Politics & Policy

2001: a Political Odyssey

Friday thoughts.

When New Year’s Eve came around in 1999, I was really surprised that we didn’t hear the Prince — or the artist formerly known as “the artist formerly known as Prince” — song, “1999″ a million and six times a minute. Well, we’re now a full month into 2001 and I’ve been equally surprised that we haven’t seen 2001: A Space Odyssey replayed a gazillion times. (Hey! My spell checker recognizes the word “gazillion”! Who would have guessed?)

As we all recall, 2001 was a profoundly dull film with some really exciting ideas. The opening scene shows a bunch of ape men playing with bones. A foreign object from outer space arrives and enables the prehistoric frat guys to use the bones as tools, and the first tool they come up with is a club to bludgeon each other with, suggesting our core barbarity. Afterwards, one of the ape dudes throws the bone in the air and as it twirls it dissolves into the image of a space station in the year 2001, suggesting, for you non-cinéastes out there, that even today for all our advanced science and complexity, we are still primitive tool-using, unevolved, ape people. (Doesn’t that fit nicely with the human nature has no history theme of Wednesday’s column?)

Wasn’t It Just Yesterday?

Anyway, anybody who’s seen drunk college guys eat Taco Bell at three in the morning doesn’t need to see a movie to know that. But it is interesting how much we seem to be acting as if we’ve evolved from the days when presidential politics was nasty, cruel, brutish, and not very short.

Not too long ago, it seemed Washington was in a Hobbesian state of nature. Maxine Waters, furious that white people are still permitted to serve at the highest levels of government, was saying all sorts furious stuff about how furious she was (“I have in my hands a list of white people…). Jesse Jackson was explaining how Republicans are Nazis and that Nazis were actually Republicans and people like Paul Begala were tutoring us on how half of the United States was full of bigots, slack-jawed yokels, and murderers and the other half was full of Gore voters.

Now, all of a sudden, the Kennedys are catching a movie at the White House, the Congressional Black Caucus is having “constructive meetings” with a man they labeled illegitimate, and the president just this morning held a chatty Cathy Q&A with Democrats at the Library of Congress. Come Sunday, according to the Associated Press, Bush will meet with more Dems at their retreat in Pennsylvania, “in between the lawmakers’ private discussions of suburban growth and union organizing with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, and their free time for snowboarding or target shooting.”

I can hear Chuck Shumer now, “You know, John, if I see one more strip mall with a Starbucks, I’m gonna kill somebody. Let’s go shoot guns.”

Where’s His Rock?

Of course its nice and good for Bush to be diplomatic with Democrats. But I side with Will Rogers who defined diplomacy as “the art of saying nice doggie until you can find a rock.” Or keeping with my totally extraneous 2001 intro, saying nice ape until you can find a bone.

“Changing the tone” in Washington is important, only because the tone became so unbelievably shrill — it was the only way to hear anybody over the Barry White music coming out of the White House (or Lanny Davis returning bookers’ phone calls). But if changing the tone means smudging the differences, then we’ve got a problem.

The most persistent propaganda perpetrated by the permanent Washington aristocracy is that bipartisanship is a great idea. You hear it constantly from the talking heads; the drumbeat that we must “put aside our differences and get X, Y, or Z done.” This is bunk.

The word “bipartisan” was more or less born in the realm of foreign policy when Republican isolationists — specifically Arthur Vandenberg & Co. — changed their tune about World War II and the Cold War. The threats from overseas made partisan differences seem petty, and rightly so. After all civilization was in trouble.

But there are a couple things to keep in mind. First of all, bipartisanship never really existed, even on the issue of the Cold War. Instead, there were a bunch of anti-Communists — with varying degrees of rigidity in their spines — in both parties who managed to form a winning coalition in Congress. The Democratic party was full of reds, peaceniks, doves, fools, fellow-travellers, pinkos, and isolationists. And the Republican party had plenty of standpatters, super hawks, and super-isolationists. It’s just that these guys couldn’t win enough popular support. But if you go back and look at the great debates over foreign policy in this country, the idea that everyone was on the same page is ludicrous (See, for example, “All Apologies All the Time“). Secondly and more importantly, this ain’t the Cold War. The most important argument taking place is how much of a refund Americans “deserve” for being overcharged for poorly delivered government services.

