Commentary: In politics, there are no absolutes

The Kansas City StarAugust 25, 2012 

Gosh, it sure was a busy Sunday for Republicans.

First, Senate candidate and U.S. Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri twisted himself into knots explaining why abortion should be prohibited, even for rape victims. Then Politico broke the story of U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder’s late night dip into the Sea of Galilee without his knickers.

We’ll get to Yoder in a moment. First let’s focus on Akin.

His word-choice was abhorrent and appalling — is rape ever legitimate? — but the Republican’s position on abortion is logically consistent. If you believe abortion is murder, then there can’t really be a rape exception, or any exception at all. Abortion has to be a crime.

At the same time, if abortion isn’t killing, then it’s hard to justify government involvement in such a personal decision.

Either way, compromise on abortion is beyond difficult. It’s nearly impossible.

The Star’s political writer Steve Kraske and I spent a large part of the summer trying to understand why our politics are so gridlocked and polarized. One of the reasons, we found, is that the framework of the abortion argument has been imported into virtually all parts of the public arena, mainly by lawmakers who have fought abortion for decades. Now both parties do it routinely.

That is: Issues once considered relative, and subject to discussion and debate, are now considered absolute, such as abortion, and not subject to compromise. In this approach, Medicare isn’t insurance for the elderly, it’s socialism. Critics of President Barack Obama aren’t misguided, they’re racists. Taxes aren’t a way to raise money, they’re theft.

Finding compromise with socialists, racists, and thieves is pretty much as hard as compromising on abortion.

I once exchanged emails with a brilliant anti-abortion activist who worked at the time at a well-known research center that studies embryonic stem cells. When we discussed the apparent contradiction, the activist said it was, well, complicated.

Which brings us back to Yoder. During our summer conversation with the freshman Kansas congressman, he made an important point: “There’s give and take,” he said, “and there’s right and wrong.”

Surely he’s correct. But — just as surely — some things are more complicated than his simple formula suggests. What seems right after a bottle of wine, for example, can look pretty wrong in the light of the next day.

Perhaps Yoder and his colleagues will reflect on that truth the next time the two parties are locked in a Washington death grip, unable to reach agreement on issues the rest of us could solve in an afternoon.

It’s possible, maybe likely, that on most issues no one is absolutely right or absolutely wrong.

Once we accept that, we can all take next Sunday off.

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