Wednesday, November 02, 2005

# Posted 7:34 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

TOO MUCH NUANCE! I mentioned a couple of days ago that I hope some day to understand what Stephen Breyer means when he talks about "active liberty". To that end, I downloaded an interview that Breyer did with George Stephanopoulos on the October 2 edition of This Week. (Podcast URL: http://abcnews.go.com/xmldata/xmlPodcast?id=940303)

Well, I still don't know what Breyer is talking about. Whenever Stephanopoulos asked Breyer anything, the justice was careful to hedge his remarks by saying that his answer only applied to certain cases. While it is admirable for Breyer not to overstate the value of his theory, I was really left with no sense at all of how to separate those cases to which it applied from those to which it didn't.

And I still don't understand the theory itself. What Breyer says he wants is for the court to take into consideration the Founders' desire to promote active participation in government. But by whom? Citizens? Legislatures? And what exactly counts as participation?

Perhaps the fault here is mine. My knowledge of constitutional logic and history is clearly deficient. And I clearly need to read Breyer's book. But I still get the sense that Breyer should be able to explain his ideas better.

It's not as if I'm asking for a soundbite or an elevator pitch. Breyer had almost 15 minutes on ABC. Not enough to convert a skeptic, but certainly enough to clarify his stance. Which makes me wonder: Is Breyer's maddening subtletly an inherent part of early 21st centuryAmerican liberalism?

Certainly, John Kerry got into plenty of trouble because he couldn't reduce his message to a soundbite. And here's another example: Last night, Chris Matthews had Howard Dean as a guest on Hardball. Take a look at their exchange about abortion:
DEAN: ...all these abortion cases, that's a family's personal business. That's not the government's business. And we'd like to keep the government out of people's private, personal lives.

MATTHEWS: But the Democratic Party [is] a pro-choice party, period?

DEAN: The government...

MATTHEWS: The Democrats, your party, is a pro-choice party?

DEAN: No. My party respects everybody's views, but my party firmly believes that the government should stay out of people's personal lives.

MATTHEWS: But you are a pro-choice party? Are you not? You sound like you're against ever being pro-life. Are you pro-choice?

DEAN: I'm not against people for being pro-life. I actually was the first chairman who met for a for a long time with pro-life Democrats.

MATTHEWS: This is the complicated thing for people. The people believe the Republican Party, because of its record, supports the pro-life position. Does your party support the pro-choice position?

DEAN: The position we support is a woman has the right to make -- and a family has the right to make up their own mind about their health care without government interference.

MATTHEWS: That's pro-choice.

DEAN: A woman and a family have a right to make up their own minds about their health care without government interference. That's our position.

MATTHEWS: Why do you hesitate from the phrase pro-choice?

DEAN: Because I think it's often misused. If you're pro-choice, it implies you're not pro-life. That's not true. There are a lot of pro-life Democrats. We respect them, but we believe the government should...

MATTHEWS: Do you believe in abortion rights?

DEAN: I believe that the government should stay out of the personal lives of families and women. They should stay out of our lives. That's what I believe.
I guess Dean should've said something like "Safe, legal and rare." But I think it's significant that Dean attempted to ground his position in a broad philsophical principle, i.e. the exclusion of government from family life, only then to back off from the logical application of that principle to the issue of abortion.

One might say that Dean's position is admirable. He is trying to return tolerance and civility to an issue plagued by divisiveness and resentment. Yet as a result, he comes of looking confused and/or disingenuous.

This is the Democrats' dilemma.
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