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Feet on the ground – head in the clouds.

The Compassion Forum – Democrats steal a Republican show

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This format seems somewhat awkward, especially for Democrats. It is a positive and welcome change, but an odd thing nonetheless. You get the sense that the two sides are coming together for a more effective debate on the real issues that face us all. The location is Messiah College in Grantham, PA.

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Hillary Clinton got off to a slow start stumbling through words to piece sentences together as she dodged specific questions to say that her faith is not one example or about her. I agree to some extent, but in the frame of reference of a politician in a ‘Compassion Forum’ she’s dodging the questions. It’s not until she’s asked a question by a religious leader and not Campbell Brown, far from the toughest interviewer around.

The line of thought for her decision making process in the White House was definitely a strong argument. She denounces the defensive and abrupt process that has met critics of presidential policy in the past. There was no real accusation there, but clearly it was the Bush administration to which she was referring. This is a very strong position to have, but one I believe both Democratic candidates have this attitude.

The “potential for life begins at conception”? What a nice way out so that she can speak and pander to both sides? I do agree that she’s worked most of her life to reducing the number of abortions women have, but it comes down to education. Another question dodged, but a real history and body of work if you are pro-choice but agree we should work to reduce the number of abortions in our country. That should be something we can all get behind.

Senator Clinton took a great opportunity to talk about the issues facing women in Africa and other parts of the world in regards to birth control, forced sterilization and genital manipulation. Throughout my political science education I’ve read a lot on this topic, something that can horrify to no end. It doesn’t get much airplay, and quite frankly it’s a difficult discussion to have but it is great to see Hillary championing women’s rights as human rights around the world.

The assisted suicide question seemed out of left-field, but Hillary reminded us that the Terry Schaivo case divided America a few years ago. This forum must be a serious challenge for Hillary, she sounds robotic and over-thought for sure. It’s difficult to watch when she is uncomfortable or thinking on the fly. I’d definitely concur that the entire issue of assisted suicide is not at the ready in my mind, and I’m sure it’s not a top talking point for Senator Clinton.

After the break the Senator responds to questions from the audience. Her first question deals with her awareness of the separation of church and state but she agrees that this forum is useful for the topic. Comparing her question to the religious separation question to Barack Obama’s answer, I can’t help but feel her answer was incomplete. She never really addressed exactly how she felt about it, not in a “how would it/wouldn’t it affect policy?” way, but a “what is your personal philosophy?” way. It shouldn’t become a big issue, but he gets the win on this issue for sure.

The next question from the audience deals with Tibet and China, and on this subject Hillary Clinton is taking an idealist viewpoint I can only admire. I truly want to stand up to China as a nation, but I’m pragmatic enough to know that this would have ramifications far worse than anything we’ve seen in global threats since the height of the Cold War. She urges President Bush to boycott the Olympics, which I’ve already discussed and disagree with as a matter of protest. It would ultimately be counter-productive in terms of actually getting anything accomplished with China in the future. The fact that Clinton urged the boycott could hurt her chances in dealing with China if she were to become President.

A question about proliferation of low-cost drugs and generic drug proliferation to people in need who have no resources to pay for expensive medicine gives Sen. Clinton an opportunity to agree with President Bush and then criticize him for not going far enough for people in need. I don’t know that this issue really becomes a voting issue in most peoples’ minds, but it is a strong stance to have, and one that we must make if we are to remain a moral authority in any capacity.

Why would a loving God allow innocent people to suffer? “I don’t know, I can’t wait to ask him.” This yielded more applause than anything thus far, which I think is a tell about what the American people want in a candidate. Just be honest. She continues on to talk about the Pope and the call to eliminate poverty, saying we haven’t done enough. I agree, but that argument is harder to make while spending $500 billion simultaneously rebuilding and occupying Iraq.

Bible stories and people’s favorite this-and-that never entertained or interested me. She mentions Chelsea’s name, which is good to remind women that she is a mother as well, and a damn good one from what we’ve (or haven’t) seen from our media and paparazzi. Hillary’s next question from a director of the Interfaith Youth Core is about united efforts to deal with global warming. She basically responds with rhetoric for a minute or two and then splashes in a mention of cap-and-trade and her plans for responsible carbon reduction. This stuff is important to know, but boring in a forum setting.

