Washington is awash in debates where politics collides with principle. Politics is the art of compromise, but players are loath to admit compromise, or even to concede any ground at all. The pols agree with Vince Lombardi, the famous football coach: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."
But politics, which "ain't beanbag," ain't football, either, though the candidates fumble, flip and flop like a ham-handed running back, backing, filling and shaving meanings. We see compromises all about us. Uncompromising politicians are usually called rigid ideologues, but that's not quite accurate. Rigid ideologues rarely win, but they often influence the politics of the winners.
It's the influence, not the ideology (or the theology) that the religious conservatives seek with their threat to form an ineffectual third party over the abortion issue. Or so it seems to me. They say they want a candidate closer to their view and they're willing to lose rather than win with Rudy Giuliani or someone like him, even though he would give them everything else they want, maybe even the judges who question the way abortion rights were determined. When they finally focus on the enormous impact of what they're doing on many other issues they hold dear, maybe they'll drop the third party fantasy. Or maybe they won't. The crystal ball is foggy.
Sometimes debate pits domestic politics against foreign policy interests. Congressmen with a significant Armenian constituency have for years been pushing for a congressional resolution to label as "genocide" the massacre of a million and a half Armenians by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire 90 years ago. Last week they succeeded, getting a strongly symbolic but essentially meaningless resolution endorsed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Like so much else debated in Washington, the politicians are not debating what happened way back when, but taking care to appease a domestic constituency. Both President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates argue that the resolution is likely to anger the Turks, jeopardizing the use of Turkish airfields and supply routes in support of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, sensitive to the importance of Turkey to the United States, declined to use the word "genocide" to describe the great suffering of the Armenians. This time, however, the "principled" congressional grandstanders trumped the security of American soldiers in Iraq with a feel-good resolution of non-binding sentiment. Not necessarily good.
No debate over when and whether to compromise produces as much sound and fury (mostly sound) as how to define "torture." The word covers a multitude of sins, but we all argue over where to put the line separating the allowable from the forbidden. The president insists that "this government does not torture people," and the approved techniques must be "tough, safe and necessary." It's not clear what's tough, safe and necessary, and what isn't.
Jane Mayer, writing in the New Yorker magazine, reports that the fictional television show "24," in which torture is a staple, used by a government counterterrorist unit to save millions of lives from destruction by nuclear explosives or virulent biologicals, has softened Americans, including policymakers, to accept torture in certain circumstances. Senior members of the Bush administration watch it regularly. (So do I.)
A television show does not reality make, but it can provoke debate. When a civil liberties lawyer type on the show stops Jack Bauer, the lead character, from doing what is "necessary" to extract information from a terrorist with crucial knowledge about a nuclear warhead about to explode, killing millions, a weak president orders the agent's arrest. Viewers must ask themselves which side of this debate they support. Torture is not glamorized; the protagonist is often psychologically tortured himself by what he does. Kiefer Sutherland, who portrays the agent, has in real life been arrested for drunk driving. Is this the result of stress on the actor's conscience? Some critics say so.
"24" uses the image of a ticking time bomb to illustrate plot structure; the program's creator explains this fantasy as wish fulfillment. "Every American wishes we had someone out there neatly taking care of business," says Joel Surnow, executive producer of the show. Someone asked him whether he would depict "waterboarding," an interrogation technique lending the illusion of drowning to induce testimony. Yes, he replied, and added wryly, "But only with bottled water -- this is Hollywood."
Few in Washington have such a sense of humor about what they say and do, and what the pols sanction in real life with millions of lives at stake is no laughing matter. We elect our politicians to make the hard decisions for us, but we don't re-elect them when they compromise too little -- or too much.