Framing fundamental moral issues as political

On August 21, Vice President Joe Biden was giving remarks on U.S. China relations to people gathered at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China. Here's a portion of what he said:

But as I was talking to some of your leaders, you share a similar concern here in China. You have no safety net. Your policy has been one which I fully understand -- I’m not second-guessing -- of one child per family. The result being that you’re in a position where one wage earner will be taking care of four retired people. Not sustainable.

So hopefully we can act in a way on a problem that's much less severe than yours, and maybe we can learn together from how we can do that.

That the Vice President of the United States wouldn't second-guess a policy whereby families can't have more than one child and are forced to abort their children is pretty shocking. Whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, you probably know that this policy is notoriously brutal, and one of the most legendary human rights violations ever implemented under a dictatorship. Women are routinely forced to abort their children and undergo sterilizations. They are given huge fines for pregnancies. As many as 35,000 abortions take place in China each day. The human suffering we're talking about is staggering.

Gaffes happen all the time with Washington players and they don't just happen in one administration or one party, but this is certainly a sad one. Or, if you prefer, a noteworthy one.

But what I find interesting is that the media didn't pick up on this story until pro-lifers started noticing it a day or so later. Presumably the Vice President of the United States had media following him around China that day, right?

The New York Times still hasn't noticed it. At least in the paper -- a blog covered it. This article about Biden's trip, however, didn't mention it.

And then when the media did notice it, they covered it kind of bizarrely. An NPR blog didn't report on the words so much as defend the Vice President (and this is the only mention of the remarks I see on the site, for what it's worth). It's rather odd treatment:

While in China, Vice President Biden inadvertently stepped into the U.S. culture wars with a seemingly off-hand comment about China's one-child policy that has caused American abortion opponents to rebuke him. ...

Then, in what appeared to be an attempt at striking a sympathetic chord with his Chinese audience, Biden alluded to the looming demographic disasters faced by both China and the U.S — ever fewer workers paying to support ever more retirees ...

Those who want to give Biden the benefit of the doubt will see this comment, culturally relativistic as it sounds, as his way of doing nothing that would add to the tensions in U.S.-Chinese relations.

After a week in which Chinese and U.S. officials got into a shoving match at the Great Hall of the People and American and Chinese athletes got into an actual brawl, the vice president's solicitude, if not choice of words, makes a certain amount of sense.

But not everyone wanted to give Biden the benefit of the doubt.

Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, said in a statement to the Washington Post's Right Turn blog:

China's one-child policy is gruesome and barbaric. Vice President Biden's acquiescence to such a policy should shock the conscience of every American. Instead of condoning the policy, Vice President Biden should have condemned it in the strongest possible terms. There can be no defense of a government that engages in compulsory sterilization and forced abortions in the name of population control."

I don't know why I bothered italicizing any of that since it's all kind of odd. I mean, I know that NPR is federally funded and all that, but I think the VP has his own media operation.

Other sites did better but focused on the political angle. See, Vice President Biden is a Democrat. And there'll be a presidential election in 15 months. Which means we've hit the part of journalists' liturgical calendar where all stories are about politics. And since some Republican presidential contenders knocked him for this, that's where the stories focused.

I get that politics is important. But they're not every thing. It's pretty easy to knock Joe Biden for saying he has no beef with a one-child policy and I'm sure candidates took their swipes. But can't we talk about this in a way that's more than political? China's policy is presumably something that most Americans want to fight. To make this a story about Biden failing to defend Republican values -- rather than American values -- is inappropriate, isn't it? And yet that's what most of the coverage did. Democrat Biden supports one-child policy while Republican candidates bash him for it. This story is much more complex than that and much more important than the Republican horserace. It's not a story that should be ignored, excused or painted as a partisan battle. And even those political stories -- so otherwise obsessed with politicians' religious views -- don't do a great job of mentioning Biden's Catholicism.

The White House did release a statement that they oppose the policy and that Biden believes the practices associated with the policy are "repugnant."

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