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Politics and purity

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I’ve gotten a bit of criticism from a couple of political allies about a piece I wrote this weekend for Newsweek/DB concerning claims that Chris Christie’s weight should be considered a major negative, or even a disqualification, when evaluating his apparently impending POTUS candidacy. Their argument isn’t that my criticism of these claims is wrong on the merits, but rather that this sort of scrupulousness isn’t something “we” can afford at the moment, especially given that “the other side” has no such scruples when it comes to playing the political game.

I’ve heard similar arguments about Glenn Greenwald’s ongoing crusade condemning the Obama administration’s woeful civil liberties record, which as Glenn points out is quite arguably even worse than George W. Bush’s. Yes yes the argument goes — Obama’s record on these questions is indefensible, but do you really want to help elect [parade of horribles] president next year?

There are both principled and practical problems with these arguments. As a matter of principle, everybody has to choose how dirty they’re willing to get and what lines they’re not willing to cross. After all, certain conservative critics of Obama aren’t willing to exploit racist arguments about birth certificates and the like while others are. It’s possible to respect the former people in a way one can’t respect the latter, and the same holds true for liberals who are or aren’t willing to use sexist arguments against Bachmann and Palin, and who are and aren’t willing to use fat hatred against Christie.

As a practical matter, the problem with lesser of two evils rationalizations is that at some point the difference for which one is willing to sacrifice one’s intellectual integrity is so small that one has ended up making that sacrifice for something that’s no longer worth defending. I’m personally getting quite close to that point when it comes to Obama’s civil liberties/foreign policy record. As much as I prefer his domestic policy to that of his likely opponents, there comes a point when it should become impossible to support someone who is carrying out policies that cross certain lines of basic decency. Again, certain conservatives reached that point with the Bush administration on the issue of torture, and certain progressives are reaching that point with the Obama administration when it comes to things such as unilateral executive branch decisions to assassinate American citizens without any legal oversight.

In the end of course everyone must decide for themselves what sort of things they are willing to lend active support. I may vote for Obama again, but if I do it will be with great reluctance.

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