Thursday, January 31, 2008

Ebb Tide II: Watching The Tide Roll Away

In "Ebb Tide: Political Analysis Reaches Astonishing New Lows", we were looking at a column from the International Herald Tribune by Alan Cowell which amounted to one lie after another, with a grain of truth thrown in here and there.

I mentioned that those grains of truth would disqualify Alan Cowell from consideration for The Stupidest or Most Deceitful Political Analysis of the Year Award, if there were any other qualified candidates.

In my view, Ronald Brownstein [photo] is worthy of serious consideration.

Reviews of his 2007 book, "The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington", show quite clearly that Brownstein's analysis of American politics is based on three false premises: [1] that the federal government is "gridlocked" because [2] the two parties are more or less equally powerful, and [3] the two parties are poles apart. Neither party will cooperate; neither party will compromise; neither party can gain the upper hand; we're stuck in neutral. That's Brownstein's argument.

In a review of Brownstein's book, Art Winslow wrote in the L. A. Times:
Voting along party lines in George W. Bush's first term ran at 90% among House Republicans, almost 86% among House Democrats, 89% among Senate Republicans and 85% among Senate Democrats, according to a recent Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report. This may be compared with levels averaging 71% or less through the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter years...
What do these numbers tell us? Nothing! The national political landscape has been changing so fast that it is virtually unrecognizable compared to the one we lived in just eight years ago. Back then our president was already a scoundrel and a war criminal, but the Bill of Rights was still more or less intact, we didn't consider torture "normal", and none of us had ever heard of a "free speech zone". Telecom providers weren't archiving our calls and emails to hand over to the feds; libraries weren't required to tell anyone what books we were reading; we didn't have to take off our shoes to get on an airplane; on and on it goes.

The Democrats didn't stop any of it; they claimed they were powerless because the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress.

But having "regained control" of the Congress in 2006, the Democrats have done nothing in the way of recovery; there's been no attempt to claw back any of our civil rights, no attempt to restore habeas corpus, no attempt to follow up on the extraordinary and very well-supported allegations of Sibel Edmonds, nothing even remotely resembling resistance to any of the most evil administration policies -- with a few noteworthy exceptions, some of which, like Pete Stark's one-man truth-telling campaign about the war, or Dick Durbin's accidental utterance of the words "torture" and "gulag", lasted only a day or two! But according to Brownstein, we're stuck because the difference between the parties is too extreme! It makes no sense. None at all.

Brownstein's analysis is so shallow that even the New York Times has no trouble publishing a cogent refutation:
Brownstein skillfully and convincingly recounts the process by which the conservative movement gained control of the Republican Party and its Congressional delegation. He is especially deft at identifying the institutional and procedural tools that the most conservative wing of the party used after 2000 both to vanquish Republican moderates and to limit the ability of the Democratic minority to participate meaningfully in the legislative process. He is less successful (and somewhat halfhearted) in making the case for a comparable ideological homogeneity among the Democrats, as becomes clear in the book’s opening passage. Brownstein appropriately cites the former House Republican leader Tom DeLay’s farewell speech in 2006 as a sign of his party’s recent strategy. DeLay ridiculed those who complained about “bitter, divisive partisan rancor.” Partisanship, he stated, “is not a symptom of democracy’s weakness but of its health and its strength.”

But making the same argument about a similar dogmatism and zealotry among Democrats is a considerable stretch. To make this case, Brownstein cites not an elected official (let alone a Congressional leader), but the readers of the Daily Kos, a popular left-wing/libertarian Web site that promotes what Brownstein calls “a scorched-earth opposition to the G.O.P.” According to him, “DeLay and the Democratic Internet activists ... each sought to reconfigure their political party to the same specifications — as a warrior party that would commit to opposing the other side with every conceivable means at its disposal.” The Kos is a significant force, and some leading Democrats have attended its yearly conventions. But few party leaders share the most extreme views of Kos supporters, and even fewer embrace their “passionate partisanship.” Many Democrats might wish that their party leaders would emulate the aggressively partisan style of the Republican right. But it would be hard to argue that they have come even remotely close to the ideological purity of their conservative counterparts. More often, they have seemed cowed and timorous in the face of Republican discipline, and have over time themselves moved increasingly rightward; their recapture of Congress has so far appeared to have emboldened them only modestly.
It's pretty sad when Kos is considered "scorched-earth". But the whole thing is pretty sad. The so-called "hyperpartisanship" which forms the central thesis of Brownstein's book is not a fact of political life but quite the opposite -- a false story first floated by the Bush-Rove-Cheney White House.

The obvious purposes of this lie were two-fold: First, it gave certain congressional Democrats the cover they needed to "go along with the program" while pretending they didn't support it. Amidst Republican claims of "hyperpartisanship" and "obstructionism", complicit Democrats could link "bipartisanship" and "patriotism" to "justify" something they wanted to do all along.

And on the other hand it gave the media a club with which to hammer those Democrats who did oppose the radical Republican agenda. We used to have a few of those, as some readers may remember. But they're mostly invisible now -- ignored if not ridiculed by the mainstream press, denied any support from the national Democratic party "leadership", and left to fend off the hate and smear machine on their own dime.

And now we've got a bunch of Democrats in Congress who talk and walk and dress and smell like Democrats, but whenever the chips are down they vote like Republicans.

The penetrating questions, it seems to me, start with: How did the Democrats manage to give away so much so fast?

Next comes: How did the Democrats manage to give away so much so fast while only voting with the Republicans 14% of the time?

Instead Brownstein writes about "paralysis" and "hyperpartisanship". Who else but a mainstream "reporter" could pick up such a transparent lie and make a whole book out of it?

Brownstein's explanation of American politics is much, much worse than Alan Cowell's mess, which was simply one lie after another with a bit of truth thrown into the mix.

Brownstein's novel isn't simply one lie after another after another. It's layer upon layer of lies, all woven together. This is not a little bit of spin. It's a craftily constructed web.

Can we set aside The Stupidest or Most Deceitful Political Analysis of the Year Award for Ronald Brownstein, then?

Unfortunately, no. There's still a ways to go before the tide runs all the way out.