In his book “Integrity,” Yale Law Professor Stephen L. Carter says that three things have to happen for people to achieve the book’s title in their lives.
First, they have to do hard work — a lot of thinking — to discern the difference between what they believe to be right and wrong.
Secondly, they have act on what they believe, even at personal cost.
Thirdly, they have to explain openly why they are acting the way they are.
It’s interesting to consider Carter’s definition in the context of contemporary politics and the health care debate. Here are his words:
An integrity based on discernment will not allow a retreat simply because the criticism is harsh. That is surely why our folklore celebrates Harry Truman’s dictum, ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.’ We want our leaders and especially our presidents to be able to stand the heat …”
So let’s apply Carter’s definition to what at least appears to be President Obama‘s odd passivity at this crucial juncture of a year-long health care debate.
The president knows that a majority vote in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives to accept the Senate’s health care bill would bring about imperfect, yet substantial, health care reform.
He also knows these facts.
- That he has made health care reform the cornerstone of his first term.
- That polls suggest a majority of the public, at this juncture, opposes the different versions of a health care bill passed by Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.
- That the election this week of Republican Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts makes it next to impossible for Senate Democrats to get the 60 votes they would need to avoid a Republican filibuster of any future or amended health care bill.
So what should the president do? If he wishes to act with integrity, shouldn’t he be vigorously chiding members of his own party to accept the Senate bill? Shouldn’t he be putting his credibility on the line? And shouldn’t he be explaining why to the American people?
“All Americans deserve the human right of health care, and this is the best we can do right now,” he might say. “It’s this or nothing.”
Politics, of course, almost always applies the art of compromise. And Carter, in his book, does give politicians an out for stepping back somewhat from what they’ve discerned to be right. But, he makes clear, compromise only counts as an act of integrity when it advances the overall cause.
(Compromise) can possess integrity provided that it meets a fairly simple test: … the compromise must move you toward your goal rather than away from it. It must, in other words, be part of the strategy for attaining the end that discernment has taught to be good and right.
You be the judge. Would a presidential and Democratic Party retreat right now take them closer to their ultimate goal of universal health care? If so, how?
Applying Carter’s definition, the president and other Democrats seem to have a problem. Letting health care die on the brink of passage seems more like an act of cowardice than one of integrity. I’m at a loss to see how it could possibly advance the cause of health care reform in the future.
Which leads me to wonder. Come election time, won’t the public ask why the president and his party didn’t have the courage to act on their convictions? If so, ducking a health care vote now likely will hurt Democrats much worse come November than passing a bill that, at the moment, is unpopular. They also, of course, won’t have done the right thing. They won’t have put through reforms in which they fundamentally believe.