Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Dirty Politics and Partisanship

Uh oh, Michael Gerson has discovered that politicians are being mean to each other, and he's condemnatory. Why, look how offended he is by:
  • The smear campaign, attributed to Karl Rove, that a politician with a long history of charitable work for abused children is a pedophile.

  • The push poll, suggesting that John McCain had an African-American daughter, benefiting Gerson's ex-boss, George W. Bush.

  • Whisper campaigns of the sort attributed to Karl Rove, that political opponents are gay.

  • The false attacks on John Kerry by "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," which again benefited Gerson's boss while inspiring a new word for sleazy campaign tactics.

  • Attacks on President Obama as a "socialist".

  • Circulating flyers in churches, calling John McCain the "fag candidate", and suggesting that voters who didn't want homosexuals in the administration should vote for Bush.

  • Attacks on President Obama's religious faith, suggesting that he's a secret adherent of "black liberation theology".1

  • Attacks on President Obama as "palling around with terrorists".

  • False suggestions that the Obama Administration is anti-Catholic. (Oops.)

  • False suggestions that the President was born in Kenya and isn't a legitimate President.

  • President Obama's suggestion that Mitt Romney's record at Bain does not qualify him for the White House.

Note, I'm omitting the various wacko smears and conspiracy theories used to attack Clinton, as Gerson wasn't writing during that period and is a creature of the Bush/Rove machine. But I don't expect I would have much more luck finding Gerson expressing moral outrage that Clinton's political opponents were suggesting that he was guilty not only of financial impropriety, no matter what the facts turned out to be, but of murder.

Seriously, it's very difficult to find examples of Gerson actually arguing against dirty campaign tactics. Part of that could be self-interest, as it would not have done his career any good for Gerson to tell his boss, and his boss's "brain", that their campaign tactics were deplorable. Or it could be that he simply doesn't notice or care what's going on in the southbound lane.

It's fair to note that for a guy who supposedly wants a return to more mannered political campaigns, Gerson has been happy to ally himself with the worst of the attack gods, and for that matter at times to join their chorus. "Obama's not a bigot - but he surrounds himself with (anti-white) bigots". "He's arrogant and patronizing", an "elitist", an intellectual lightweight.2 But when it comes to disavowing sleazy tactics directed against the President or other Democratic politicians, Gerson's silence is deafening. Look what happens when he's put on the spot, and unable to avoid addressing the false suggestion that Obama is "secretly a Muslim",
I think that this is a reflection of polarization. It is a reflection of a conspiratorial tendency on the Internet, which is true on left and right, by the way.
You see, just like whispers that a candidate is a pedophile or has an illegitimate African American child, there's no way such rumors could be planned, orchestrated and advanced by politicians, their supporters and campaign staff. The best explanation is that it's the Internet's fault. Yeah, that's it. And both sides do it.
And so I you know, I think and it's not but is not historically unprecedented. If you look back, people accused Know-Nothings accused Abraham Lincoln of being a secret Catholic, OK? People accused Franklin Roosevelt of being a Jew, OK, because with policies that he pursued.

There is a long history in America of people using these kind of attacks. But it was disturbing then and it's disturbing now.
And these attacks are disturbing, but they're really no different from the attacks that have occurred throughout American political history. It's disturbing but when you look at the big picture, no biggie, you know?
Well, it puts the president in a different position. You know, to object to this makes it sound like being, you know, of this faith is somehow objectionable, which it isn't. So, it's he shouldn't, I don't think, change, you know, carry a big Bible around. That would be deeply cynical, and he's not going to do that. The good book says, you should pray in a closet. That's, I think, pretty good political advice.
Tongue-tied and twisted. What else can I find? The "Obama's not a patriot because he doesn't wear a flag pin" argument? Gerson tells us it's not that Obama isn't a patriot - he doesn't wear a flag pin because he's a condescending snob.
It is now possible to imagine Obama at a cocktail party with Kerry, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis, sharing a laugh about gun-toting, Bible-thumping, flag-pin-wearing, small-town Americans.
In other words, Gerson is more than happy to be part of the smear machine when it's advancing his own political goals and agenda.

Gerson, predictably, feigns offense at the "polarization" created by President Obama's criticisms of Bain, and then it's all claws and venom:
Whatever his intentions or provocations, Obama is now engaged in partisan polarization on an industrial scale. His campaign’s latest round of Bain charges is not politics as usual. It is the accusation of criminal impropriety — the filing of false government documents — without real evidence, as various fact-checking outfits have attested. Obama’s recent attack ad, “Firms,” reflects the sensibilities of a particularly nasty 13-year-old. It is difficult to imagine most Americans saying: “That’s just what American politics most needs — more juvenile viciousness.”
Well, the evidence of the filing of false government documents would be that Romney is claiming to have "retired" from Bain several years before he stopped reporting himself to the SEC as President, CEO and sole owner. Gerson also deliberately overstates his case, pulling in the most outrageous statement made by anybody associated with the Obama campaign and pretending it's representative.

