Last week on Slate, two commentators analyzed the new series of TV ads for Hillary Clinton in her senate campaign against Rick Lazio. The ads feature Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City. Koch likes Lazio, he says, but he's going to vote for Hillary. After all, Lazio is a candidate who doesn't want the government to pay for abortions for poor women! One of the analysts commended this ad for its savvy strategy. In Lazio, the Republicans have the edge in personality, he noted, but the Democrats have the "issues." So in the ad Koch himself acknowledges that Lazio is a nice guy—before giving him the black spot.This is worth pondering. Consider, for starters, that the Clinton-Lazio race pits one commited pro-choicer against another. The difference between them is that Lazio opposed federal funding of partial-birth abortions. So Hillary Clinton, she who has such a passion for the welfare of children once they are safely out of the womb, is shocked—shocked!—at the callous restrictions that her opponent would place on a (poor) woman's right to choose. But it gets even more interesting. Why, exactly, does this distinction—between the absolutist pro-choicer Clinton and the not-quite-absolutist Lazio—figure as an "issue" for the voters of New York State? The answer has to do with an under-noticed but very important component of "voting behavior." When people vote, they are guided not only by obvious self-interest but also by a desire to feel good about themselves. Indeed, one reason many people go to the polls in the first place, even when they aren't familiar with many of the candidates and the "issues," is that if they didn't vote they would feel guilty. (An analysis of the 1994 congressional election revealed that the vast majority of Americans who voted knew nothing about the much ballyhooed "Contract with America." As subsequent events demonstrated, there was no "mandate.")Hillary Clinton's campaign ad that refers to abortions for poor women is intended to encourage voters to feel that a vote for Clinton is a vote for compassion, whereas a vote for Lazio is not. It is not at all hard to imagine voters who are moved by that appeal but who would also, in a different context, where the emphasis was on the dismemberment of a half-born child, assent to the modest restrictions struck down in the recent Supreme Court decision. Who ever said that politics is logical?The relative failure, to date, of the anti-abortion movement is perhaps above all a failure of imagination. What is needed is not more determination, not more denunciation, and certainly not more violence, but more imagination. Justice Clarence Thomas's "graphic" description of what is entailed in a partial-birth abortion was a faltering step—but in the right direction nonetheless. We need many more such efforts, until the very word "choice" (a perfectly good word, alas) is thoroughly discredited.
John Wilson is Editor of Books & Culture and Editor-at-Large for Christianity Today. Visit Books & Culture online at BooksandCulture.com or subscribe here.
Slate's article, " Koch Shot," includes streaming video of the ad.For more on last week's Supreme Court decision on partial-birth abortion, see last Thursday's ChristianityToday.com Weblog.Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:Mad Scientist Holds World Hostage | Thoughts on the "rough draft of the genome map." By John Wilson History Wars Update | 'Feisty' historians attempt to reconstruct their discipline. By Donald A. Yerxa Semite Sensibility | What makes a movie Jewish? A series of film festivals takes a look. By Camilla Luckey (June 12, 2000) Beneath the Orange and Green | A survey shows Northern Ireland's hope lies in its churchgoers. By Mark Noll (June 5, 2000) Barna & Bailey | The Greatest Research Show on Earth? By John Wilson (May 22, 2000) Peacemaking in Northern Ireland | Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell considers the long, often painful process. By Mary Cagney (May 15, 2000) Our Bodies, Our Selves? | Facing the discomfort we have with our physiques. By John Wilson (May 8, 2000) True West | Three excellent museum shows—not to mention our magazines—reexamine the American frontier. By John Wilson (May 1, 2000) Defending Faith and Learning | Baylor University's Polanyi Center comes under fire from the university's faculty. By John Wilson (Apr. 24, 2000)
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