Monday, August 06, 2012

Dirty Politics? Surprise! You're Soaking In It!

Frank Bruni has taken to his fainting couch over Harry Reid's brutal attack on Mitt Romney,
Spew first and sweat the details later, or never. Speak loosely and carry a stick-thin collection of backup materials, or none at all. That’s the M.O. of the moment, familiar from the past but in particularly galling and profuse flower of late.

It has spread beyond the practiced rabble-rousers of the far right, and Democrats are exuberantly getting in on this unbecoming, corrosive game. For many years they bemoaned an unfair fight: Republicans were by and large willing to play faster, looser and flat-out nastier than they were. Is there as much credibility to that lament today?
Well, yeah, it would be nice if everybody were above-the-board, if people didn't resort to anonymous sources to spread political dirt, if the shoving matches between political candidates were fairly mediated or assessed by the media, and the like. A bit more of that and you might see politicians run cleaner campaigns.

But here's the thing: If you write a column wringing your hands over how Harry Reid is a big meany-pants who won't leave poor Mitt Romney alone, you're not part of the solution. Harry Reid may as well be turning a giant key in you back and setting you off to do his bidding, like clockwork. Your indignation doesn't bother Reid - he's not the one running for office. He wants you to keep the story alive and guess what, the more indignant you are, the more fire you breathe about how unfair he's being, the more you contribute to the continuation and prominence of the story.

Bruni refers to the allegation that Romney may not have paid taxes for a significant number of years as a "casual slander of Romney". By definition, a slander is a false statement that is harmful to somebody's reputation. Unless Bruni knows for a fact that Reid's statement is false, he is engaging in the same form of over-the-top rhetoric he is criticizing. Bruni's exaggerated response reinforces Reid's point - that he's happy to be proved wrong, but that can only be done if Romney releases his tax returns. Bruni would be better off making his argument from neutral ground - Reid's tactics are wrong even if it turns out that the substance of his remarks are correct.

A fair question: Is Reid's statement, true or false, harmful to Romney's reputation? Would anybody be surprised if Romney found a way to pay zero taxes - or even if he found a way to get tax refunds while raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred compensation? Would anybody think less of him? I suspect not. I suspect that the Republican leaders who presently defend tax avoidance as an act of patriotism would double down on that argument and that the polls would remain pretty much where they are. As many Republicans have pointed out, we appear to be at a point where any harm to Romney is self-inflicted.

I don't mind columnists lamenting the decline of civility in politics, the lockstep partisanship that prevents Republicans from working with Democrats to address issues of serious public concern, how issues such as Romney's taxes are a distraction from what's really important - and in fact allow Romney to blow smoke and pretend it's serious policy, because political commentators are so focused on the horse race and "low blows" that, for the most part, they don't reserve any column space for actual analysis. But if you're one of the people in a position to shape the public debate, and you choose the horse race and back-and-forth as the priority for your analysis, you're playing right into the hands of the people you criticize. In Internet parlance, you're feeding the trolls.

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