With respect to any piece of legislation that comes before a legislator, there are two sets of questions to be answered. The first set concerns the quality of each item in the legislation. For each item, one may ask, "Is this item worthy of my support?" The other question, of course, is, "Should I vote for this legislation?"
Every legislator will almost certainly have to vote at some time to institute a practice that is unjust, or approve a law that does harm to (those he thinks are) innocent people, or causes unnecessary suffering. Because, in spite of the fact that the bill contains something bad, it contains more good than bad, and the legislator must vote for or against the whole bill.
The same is true of executives (governors and presidents) who sign the bill into law.
A moral objection to a provision of the bill does not necessarily imply that a good person would vote against that bill.
These issues come to mind with respect to the current FISA bill – the bill that will be used to govern the future of wiretapping for security purposes. Many people on the political left are opposed to this bill. Democratic Presidential candidate Barak Obama also opposed this bill, until recently, when he announced that he will vote for it.
I have read a number of objections against Obama’s change in position.
I have spent the day trying to learn enough details about the bill in order to discover what position I would take on it. To be honest, I could not find enough clear information on which to make a decision. However, my research took me through a great deal of criticism of Obama's shift in position. A lot of that criticism was missing some very important elements.
It appears to me that criticism of a bill (as distinct from criticism of a specific element of a bill) requires more than simply an announcement that there are reasons to reject provisions within the bill. It requires some discussion of what alternatives are available, and what the consequences are of a particular action.
For example, one of the criticisms made against Obama was that he was concerned with winning the election, and seems willing to abandon principle when there are votes at stake. However, I have never found this to be a sensible criticism. It is the same as saying to a candidate, "I believe that you are the best person for the job. However, I demand that you act in such a way that you give up any chance of winning the election, and actually hand the seat over to somebody who, in that position, will spell disaster for the country."
I do not approve of lying. I do not approve of a candidate saying that he favors a position he does not favor in order to attract votes. At the same time, I see no sensible reason to object to a candidate who says, "I am voting for this legislation, even though it contains elements that I do not like, because I do not see a better alternative available. I am not saying that this legislation is perfect. To insist that I only vote for perfect legislation is to insist that I never vote in favor of any legislation."
Again, I am not talking about lying. I am talking about making the honest claim that, “This is the best option that I think is politically viable at this time. If you do not like this option, then change political reality so that we can get a better version of this law passed. Sitting around and griping – expecting political reality to change magically rather than by hard work, while demanding that candidates act as if they are not running for office in the real world, is irrational nonsense.”
People who have read this blog know that I am adamantly opposed to having 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance, and 'In God We Trust' as the national motto. However, when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals releases its decision on these matters, I fully expect Obama to denounce the decision and to speak in defense of these practices. His defense will make no logical sense, and I will take great pains to show its flaws.
However, I also realize that I live in the real world. I expect – I even hope – that Obama will denounce the 9th Circuit Court opinion (if it comes out against 'under God') for the simple fact that, if he does what is right, it could cost him the election. Given the consequences of his renouncing the 9th Circuit Court decision, and the consequences of McCain becoming President, I choose the former over the latter.
When Obama states his position, I expect to rip it to shreds in this blog – and I will encourage others to do the same. However, I will do so with full understanding of why he stated that position. I will do so knowing full well that before any politician can dare to support the position that I support, I need to put the work into making it politically viable for him (or her) to do so. That’s my job as a citizen.
For similar reasons, people who are opposed to certain elements of the FISA Amendments need to do the same thing. They can certainly know and understand that some of its positions are morally objectionable. However, they have to recognize that it is senseless to demand that a politician take a position on that issue that will guarantee that he will lose the election to a worse candidate. They have to recognize that their first duty must be to contribute to changing the political landscape to one in which a politician can take the correct position on the issue, and still win an election.
It is a politician's duty in this winner-take-all political system to pull together the best 51% of the country against the worst 49% (or the best 60% against the worst 40%). If he makes it his goal to pull the best 49% together against the worst 51%, then he is handing the reigns of government over to the worst 51%.
When I read about people saying of a candidate, "I refuse to support him because he refuses to act in a way that will cost him the election and give power to the worst 51%," this type of attitude strikes me as irrational to the point of insanity. I can make no sense of it. Yet, I see it all the time.
If the alliance of the best 51% is not willing to support the 4th Amendment, then it becomes my job – our job – to get them to see the value of the 4th Amendment. If we fail, this does not change the fact that the candidate's job is to pull together an alliance of the best 51%. The only thing that changes is that the best 51% happens to be a group of people who simply refuse to support the 4th Amendment – and the 4th Amendment is as good as repealed.
Perhaps an alliance of the best 51% will support the 4th Amendment. If this is the case, then Obama should defend it as well. It is open for somebody to make that case. Yet, many of the critics that I see do not make the case – or they assert it without offering any reason to believe it other than, “Of course the majority realize that my position is correct.”
To the degree that somebody can make this case, to that degree they have a case for condemning the politician who does not defend the 4th Amendment – for saying that the politician is making a mistake. Where they cannot make such a case, their protest amounts to insisting that the candidate unite the best 49% against the worst 51% - that is to say, they are insisting that the candidate be irrational and foolish in a way that does irreparable harm to the country.