Thursday, August 10, 2006

Smells like Desperation

…and, frankly, it stinks. David S. Broder’s piece “Voter Anger That Cuts Both Ways” in the Washington Post describes the current movement away from centrism without weighing in on the danger this poses to democracy. He even goes so far as to say that the current mood poses a threat to the gridlock in Washington. David Brooks, on the other hand, reflects on the same voter disaffection in his piece “Party No. 3 (TimesSelect membership required) and plugs the “McCain-Lieberman Party”. He describes that party as follows:

“The McCain-Lieberman Party begins with a rejection of the Sunni-Shiite style of politics itself. It rejects those whose emotional attachment to their party is so all-consuming it becomes a form of tribalism, and who believe the only way to get American voters to respond is through aggression and stridency.”

Does anybody else smell that?

David Brooks is often described as the liberal’s favorite conservative. I would argue that he's the worst kind, because he's smart. Instead of choosing to use his intelligence to divine the most moral or even pragmatic take on policy, he uses his wits to shill for the party line far more persuasively than the Bill O’Reillys and Sean Hannitys of the punditry world. But when it comes down to it, he consistently defends conservatism. Now, when the political landscape is looking particularly dangerous for incumbents, the majority of whom are conservatives, he’s advocating centrism?

There are a number of assumptions here that should be exploded in order to smell out the real motive for Brooks’ newfound love of triangulation. First of all, there’s the assumption that compromise is inherently good. I’ve previously written extreme examples to show that this doesn’t necessarily provide a moral solution (two Nazis try to find a compromise between exterminating the Jews or expelling them forcibly from German lands, for example) but the Senate recently provided a model for exactly why compromise sometimes finds a crappy outcome for everybody. When Dems pushed for a hike in the minimum wage, and Repubs knew they couldn’t go back to their constituents and brag that they killed it again, they poisoned the bill with a near-elimination of the estate tax. If such a bill had passed, who would have been winners? The growth in income disparity between the ultra-rich and the working everybody-else would have grown t such a rapid pace that the minimum wage hike would have been too little from the outset. The government, already buried in debt, would have lost billions in revenue. The Dems would have lost credibility for providing a minimum wage increase that made the working poor even poorer in relation to the ultra-rich. The Repubs would have lost even more ground on the myth that they value fiscal responsibility. Oh, and the government would be more broke. Compromise, in this case, provided a bill that was a loser for not only the government and the citizens it supposedly serves, but also for the parties ostensibly serving those citizens. Way to go, Party No. 3. Luckily the Sunni-Shiite tribal politicos prevented this monumental blunder, though some smart Senators may have to pay for their good sense in the short run.

Then there’s the assumption that bi-partisanship naturally makes the government more productive. Sure, it may get further on a flag burning amendment, but on the issues that really matter, does this work? Well, we’re poised to watch sea levels rise some twenty to forty feet in my lifetime. Millions of people will be killed or displaced. What has bipartisanship done here? Support for moderate candidates like Maine’s Olympia Snowe keeps the Republican Party in power in Washington. In turn, the party chooses buffoons like Senator James Inhoff to chair the Senate Environment Committee. He has said that global warming is, “"one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated on the American people." Thanks, bi-partisanship. With any luck we can cut down on global warming by not burning flags.

Lastly, there’s the assumption that the McCain-Lieberman party will do better than the “tribalism” Brooks warns against. McCain made real headway against the administrations use of torture not by playing nice, but by being aggressive and strident, the two qualities Brooks denounces. But when the President attached a signing statement saying he didn’t have to actually do what the law said when it came to torture McCain found his hands tied by a Congress unwilling to go head-to-head with the White House. And why is the Congress cowardly? Maybe it’s because people like Joe Lieberman have been painting those who dissent as unpatriotic, advocating a show of solidarity with the president hat should only be limited to the length of the eternal War On Terror.

So if compromise sometimes stinks, often reinforces the status quo, and sometimes trips itself up, who would really benefit from a Party No. 3 with nor particular platform and an obvious predisposition to prevent real change? Why, the administration, of course. You starting to smell that now?