On the subject of Darfur and Somalia, among other devastated and war-torn areas of the world, Clinton had to balk at the idea of committing US troops to a purely humanitarian mission under a foreign flag. I agree that this isn’t the type of thing a candidate can promise. She uses examples of the tsunami in Sri Lanka and the earthquake in Pakistan to illustrate other ways the US can give humanitarian aid. The question wasn’t really plausible to begin with, but she definitely took the opportunity to point out ways the US can help the rest of the world without troops with guns.

Do you believe God wants you to be President? “I don’t presume anything about God.” This answer resonates with me having been around pushy Christians as well as those who lead purely by example and I’d say this was the strongest statement she could make. She goes on to say she makes her best efforts and hopes she can make a difference in people’s lives. Another resonant point she made was that we must not become complacent with our faith and think we have all the answers. You could almost see that as a critique of her audience, but the event even taking place is a testament to both sides’ willingness to be honest about issues that face all Americans.

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Now it’s Obama’s turn. They launch right into the “cling to guns and religion” question. He points out that his words were clumsy, which happens often on all three campaign trails. I think a strong argument to make in this forum was that the Bible says to cling to what is good, and reaffirming that he is a devout Christian and has worked his entire life and with the church to find opportunities the people of Chicago. I believe, and I could be mistaken, that the Bible also says something about humans being imperfect and something else about forgiveness.

As a response to the “elitist” remark he simply says “we try to tear everybody down instead of building people up”. He continues to say that he’s worked with the church to help everyone his entire life, before he was thinking of running for President as well. He appeals to the core values of all religions by saying “I am my brother’s keeper”, which may help but some Christian leaders don’t like the parallels of their religions with the other major faiths of the world. He certainly has never come across as an elitist to me, but then again I was passionate about these topics before he decided to run for office and the comment was generally more aimed at those who vote on single issues. Arizona has done this twice since I’ve lived here, you’ll see those knee-jerk reaction issues on the ballot and major press in church bulletins and conservative talk radio about it, in order to get people out to vote Republican across the board.

Can we find common ground on the abortion debate? First, acknowledge the moral dimension to the decision. It’s a mistake not to because it is a very powerful choice regardless. Second, “people of good will can exist on both sides”. We should work toward eliminating the teenage pregnancies by focusing on abstinence while recognizing health of women and age-appropriate education in regards to sex. This generally seems to be pandering, given the forum, but very solid points.

Senator Obama does not want to comment on when life begins, but he knows there is something powerful about that potential for life, which much be taken into account during the debate.

Campbell Brown piggybacks on to this by asking about assisted suicide. A response I hadn’t expected was his connection to a living will, which makes perfect sense. If we all have a living will many of these cases could easily be cleared-up. While doctors alone should not make that decision, Obama believes there should be some way for a humane and peaceful end.

The next question seems to be about the True Love Waits abstinence program in Uganda and the role faith plays in that program as well as taking the opportunity to get a laugh and compliment George Bush on the PEPAR program working in Uganda. Again, he co-opts the abstinence plan and goes further to include contraception and health treatment. Wrapping the question back around, he also discusses the issue of promiscuity as a social cause of the spread of HIV.

Senator Obama is then confronted with his “punished with a baby” statement, which was in his personal example involving his own daughters. He elaborates to say that he was referring to the possibility of them making a mistake and having sex at 13- or 14- and somehow got pregnant. Again, I believe these are more clumsy words and Obama is keen to point out this was in the same day he said children were a miracle. If a flat-out lie counts as a misspeak, this certainly does.

Being asked about the literal 6-day-theory of creation, to which he gives an honest and well-pointed answer. He says that he believes God created this earth, but it may have not been in 6- 24-hour days. I believe the interpretation should stay open as well, the dogmatic approach some Christians take to a translation of a translation of a two-thousand year old book is astonishing to me.

