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.