Bush, and his shills, used to present their policies as the right way to go. Now that all the evidence suggests that these policies are disasters in practice, they’ve resorted to characterizing those who want to take on a new direction as dangerous extremists (especially on the left. Presumably the far right is an enemy of Party No. 3, but you don’t hear Brooks bashing them much). So here’s the new talking points, decoded for those of you that feel nostalgia for the wonderful world of Orwell’s 1984: Our way is clearly the wrong way to go, but those who suggest going a different way are just crazy.

Joe Lieberman has stayed the course. Let’s just ask half of Party No. 3 how well that works.


Zach Jost said...

To begin with a quibble... I don't think that your example of a compromise should be seen as such. To qualify as a compromise, there must be an end product that was a result of both sides negotiating and coming to a mutually beneficial end. My impression of the minimum wage/tax break bill was that the Dems said "We want a higher minimum wage". The repubs then said "Nuh uh, not without a tax cut for wealthy people." Hardly sitting over a table and making measured cuts from what each side wanted.

To me, the minimum wage bill fiasco was pure political duck-and-weave. Like you said, the conservatives can't just outright vote the sucker down, so they made a calculated move to tank the bill. Rather than compromise, that seems to be the antithesis of compromise.

Aside from this quibble, I generally agree with you. A third party in the middle will do little or nothing to help matters in this country. However, I don't know that the direct benefit from a third centrist party will necessarily be another term for whichever dummy the current administration props up as its next candidate. Judging by polling info, call me naive but people seem to be finally grasping the horrificness of all things Bushian. Any conservative candidate is going to have to run away from the president - so do you run right or run to the middle? I say if you get Giuliani or McCain, they'll dabble with the right but stay firmly planted in the middle. Which could cause a deep rift in the conservative party. Which could split the party on its own. Which effectively ruins the "majority" that the Republicans had in teh last election.

I think it's conceivable that we could have as many as FOUR candidates for president... now hear me out. All the front running presidential names are so centrist it's silly - Clinton, McCain, Giuliani. McCain is too liberal for his own party, and the conservative flank may decide to mount it's own candidate. Same thing is theoretically possible for the Left, who seem to be growing increasingly wary of Clinton and could get a much more liberal candidate.
Will any of this happen? Probably not. But for the first time in at least 15 years we have an election that could bring in viable 3rd or 4th party candidates. And if you don't count Ross Perot (and who does, really?), who knows how far back you have to go?

Keep up the good work

Benjamin Gorman said...

I agree that the move on the minimum wage was a poison pill masquerading as a compromise, but I think it illustrates the danger of compromising in this Congress. A Lieberman-McCain Party would mean that some of those poison pills will be swallowed.

As to the next presidential race, I think it will largely depend on the outcome of this next election. If the Dems can take either house they will have to decide how much time to spend investigating/impeaching Bush and cronies. If thy do an effective job of that it will make everyone run further from Bush, and candidates who are geuninely on the left will benefit. If they do a bumbling job they will be seen as whinners, and that could benefit a centrist who can say they will be a uniter, not a divider. The problem is that we've seen the effects of these "moderates' for the last six years (plus, if you count Clinton). The right doesn't trust Hillary because they refuse to see her as a centrist (though she is, just like Bill), and the left should be far more wary of McCain because hes a lot more conservative than people have been led to believe. I've recently heard democrats I respect saying they would vote for him, and that worries me. There has never been a military action this guy hasn't supported, and just because he's fought against torture doesn't mean we can have him leading us into Iran and North Korea, even if we decide to obey the Geneva Conventions when we get there. McCain's hawikishness will be his undoing, as the war becomes increasingly unpopular, and Clinton's push to the middle will be hers, because she's already seen as cloying an manipulative, and the caluclated maneuver just reinforces that bias. I expect we'll have two people who didn't vote on the Iraq debacle running (probably both governors), and both will try to keep the election as much about domestic issues as possible, because both parties are liabilities when it comes to foreign policy, frankly.

As to a third party candidate, the economics of the system make the deck stacked too far against them. Rich enough to run is too rich to win. Perot had to paint himself as a guy who jumped out of helicopters with gun in hand to show people he didn't just sit in an office and count money all day, and that just made him look like a kook.