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Brothers in arms

Books | Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel come from opposing political camps, but united by faith they have moved beyond polarization

Issue: "NextGen worship," July 26, 2008

Cal Thomas lambasts liberal ideas (but does not demonize people) on television and in his syndicated column. Democratic Party stalwart Bob Beckel, who ran Walter Mondale's presidential campaign in 1984, castigates conservative concepts (but not people) in his gigs. Together they write a USA Today column that tries to go beyond polarization, and they've also produced Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That Is Destroying America (William Morrow, 2007).

The book, though, does not tell why they get along so well, nor how their encounter on a TV talk show led to something much deeper: Thomas asked Beckel how he was doing, and Beckel responded honestly that he was not doing well. What happened then did not come out at first in an interview I conducted before students in New York City. Not until the end did we hear how Thomas was instrumental in leading Beckel to Christ.

WORLD: In your book you predicted the rise of Barack Obama and talked about him as a "common ground" candidate. Do you still see him this way?

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THOMAS: In his book The Audacity of Hope Obama said what a lot of us feel: We're tired of the politics of personal destruction, the name-calling implying that somebody loves America less because they have a different view of a policy issue. I find this outrageous. If I don't wear an American flag lapel pin do I love America less than the person who does? The American flag lapel pin is probably made in China anyway. What I want to know as a conservative is now that Obama has talked the talk, will he walk the walk? On which of the major issues, foreign and domestic, is he willing to compromise and come my way?

BECKEL: If you talk about a bipartisan common ground candidate, John McCain was the first in the modern political era to lay claim to that. The McCain-Kennedy bill, the McCain-Feingold bill-forget what you think of the merits of them, those bipartisan efforts on his part almost got him driven out of the Republican Party. He was the perfect candidate for the Republicans to run, with a shot at winning the White House, because of his bipartisan maverick image. He then publicly goes off and endorses Bush's tax cuts and becomes essentially an advocate for a Bush third term, which is impossible to win. In the meantime Barack Obama, who never had a history of doing bipartisan stuff, takes that message and makes a whole campaign out of it. I think he'll win the White House on it.

WORLD: Obama, at least according to National Journal, is the most liberal senator in Washington. So, how do you see common ground coming out of this campaign?

BECKEL: Let me be purely pragmatic about this: In politics the reason common ground will work is that polarization is bad politics in the voting booth and common ground is good politics. The notion that negative campaigns work (and I've been involved in 187 campaigns) is wrong. In the 2006 off-year elections the analysis was that people lost their seats because of Iraq. We went back and looked at those district by district. It was not about Iraq; it was about polarization. Common ground as a voting tool, as a message, is worth a good seven to 10 points in the country. That's what it's about. Forget the idea that this is some kumbaya moment where we all come together and love one another. The reality is votes. Barack Obama took the message and it has been with him throughout the Democratic nomination. That'll tell you something.

WORLD: But how will he actually pursue common ground? Let's look at one of the most difficult issues-abortion. Jill Stanek, the Illinois pediatric nurse, has written about appearing before Obama's committee (when he was in the Illinois senate) on infant born alive legislation: After a "failed" abortion when the baby is born alive, do you try to keep him alive or do you just let him die? Stanek has commented that, despite his public demeanor, Obama was heartless and callous. How is Obama going to find common ground on abortion when he doesn't even want to protect an infant already born alive?

THOMAS: The left has said (even Bill Clinton has said) that we want to make abortion safe, legal, and rare. We have the solution for making it rare, while keeping the so-called choice factor in place. Sonograms have reduced the number of abortions and abortion-minded women, so we have truth in labeling. We have truth in lending, and you can't go into a supermarket without-by federal law-seeing labels on bottles, packages, and cans containing all kinds of information on the contents, so this is about informing women more fully. This would make it rare. Women would still have the choice, but we're simply giving them additional information, in this case sonograms, so that the choice will be fully informed.

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