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.