Global warming and climate control seems like an odd or at least awkward topic for a religious forum, but the person asking the question begins by saying he doesn’t buy into the idea of a war between the science and religion communities. Sen. Obama’s answer is very fluffy and wordy, but makes a few key points, in that we must look to our own generation to be good stewards of the land and not keep passing the buck.

The Audacity of Hope comes up in the discussion of Reverend Wright, when the question of just how the reverend brought him to Christ. The story that follows is just a great “The View” type anecdote of his life, which would be well-received by anyone in the audience if this were simply a book tour, but the rules of politics apply. He elaborates on the level of ministry received from Reverend Wright and points out that it was not only the reverend as his “spiritual advisor”. After his comment that the 20-second loop of “Reverend Wright’s greatest hits” is not representative of him as a person or that church as an organization the crowd broke his speech

On his life in Indonesia, it again takes on the feel of a book tour. He talks of a more tolerant Islam being practiced at the time, and the fact that he actually attended a Catholic school during his elementary years in Indonesia. He morphs this into a statement that all faiths can work together in a modern world and that Islam can be compatible with that world.

A poignant question on Dr. King’s dream of cutting poverty and the lack of results over the last forty years poses the challenge of cutting poverty in half within ten years. Mr. Obama enthusiastically makes the commitment, but with humility, point out the uphill battle facing our poverty-stricken neighborhoods. His response meanders into the area of tax reform, eliminating tax cuts for the wealthy and gaining energy independence. He wants to build a system of health care, to prevent disease rather than treat it at increasing costs. After school programs and early childhood education programs will also play a role in helping rebuild our communities. He declares an interest to keep the Office of Faith Based Initiatives open, which I’m sure will play well to that audience.

“We have to be clear and unequivocal. We do not torture. Period. We don’t farm out torture. We don’t subcontract torture.” On the subject of torture Obama immediately rejects any use of torture on grounds of morality and efficiency. He points out that many from the intelligence community agree torture does not yield actionable intelligence. The strongest human argument here was that we will lead by example, and not concede civil liberties out of fear.

On the question of religion having far too much influence in public life, he feels we’ve fallen into a “false debate”. He condemns both extremes; that religion does not belong in any public discourse is wrong and that there should be no distinction between church and state is equally wrong. A strong question posed by Obama was to imagine Dr. King scrubbing religion from his speeches, or Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address.

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The wrap-up was strong for Senator Obama, although not near as strong as it could have been had the debate closed on the subject of torture. Many Americans’ sensibilities are truly offended by the idea that we export our democracy and break our own laws. It undermines our safety internationally, so in that it is counterproductive. Hillary Clinton didn’t do poorly, but going before Obama didn’t serve her well. She’s not near as strong of a speaker and tends to have more annoying mannerisms when it’s clear she’s thinking or off-balance. The real winner tonight, however, was the Democratic Party. For the first time in a few weeks those within it weren’t attacking each other so directly. I’d trade all of the analysis and punditry for a Compassion Forum any day.

Something I found out only after the showing was that CNN invited him to participate in this forum and he declined. I understand why, but it doesn’t help get a whole perspective, and it’s a cop out in a way because now he can prepare for some of those tough questions of faith without having his own confusion take over. It was a smart move for the campaign, a dumb move for a person who wants people to get to know him better. I do hope to see John McCain in this type of setting in the future.

One final note on the “elitist” argument. I don’t really know anyone who that comment might have applied to who a) watches political talk news or listens to talk radio or b) regularly insults people by calling them an elitist. This whole story is perpetrated by the news, as they anticipate how people must feel for a few weeks until polls prove they are horribly wrong. True elites in the news are pushing this story like crazy, acting as though they alone are “public outcry”, and I just can’t wait for the PA primary and any that follow (now that former President Carter and Vice-President Al Gore have urged Hillary Clinton to halt her campaign). I want to see these pundits proven wrong and dumb, yet again, just like it happened with Reverend Wright. Despite everyone continuously talking about this, the public opinion has not changed. People aren’t swayed by that crap. The common man is waiting for two candidates to choose from. When the time comes they will go in and vote on the war, or the economy, or some other single issue. Most Americans don’t care about this silly world of politics.

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