(POLITICAL) CHARITY CASE

Much like a lot of people who opine for reasonably-sized audiences, Cass Sunstein deems Barack Obama and John McCain both more admirable than most US Senators. His reason:

Politicians who show respect–Senator McCain is a good example–tend not to attack the competence, the motivations, or the defining commitments of those who disagree with him. Politicians who show charity as well as respect–Senator Obama is a rare example–tend to put opposing arguments in the best possible form, to praise the motivations of those who offer such arguments, and to seek proposals that specifically accept the defining commitments of all sides.

In other words, McCain shows respect by criticizing just the reasoning and not the character of his opponents; Obama shows the greater virtue of charity by affirming the character of his opponents and stating their arguments in the most generous terms possible.

They do?

Of course, it would be tacky to just scrounge up a single example of McCain vituperatively attacking the character of an opponent. So let’s restrict ourselves to examples of McCain vituperatively attacking the character of the most charitable Senator in America (TM). Maybe this counts:

I concluded your professed concern for the institution and the public interest was genuine and admirable. Thank you for disabusing me of such notions with your letter… I’m embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in political to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble.

As for Obama, he’s certainly outspoken on the virtues of granting those you disagree with the benefit of the doubt. After all, that was the principle behind his criticism of liberal advocacy groups that criticized Pat Leahy:

The knee-jerk unbending and what I consider to be unfair attacks on Senator Leahy’s motives were unjustified…the same unyielding, unbending, dogmatic approach to judicial confirmation has in large part been responsible for the kind of poisonous atmosphere that exists in this Chamber…These groups on the right and left should not resort to the sort of broad-brush dogmatic attacks that have hampered the process…

Watch as Barack Obama rises to defend the character of someone he disagrees with and – all the better to strike a blow for political charity – calls out the critics for being so “knee-jerk…unyielding, unbending…broad-brush dogmatic…” In his zeal to defend Pat Leahy’s honor, you’d almost think he was criticizing the character of those he disagrees with about the appropriate way to criticize Pat Leahy – or at least failing to present their argument in “the best possible form.”

What was the argument that drove Barack Obama into a fit of political charity? He’s too much of a gentleman to name names, but he most quoted criticism of Leahy from the left for voting for Roberts came from People for the American Way:

His decision was inexplicable, and deeply disappointing. When John Roberts becomes Chief Justice and votes to erode or overturn longstanding Supreme Court precedents protecting fundamental civil rights, women’s rights, privacy, religious liberty, reproductive rights and environmental safeguards, Senator Leahy’s support for Roberts will make him complicit in those rulings, and in the retreat from our constitutional rights and liberties.”

I suppose it’s unyielding in that PFAW hasn’t changed its position on Pat Leahy voting for John Roberts. Knee-jerk? Well, maybe they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they hadn’t put together those many-hundred-page reports on the guy. The word “complicit” earned condemnation as “vicious” from the Washington Post. But all it means is he shares some measure of responsibility for the actions on the bench of a man he voted to put there.

The more interesting question, perhaps, rather than how well Cass Sunstein’s chosen paragons live up to his chosen virtues of political respect and charity is whether these virtues – however commendable in private life – are really virtuous in public life at all. Should people who dislike social darwinism and dislike laissez-faire conservatism call foul when Barack Obama suggests the former is motivating the latter?

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GOTCHA GOTTA GO? NO.

Apparently, Sam Waterston has ended his much-lamented silence in American political discourse and spoken out to urge his adoring fans to heed the call of the “American idealists” at Unity08. They’re the folks who believe that all the scourges of modern American politics – special interest-driven corruption, nasty gotcha politics, the belief that women’s rights is a crucial issue – could be beaten back if only there was a presidential ticket composed not of Democrats or Republicans but of one of each, and chosen not by people who turn out in primaries but by people who turn out in primaries held over the internet by “American idealists.”

For those stubborn folks for whom Sam Waterson having “looked at it closely”, isn’t sufficient evidence that Unity08 “could save this country we love,” some obvious questions present themselves. Well, a lot of obvious questions.

