Bombast over finesse

You had three agendas last week at the Saddleback Church forum.

Rick Warren, the casual preacher, was trying to establish himself as the modernized Falwell, more willing than his evangelically political ancestors to exhibit kindness toward Democrats and political inclusiveness in his purpose-driven theology.

Barack Obama was trying to put on display his new kind of politics of bipartisan hope, one that blends elements of secularism, liberalism and moderate religion with something different from a left-tending Democrat -- a courteous, respectful and solicitous nod to those of more strident moral views.

John McCain, disdainful of religious conservatives a year or two before, wanted to try to preserve the old polarized Republican evangelical base and pander to it.

Warren and McCain succeeded.

The preacher presented questions based in religious fundamentalism, but he dressed them up with a smile, even maybe a bit of a wink toward Obama, almost as if to signal to the Democratic candidate that, truth be known, he could go along with some of that moderation and nuance.

McCain came armed with the same superficial bombast that gave us what we've had the past eight years. When does life begin? Conception, he said simply. What to do about gasoline prices? Drill now, he said simply.

Obama fell into that trap by which Republicans and the evangelicals and fundamentalists have caught so many Democrats over the years. It's the trap of trying to finesse in the face of the opposition's simplistic bombast.

The finesse inevitably comes across as slick, evasive, professorial, defensive, deflective, less than honest, not genuine. Bombast, by contrast, looks brave and true.

Time and again Obama took Warren's queries and turned them into thoughtfully ambivalent lectures in which he attempted to explain that he shared the audience members' spiritual and moral values, but not necessarily their political confidence in the pragmatic application of those values to workable policy in this complex, pluralistic nation and world.

In the end his best effort at presenting a new and more obliging Democratic politics came off as, well, recycled Clintonism.

When one guy is giving simple, straight answers, confident that he is galvanizing one polarized faction and satisfied that he has no prayer with the other polarized faction, and when the other guy is trying to hold one polarized faction at bay while he tries to make nice with the other polarized faction, then the smart money should be put on the man with the simple, straight answers who is willing to take a side.

The Democratic finesse is fraught with peril. When does life begin? Obama said that was above his pay grade.

Oh, dear. Simple questions of right-and-wrong should never be dismissed as above a presidential candidate's pay grade. For that matter, there's not much that an applicant for president of the United States can successfully dismiss as above his pay grade.

I see an attack ad in mid-October. Dare you vote for the guy who says moral questions are above his pay grade?

Obama would have been better off answering simply that life begins at conception or actual birth -- either one -- then adapting that answer to the political, legal and social realities.

He could then have gone on the offensive. He could have said that Roe v. Wade is the law, that repealing it would still allow states to allow abortion and that abortion opponents ought to be figuring out by now that the bombastic and superficial pandering to them by the Bushes and McCains hadn't accomplished what he intended to accomplish, which was reducing abortion in the country.

He said some of that, actually, but it got lost in the tired finesse and the pay-grade gaffe.


John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@