: “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.” (Silence from the audience of Orange County Republican churchgoers)
McCain: “At the moment of conception.” (Thunderous applause from the audience of Orange County Republican churchgoers)
Then there was elaboration. Obama offered more than 400 words on the moral complexity of the issue, the role of women's rights in shaping his position, forging common-ground solutions to reducing unwanted pregnancies and support of limits on late-term abortions if the legislation contains an exception for when a woman's health is endangered. McCain's follow up? Forty words—in a nutshell, he's pro-life and will be a pro-life president.
Then, the day after Saddleback, KNX radio in Los Angeles presented an edited version of the event. The truncated bit featured the candidates' brief explanations of why they wanted to be president and a snippet of one set of answers to one question. You guessed it. And it was presented without elaboration: “pay grade” (no applause) and “conception” (applause).
That's also the way the right-wing media's handling it. Michael Reagan, son of Ronald, in a Townhall.com article titled “Governing is Above Obama's Pay-Grade,” argues that Obama's answer “was just plain evasive, obviously seeking to play down his extremist view that abortion at any time, in any circumstance, is perfectly acceptable to him.” Reagan isn't interested in the fact that Obama, in the very same speech, explains a circumstance in which abortion is absolutely not acceptable to him. Nuance, schmuance.
In another critique of the speech, professional oxymoron (right-wing comedian) Jeffrey Jena lays down the heavy spin on his blog, “The Vast Right Wing Conspiracy”: “‘Above my pay grade' is the government/military version of ‘That's not my job.' I'm sorry, my enlighten [sic] progressive friends, but when you are getting ready to try to run the free world there is nothing above your pay grade. If there is then you are not the leader, so send us the person for whom answering tough questions is within their pay grade.”
What Reagan and Jena both are either too ignorant to recognize or willfully avoiding is what Obama obviously meant by “above my pay grade,” which is: “Only God knows the answer to that question.” Perhaps it's understandable that right-wingers would expect Obama to know what God thinks. After all, their hero Bush gets all of his fantastic ideas directly from the big guy.
But I agree that the phrasing missed the mark. For all his skill at oratory and debate, Obama is not always a wizard at crafting his thoughtful, reasoned positions into sound-bite-size morsels for the media to force-feed the simpletons of ADD Nation.
I'm not dissing nuance. After eight years, it feels good that a real, live, grown-up, smart person might be our next president. McCain's dull, folksy platitudes and rehearsed Rovian talking points delivered in the monotonous cadences of an eighth-grade essayist surely don't cut it. But when vetted by his handlers, a safe, simple answer from McCain like “at the moment of conception” isn't that hard to package as forthrightness, clarity, cajones.
Of course, if Warren had real guts, he could've asked the candidates where “unsaved” Jews go when they die. Obama could've again said that knowing the answer is “above my pay grade”—i.e., “only God knows”—and McCain could've proclaimed, “Straight to Hell on a fiery matzah!” and who'd get the applause then? I doubt Joe Lieberman would be cheering from his armchair.
In other words, it's not that Obama doesn't have sound bites. It's that he's got to lead with the right ones before he delves into the complexity of framing an issue. And it's also that he needs better ones on abortion. Rephrasing the pay-grade line as “only God knows” is better, but it still comes off as defensive. Saying he believes the decision is a difficult moral choice for a woman to make in consultation with her doctor, pastor and family—another of the populist statements he articulated at Saddleback—is still too defensive to work as a sound bite.
Obama needs to get tougher on explaining where he stands on this issue. After studying his position carefully, here's what I think he is saying and how I think he should frame it:
1. Sound bite: “We must unite as a nation to put a stop to abortion.”
Elaboration: We must completely eliminate unwanted pregnancies in the United States—not just reduce them. We should do this not through government prohibition but, rather, by creating a truly humane system of healthcare, education, adoption and support. It may be difficult, but it must be our goal to eliminate abortions, because nobody is pro-abortion.
2. Sound bite: “Under no circumstances are we going to execute or imprison women who have abortions or the doctors who perform them in the United States of America.”
Elaboration: No rational person wants to put women who have abortions to death or in prison for life. But isn't this what would happen if we really knew that personhood began at conception? Isn't John McCain suggesting that we execute or imprison the 25 million American women who have had abortions? The American people know in their hearts that this is wrong.
As we move toward November, let's hope Obama starts talking tougher on abortion when it comes up. There's too much at stake not to win decisively.