Here’s one: Would a decline in gotcha politics really go hand in hand with a decline in corruption?

The conflation of the two is commonplace in media narratives grasping for any explanation of voter disgust with Congress that doesn’t involve the kinds of laws the Congress is passing or isn’t. But I think the irony here is that one of few functional bulwarks against rampant corruption in Washington is gotcha politics.

If our elected officials were circumspect about not disparaging the character of their counterparts on the other side of the aisle, would the likes of Conrad Burns and Bob Ney have gone down to defeat? Would incoming legislators, new and old, have as much reason to fear following in their footsteps? Quotes from CREW’s Melanie Sloan in and of themselves are simply not enough to grab media and voter attention, let alone overcome all the advantages of incumbency. What helps the charges stick? Relentless criticism from the folks with a chance, at least sometimes, of getting heard: your challenger, and your fellow elected officials. If you don’t have to fear getting gotcha-ed, there’s more cause to do gotcha-worthy things.

Now of course it would be nice to truly venal behavior by elected officials got called out on both sides of the aisle. It’s simply not credible to claim, as the Unity08 folks and much of the media do, that both parties have the same track record on this. Compare the treatment of Bill Jefferson (D-LA) and Tom DeLay (R-TX) by their party leaders. One lost his committee chairmanship. The other was positioned for a good stretch to remain Majority Leader. Unfortunately, opinion leaders who can count more adherents than Sam Waterston delight in the myth that the two parties are bearers of equal and opposite corruption, and that that corruption – the reward of money with power and of power with money – has no relationship to ideology.

That said, when elected officials do speak in one voice across party lines, it’s as often to unite across party lines in defense of questionable congressional practices as in condemnation of them. Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert stood together in a show of bipartisanship to condemn the FBI search of Jefferson’s office. Senators and congressmen of both parties stand together to raise their salaries swiftly and quietly. They stand firm in bipartisan defense of gerrymandering congressional districts. That’s because no matter how otherwise representative your member of congress is of you, she will always be fundamentally unrepresentative in that she is herself a member of congress. Dave Barry once said the best way to get great Nielson ratings would be to make a sitcom about a Nielson family. Similarly, if you’re looking to find policies that members of Congress acorss the political spectrum will support, the right place to start is with policies that make it easier, more enjoyable, and more permanent to be a member of Congress. If you want to see those policies stop, bemoaning gotcha politics is not the place to start.

OUT GROUP

A couple paragraphs into Patrick Healy’s New York Times analysis on the New York Supreme Court’s decision rejecting equal marriage rights for gay couples is this peculiar turn of phrase:

Yesterday’s court ruling against gay marriage was more than a legal rebuke, then — it came as a shocking insult to gay support groups.

Gay support groups? It’s old news that the Times is loathe to describe the camps in language like “pro-gay” or “anti-gay” for fear of bringing down another round of rebuke from those in the latter camp, many of whom were last seen promoting the idea that the paper is willfully trying to help Al-Qaeda assassinate Donald Rumsfeld. But it’s really disappointing to see the paper slip into language in describing political groups engaged in collective action to transform policies hostile to gay people which makes it sound like we’re talking about individuals struggling with how to make it through a plight or pathology.

Kos loses it:

Once upon a time, party officials feared NARAL, they feared the unions, they feared the Sierra Club, they feared trial lawyers, they feared NOW, they feared the NAACP, they feared Latino groups, and so on. For the first time, it looks like they’re starting to fear people, not special interest groups. We’re growing up as a party.

Wal-Mart is a special interest because it leverages a tremendous amount of money and power to serve narrow ends which benefit a tiny constituency of plutocrats and wreak havoc on the lives of most Americans.

Unions pool and leverage the power of their members and their willingness to engage in organizing and collective action to secure justice for themselves and for millions of working Americans. There is no comparison.

To say that bevy (however large) of bloggers (folks who are disproportionately whiter, richer, and maler than America, let alone the Democratic party) are real people in a way that organized workers, organized environmentalists, organized women, and organized people of color are none is outrageous.