Death to Savvy Political Calculation

I saw a lot of this sentiment today in the run-up to and the aftermath of the House vote to suspend the Syrian Refugee program
Yep, that’s some good old-fashioned savvy Beltway Insider Realpolitik. That’s a man dropping hard truths from tough experience on arrogant and naive dogooders who don’t have the sense to roll down the windows of their Toyota Priuses long enough to know which way the wind blows.

​It’s also morally bankrupt bullshit.

There may be good reason to revisit or alter the refugee program. Concerns over the rigorousness of background checks, for example, which I understand give reasonable people pause. But concern about such things were not the terms – or, at the very least, not the public terms – under which this “political fight” was initiated. Rather, it was launched, with rocket fuel, on the basis that the Mooslim Hordes were going to overrun our defenses and blow up our women and children. That, unless we round ‘em all up or keep ‘em all out we’re inviting death and destruction.

Specifically, to the extent the previously settled matter of accepting 30,000 refugees under the auspices of our very-well-functioning 35-year-old refugee program became “a political fight,” in the first place was because, in the wake of the Paris attacks, certain governors – legalities be damned – immediately declared their states off-limits to refugees. Certain politicians, most notably presidential candidates, began calling for religious testsinternment camps and, in the case of Donald Trump, literally advocating for the forces shuttering of mosques and the registration and issuance of special identification to a religious minority

This was not rhetoric calling for a committee meeting about beefing up background checks or raising procedural issues demanding the attention of the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. This was, rhetorically speaking, a demand of total capitulation lest we admit our desire to actually see America burn. Against that backdrop, guys like our friend Barro above and those who complain about “tone” came out of the woodwork to lambaste allegedly deal-breaking “preening” while saying very little about how utterly frightening and horrifying the anti-refugee rhetoric has become since the moment the shots stopped ringing out in Paris.

On some level I get the appeal to political calculation. While people often claim that the matters of the day present clear moral choices – that their side is right and just and the other side is wrong and evil – matters which truly present such stark choices don’t actually come along that often. With the exception of a handful of issues, some of which are non-negotiable for either the left or the right, compromise and discussion can almost always be had and savvy political thinking rules the day. Pragmatism is not the worst way to approach an issue. It’s usually the best, in fact. 

Occasionally, however, matters are thrust into the public arena for which savvy political plays are rather beside the point. Where the balancing of policy and elections and messaging take a back seat to basic human decency and the appreciation that, short-term calculations be damned, there are some things that are right and some things that are wrong and that one does not abandon one’s ideals and give even tacit endorsement to ugliness and evil for any reason, let alone political expediency. Slavery, women’s suffrage and basic civil rights battles are the most notable in our history, but there are others. And I’ll be damned if the events of the past week don’t represent another.

If standing up and speaking out strongly against those who, with a straight face and with no apparent grasp of basic history, stridently advocate that we turn our backs on innocent civilians who are being persecuted and attacked is “preening,” I will most definitely preen.

If calling out as depraved those who would argue for the surveillance, registration and internment of a religious minority is an unwarranted claim to moral superiority, I will make that claim always and without fail and dismiss their notion of whether it is warranted or not.

If told that my unwillingness to negotiate away the essence of what I believe to be the heart and soul of America – its role as a beacon of hope and, when it wants to be, an example of kindness, tolerance and comity – will cost me a political fight, I’ll take that loss with my head held high. 

If reacting harshly against rhetoric which, Godwin’s Law be damned, is downright akin to fascism is an unwise political play, I’d rather be a fool.  

I don’t have any idea of what, if anything, the United States should be doing to help bring the civil war in Syria to an end. I likewise don’t know whether the events of the past 24 hours or so will make a tremendous difference one way or another to the plight of the millions of refugees seeking safety and escape. Like a lot of bleedin’ heart liberals, I have quoted Emma Lazarus’ “New Colossus” on Facebook but I likewise realize that even the politicians who roughly share my view in all of this aren’t advocating that we accept a truly significant number of refugees. But I do know that the rhetoric and proposals coming from those who would keep refugees out of the United States has been abhorrent and vile and that it is nothing of which we as Americans should be proud, especially given the examples of recent history.

If pointing that out harms my chances of winning a political fight, it’s not a fight I very well want to win. 

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.