If I ignore Gerson's over-the-top rhetoric, he does make a valid point. Just as with the suggestion that Bill Clinton was guilty of fraud and murder, it's pretty extreme to accuse somebody of criminal activity when you don't believe that the charge will be substantiated, let alone that the person will be prosecuted. Unlike Gerson, I'm more concerned about conspiracy theories that don't die, or that are advanced for weeks, months or years by a political campaign that knows them to be false, than I am with an off-hand comment by a low-level campaign staffer. But I guess if you approach the argument with any amount of perspective it becomes harder to bash the President in the name of comity.
These are not excesses; they are the essence of Obama’s current political strategy. He is attempting to destroy Romney before Romney can define himself, while using a series of issues — the mini-DREAM Act, voting rights and contraceptive controversies — to excite his base. The approach is not politically irrational. But it is premised on the avoidance of issues such as unemployment and the deficit. And it leaves little room for complaints about the brokenness of Washington.
Why, it's almost as if they looked at the tactics of political operatives like Karl Rove, or politicians like George W. Bush, and said, "If we define our opponent, even if unfairly, we can win an election we might otherwise lose". Is Gerson's fit of pique, then, that the Democrats have studied at the feet of the masters, such as his former boss? That as dubious as the tactics are, they're actually pulling this off in a cleaner, more honest manner than one would have seen from a G.W. Bush or Karl Rove? Because it's really difficult to believe that Gerson was blithely writing speeches for G.W. without ever noticing his boss's tactics.
But these tactics do have an effect on politics. The most partisan Democrats are encouraged and empowered. The most partisan Republicans gain an excuse for the next escalation. This is the nature of polarization: Both sides feel victimized, which becomes a justification to cross past limits and boundaries. Neither side feels responsible for the problem, while both contribute to it.
It's difficult to argue with that. By dragging politics into the sewer, politicians like George W. Bush, operatives like Karl Rove and enablers like Michael Gerson set us up for a continuation and escalation of the problem. Except for some reason, in this context, Gerson isn't stammering that this is not really any different than what we've seen throughout the history of the nation's political campaigns, or that we should blame the Internet.

Funny, this,
Obama and his political team have a history of viewing themselves as superior to Washington and the “Beltway mentality.” The president combines a feeling of superiority to politics with a determination to beat his opponents at their own grubby game. It allows him to view himself as a pure, transformative figure while employing the tactics of a Chicago pol.
Gerson opens with the arrogance smear he's been pushing for years. He then states that the President is using the tactics of his opponents - that is, Gerson is stating that the "grubby" tactics he deplores when used by Obama are the intellectual property of the Republican Party. And that means that Obama is "employing the tactics of a Chicago pol", never mind that he just told us that Obama is using the tactics of the Republican Party.

And that "Chicago pol" thing? That's a smear that Republicans have been directing at Obama since he arrived on the political scene, a favorite of the worst of the hacks. Perhaps Michael Gerson can point me to a time when he has pushed back against the smear before giving it his full embrace? Or am I more likely to find the opposite?

Does Gerson actually deplore dirty politics? Truly, even if I were to ignore his role in the Bush Presidency, and say, "It was just a job - perhaps he held his nose a lot and hated what he and his colleagues were doing," I would have a difficult time believing that Gerson is sincere. Because no man who gushes about Karl Rove,
Rove's main influence on the Republican Party has not been a series of tactical innovations but a series of strategic arguments. In this way, Rove is the opposite of a cynical political operator.
can credibly claim that he dislikes sleazy, dirty political campaigns. It seems much more reasonable to infer that what people like Gerson hate is when the other side appears to be gaining the upper hand.

Update: I guess I should note that David Brooks apparently got the same party memo as Gerson and is in full blown hack mode. Brooks intentionally misrepresents the Obama campaign as attacking capitalism, when he knows full well that the actual attack is on Romney's claim that his experience leading Bain qualifies him to be President.

If Romney stumbled through the primary campaign and right wing attacks on his "vulture capitalism", it doesn't speak highly of him that he still has not formulated a response to the criticism of his background as a qualification for the White House.
1. Gerson did write a condescending column, asserting that Rev. Jeremiah Wright is an adherent of black liberation theology and suggest that if the President was not aware of that he must have been sleeping through the services he attended. He fastidiously avoided stating, "I don't think the President holds these beliefs."

2. Gerson writes,
But it is hard to avoid the feeling that Obama has gained the nomination without fully earning it. Unlike Clinton or Bush, his intellectual contributions have been slight. The wave he rides may take him far -- but he is not determining its direction.

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