Saturday, May 28, 2011

High End Malfeasance

Bob Somerby maintains that our crass, stupid, crazy political culture can be dated, roughly speaking, to the 1988 Presidential campaign, when the Republican Party and George H. W. Bush's campaign managed to turn the managerially competent but largely non-ideological Governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, in to some weird, anti-American creature from our nightmares, hating the Pledge of Allegiance, and making fun of a photo-op he did in which he was driven around in a tank.

That may well be the case, at least at a Presidential level. It was an ugly, stupid campaign, and the Dukakis' never recovered their reputations from that, which is sad, because the Democratic Party has been deprived of an important, intelligent, thoughtful technocrat because of party anger that he blew a huge lead over the sitting Vice President, losing in November because he allowed the Republicans to define him as, quite simply put, some crazy outsider who hated America. This pattern, however, of taking run-of-the-mill political nonsense and making crazy out of it became far more institutionalized, at least in my mind, in 1992.

Does anyone besides me remember the House banking scandal?

In our speeded-up Universe, it happened a lifetime ago and more. Young people graduating from high school this year weren't even born when news broke that members of the House of Representatives had been kiting checks without any penalty. By and large, I agree with David Broder's real-time assessment of the mess as "penny ante". All the same, over 50 members decided not to run for re-election that year, starting a pattern of volatility in House membership that has continued for nearly 20 years. After roughly forty years of party stability, this period seems odd, but is far closer to the historical reality (outside the old solidly Democratic South). One of those who decided to end his House career was the member from my old House district in New York, well-respected back-bencher Matt McHugh, for whom David Broder had much high praise. Further along in this same column, Broder quotes Minnesota's Vin Weber, one of the few and last serious conservatives to exist in Washington, to the effect that the banking scandal seemed to produce a set of expectations that were irrelevant to the issues Congress was facing. Broder echoes this, yet takes it a step further in his closing comments:
"What worries me is the effect on the public. They're putting all their hopes on new faces. And if the new Congress comes together and doesn't do anything about economic stagnation, about breaking the poverty cycle, about welfare reform and education reform and the rest, we really run the risk of a political crisis."

That is no exaggeration. And the risk is greater because of something McHugh and Weber can't say - but I can. When you lose too many people like them, you cripple the Congress.
This last sentence, when I read it in real time way back in 1992, jumped out at me as "odd". House member, regardless of tenure, serve at the whim of the voters. Long-time members understand this, manipulating and taking advantage of various perks, including the appropriations process, to keep the money flowing home so local power-brokers, and voters, understand that folks in Washington are working for them. All the same, the longer one stays in any one place, in particular when a single party dominates any institution for too long, an expectation of entitlement can creep in, and the temptation to go beyond simple exploitation of seniority perks can become overwhelming. While members from both parties took advantage of the lax oversight and management of the House Bank, it was the Democrats who had been in charge since the 1950's, so it seemed more than appropriate they should pay the price in terms of losing seats.

Furthermore, while it may well be sad to lose long-term members like McHugh, Congress has continued to function (more or less) without him. Yet this last sentence reveals something far more rotten than a bunch of bounced checks. One of the most important voices in American political journalism seemed to believe that House members should be given a pass, whether or not they have done anything wrong, because other parts of their records seem to balance out their wrong-doing. In the case of McHugh, his quiet yet consistent work-ethic seemed to suggest someone who understood how to get things done in the House of Representatives, something Broder always seemed to admire. All the same, it is voters, not high-end political journalists, who determine who is a member of the House.

Reading this column 19 years ago, I realized something was broken in our political culture, an anti-democratic streak within our elite press corps that continues, and has strengthened.

Virtual Tin Cup

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