No middle ground

A one-sided and wrong-headed emphasis

Issue: "Ashcroft: Under fire," Jan. 13, 2001

With all the talk, both by the media and by the liberal political establishment, about the need now for President-elect George W. Bush to "move to the middle," it's refreshing to see how reluctant he has been-at least with reference to some issues-to swallow that silly bait.

"If it was right for me to campaign outspokenly for a big tax cut," Mr. Bush said last week, "it's even more right for me to push for that big tax cut now. The economy needs it now more than it did last summer." So why move to the middle? Be thankful right now for a man sufficiently committed to his principles that he isn't immediately blown about by every political wind.

It would be a tragedy of the first order, of course, if the new Bush administration were to start holding firm on matters of secondary importance while equivocating on issues that should be of primary significance. But it's still pretty early to judge the incoming administration for things it has or hasn't done.

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It's hard to ignore the constant harping from the media and from the left about the need for compromising in the middle-a theme that was renewed as the media denigrated Sen. John Ashcroft as being "too ideological" to serve as the nation's attorney general. But the drumbeat is both one-sided and wrong-headed.

It is one-sided because you so rarely hear that call from those same quarters about liberal ideas. When, for example, has The New York Times or 60 Minutes suggested that supporters of partial-birth abortion drop some of their extremist rhetoric and compromise a point or two with pro-lifers? When has the National Education Association ever proposed some sort of cooperative effort with private educators? For such folks, there simply is no such thing as middle ground. You play the game their way, or you don't play at all.

The harping about "meeting in the middle" is wrong-headed because on some issues it would be just plain immoral to forsake dogmatic principle in favor of mushy compromise. However praiseworthy compromise might sometimes be, it clearly isn't always admirable. Should we seek to meet in the middle in our opposition to child abuse, to famine, and to racism? If something is wrong, it's wrong. There's no honor in striking a compromise with an obvious evil. As Barry Goldwater said 36 years ago, "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice."

Typically, of course, such incessant talk about compromise and "meeting in the middle" is intended to do just one thing: to divert attention from the important issues themselves.

And the truly divisive issues these days are not economic issues like tax cuts. The issues producing the really acrimonious division between liberals and conservatives (and yes, where some conservatives still have a few lingering questions about the resolve of the new Bush team) are abortion and homosexual rights. On welfare, tax reduction, education, gun control, military spending, foreign policy, and a host of other issues, the disagreements are certainly real-yet they still tend to be disagreements mostly of degree. When you get to the issues of abortion and homosexual rights, however, the disagreements are no longer merely about degree, but about basic direction.

So write this down in your little book: When members of the liberal establishment, both in politics and the media, sputter that Mr. Bush might not move as much to the middle as they want, they're likely to be talking about losing the big advances of the abortionists and the homosexual rights folks over the last generation. And when you hear conservatives worry that their man might be tempted to move dangerously toward the middle, those are the matters they're talking about.

Because of their very character, neither of these issues yields easily to compromise. Both abortion and homosexual rights have to do with such fundamental definitions of who we are as humans that you simply can't trade them away without saying in effect that everything else in life is up for grabs. In that sense, only the issues of slavery and race a century and a half ago have called for such similarly profound definitions. But issues of race, however divisive they may be in some regards these days, don't belong in the same category right now with abortion and homosexuality simply because there is virtually no one standing there saying: "Racism is great! Let's celebrate it!" No, for the most part, we have resolved that issue by saying that racism is evil. We have a lot of mopping up to do, and we should be more aggressive about that mopping up. But the issue itself is morally settled.

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