Totally Disingenuous

You disagree with the Republicans? So do the Republicans. 

(Editor’s note: Check out Slate’s new, improved “Book Club.” Click to read all about it.) 

Understandably eager to win back the White House now and worry about doctrinal niceties later, the Republicans may have gotten carried away. They have maneuvered themselves into a situation where their leaders—including their presidential candidate—are required to be disingenuous on almost every topic.

On social issues, Republican leaders pretend to be hard-core conservatives, when most are actually far more cosmopolitan than they let on. Meanwhile, on domestic policy issues, they endorse new spending and regulations like drunken liberals, while their inner conservative surely writhes in agony. Only on foreign and military policy does their public posture—an incoherent mix of pugnaciousness and isolationism—accurately reflect their actual beliefs, which are sincerely confused.

George W. Bush met with gay Republicans in April and declared that he was “a better person” as a result. I doubt it. The specific person Bush wished to be thought better than is the one who had previously refused to meet this group because that would be “divisive.” Actually, I don’t doubt at all that Bush is a better person than this fatuous bigot. What I doubt is that anything has changed. He was always a better person at heart, just pretending to be a fatuous bigot. One danger of disingenuous posturing is a tendency to overshoot the mark.

Bush is a yuppie, for all his Texas twangery. He also, on all public evidence, has inherited his father’s WASP values, under which a general obligation to treat people decently is very important but particular ideological passions are vulgar and boring. Who can believe that such a person would have any sincere objection to simply meeting a group of equally nice, well-brought-up Republicans because they are gay? But he fabricated an objection and then had to fabricate a small moral awakening to get out of it.

Years ago Hendrik Hertzberg, now of The New Yorker, coined a term for politicians who pretend to extreme social-conservative views they don’t really share. He called them “closet tolerants.” Ronald Reagan, after a lifetime in Hollywood, almost surely had no moral objection to homosexuality. But he pretended to share the views of the religious right.

Abortion is an even better example. Raise your hand if you think that George W. Bush—or George H.W. Bush or Trent Lott or whatsisname the speaker of the House—actually believes that abortion is the murder of an innocent child. But they feel they must pretend to believe it. Then they must try to explain why the murder of innocent children should not be a “litmus test” for admission to their party’s “big tent.” It cannot be done. As with gay rights, a double pretense—abortion is murder, but that’s OK—gets them pretty close to where their sincere beliefs might bring them anyway. But the round trip must be tiring for those with any capacity for reflection.

Listening to Republicans wax enthusiastic about new regulations on HMOs or a prescription drug subsidy program for seniors, you might suppose that the Republican-controlled Congress would be pushing for things like this even if the Democratic Party didn’t exist. Who believes that? The Republicans tend to clothe their ideological nakedness with a lot of talk about privatization, using market forces, or simply doing it smaller. They also claim to be doing it better, and they may be right in some cases. But this doesn’t explain why they’re doing it at all, or relieve the near-certain suspicion that in their hearts they’d rather not.

Well, so what? Hypocritical posturing greases the wheels of change. If you favor HMO regulation, isn’t insincere support better than sincere opposition? Intellectual dishonesty is a pretty recherché complaint. Maybe factual honesty is enough to ask from politicians. Forget the fancier stuff. Or, to put it another way, maybe John Mitchell (“Watch what we do, not what we say”) had a better philosophy than George Bush the Elder (“Read my lips”).

And yes, of course, disingenuousness is not a Republican monopoly. The Democratic candidate, Al Gore, is disingenuous in his new role as a fire-breathing us-against-them populist. (Either that or he was disingenuous during his entire previous political career as a self-described “raging moderate.”) Politicians of all stripes reposition themselves within their slice of the political spectrum as the demands of national vs. local office, or primaries vs. general elections, dictate.

Spin—the native language of politics—is inherently disingenuous: It is based on the premise that words are moves in a game of strategy. Every politician says he is “saddened” by some stupid action or remark by his opponent, when he is actually delighted. And they all love the word “frankly.” With this easy-to-use device, not available in stores, you can repackage an unobjectionable or toadying remark as an act of verbal courage. These rhetorical tricks are so ingrained in political culture that you can’t even call them lies. But even when spin is the truth, it is insincere.

Usually, though, what’s going on is the minimizing or exaggeration of a pol’s devotion to a few small issues. Even in the Age of Spin, it’s pretty special to watch a party basing an entire presidential campaign on the systematic betrayal of its true beliefs in both directions simultaneously. And the strain seems to be showing.