Bipartisanship Is for Suckers

Why exactly do we need consensus among the political establishment? The media loves bipartisanship and McCain’s so-called “radical center” because it affirms the interests of the media: that the government should do things that make government — and therefore the people who comment on it — more important. This is the real reason why even nominally non-biased journalists prefer Democrats. Democrats propose new things, they discover new “crises,” they make government the engine of capital “H” History, and journalists the Scribblers to Greatness.

This is why there’s never been a rollback — real, proposed or perceived — of the federal government that the media establishment didn’t bleat about as if their BMW’s had reversed over one of those “Severe Tire Damage” spikey things. Want an example of what I mean? It’s a little off-topic, but it’s my favorite.

Around the time of the “Contract with America” brouhaha, a psycho named Frank Corder tried to crash his plane into the White House. The Boston Globe ran a profile of him. Here’s how it began:

With everything lost — his marriage, his money and his faith in the government — Frank E. Corder laid down his crack pipe and liquor, purloined a tiny plane and soared toward the White House to try to seize in death what had eluded him in life…

Ah, yes, if only this drunk crack-head insane freak hadn’t lost his faith in government he could have been a constructive member of society. I hate psychoanalyzing reporters, but can anyone say “projection”? Anyway, back to the topic at hand. “Getting things done” always and everywhere means conservatives compromising on their position of essentially wanting to do nothing and the liberals compromising on wanting to do everything. The result is that something is done, though just not “enough” — which is fine for the liberals because it allows them to come back next time to provide more money for their “alarmingly underfunded” studies, pilot programs and other acorns destined to one day be mighty oaks of the Leviathan state.

In other words, liberals always get a downpayment on a growing program. Their sacrifice is delaying their full gratification and conservatives always surrender, but sometimes very slowly. This is the pattern for every liberal program in history up until about 1996 when we had some real reform, which meant, for example, erasing the federal welfare entitlement. The reigning cliché — which one can find in many assessments of Bill Clinton’s meager legislative accomplishments — is that changing the country through government is like changing the course on a giant ship. A small turn yields a giant change over time (If you haven’t heard this before, you’ve never been to a rubber chicken dinner).

Well, that’s sorta kinda true, but if you’re actually steering the ship, you’ll notice that you’ve got to spin the wheel pretty hard over to get any noticeable change at all. When there’s a spirit of bipartisanship reigning in Washington it means Republicans and Democrats are fighting over whether we should turn the wheel a smidgen to the left or an inch to the right and either way you should watch your wallet. We will stay on the same course and the press will salute the politicians for getting things done.

Yes, we can do without the character assassination, charges of racism and treason (all three of which we saw leveled at John Ashcroft recently) that distinguished the Clinton era so shamefully, but we could actually use a lot more partisanship, screaming, and “extremism.”

Politics in a democracy is the forum by which very real differences are aired. Voters, let alone politicians, can’t decide the right course unless those differences are aired loudly, angrily and publicly. The Democrats lost on Ashcroft because they made their most shrill argument and persuaded nobody but the converted.

Democracy was invented because we don’t want to fight like the ape men in opening of 2001, killing each other for the best bit of grub or tuber. But fight we must. Fighting is our nature and our need. When we put off arguments or shroud them in code (like we did in the 1850s with all sorts of now infamous “compromises”) we increase the likelihood real fighting. So far, Bush has been a true master at changing the tone and he deserves very real credit for outmaneuvering the Democrats from the first hour of his presidency. But, if he doesn’t (politically) smash them over the head with a bone when he stops saying nice doggie, it will be a real shame.


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