All Politics Is Hypocritical

Why the GOP’s current brand of hypocrisy is worse than the Democrats’.

All politicians are hypocrites, right? On this, a divided nation can agree. In the current version of this dispute, Democrats say Republicans are hypocrites for opposing the use of reconciliation to avoid a Senate filibuster even though Republicans used the same measure. Republicans, meanwhile, say President Obama is a hypocrite for supporting reconciliation—a simple majority vote—for health care reform when he said as a Senator that such majoritarian rule was “not what the Founders intended.” Hypocrisy is the seesaw of American politics. One side is labeled hypocrites and the other side returns the same charge. Whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you.

But not all hypocrisy is the same. It differs in degree and kind. In the interest of truth in labeling and keeping a tidy spice drawer, we should categorize the types. As a matter of politics, Democrats are hoping voters see the distinctions and agree that Republicans are the worse offenders. Their hopes of limiting 2010 election losses hinge on it.

There are two kinds of hypocrisy in the news today: One concerns policy, the other procedure. Policy hypocrisy is worse both morally and politically. It affects real people—and those people tend to vote. Procedural hypocrisy is less toxic because it affects mostly the prerogatives of members of Congress. It is less politically potent because it relates to things like “reconciliation” and other matters that require special terminology and quotation marks so readers will know I am tossing around technical terms. That requires voters to pay an extra measure of attention before getting the hypocrisy.

Democrats and the White House charge the Republicans are policy hypocrites on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Every Republican in the House and all but three in the Senate voted against it. In the year since its passage they have stayed on message, arguing the stimulus has not created jobs nor helped the economy, and has wasted money. But according to Bloomberg, 100 members of the House and Senate who voted against the measure sought funds from it—a fact that so excited White House press secretary Robert Gibbs that he used it for one of his maiden tweets.

This is the classical definition of hypocrisy: saying one thing but doing another. I am against such terrible spending but please give me some of it. The stimulus will not create jobs but please give me stimulus money to create jobs. The tonnage makes the situation worse. A few hypocrites in the GOP may be explicable. But a 100 suggests a systemic problem. (A corollary related to political hypocrisy is that its potency is compounded when it becomes alliterative: the Hypocrisy Hundred.)

Democrats are clinging to the policy hypocrisy charge—the DNC put out a video today—because politically it helps them use a tactic Republicans have been using successfully: making the 2010 election a referendum on political behavior.

The message the White House hopes voters will take is that Republicans are fundamentally unserious. They also point to Republican outrage over the handling of the Christmas Day bomber. According to an administration source, internal Democratic Party polls have shown that when people learned that the Bush administration handled the cases in a similar fashion, their view of Republicans diminished. (Obama and his aides have discussed raising the hypocrisy issue tomorrow during the health care summit. It will be one of the things Dick Button and the judges will be looking at as they use the summit’s complicated new scoring system.)

But wait: Obama is a hypocrite, too. He promised to be a transparent president but negotiated the stimulus bill behind closed doors. He would have done the same with health care, too, if Scott Brown hadn’t been elected senator in Massachusetts. He says he wants to extend the hand of bipartisanship—but beat up on that very same Scott Brown when he was elected. Democrats are hypocrites, too.

These charges are all true. They should be pointed out and the president should have to answer for them. (And perhaps he should lose his privilege to quote the Founders in the public square). But they are of a lesser magnitude. They are related to the way in which policy is made and politics is practiced, rather than the actual policies that affect people’s economic well-being. The same holds true of Republicans who supported a budget commission and then voted against it.

Simply quoting the Founders in support of your position—which both sides have done on the question of the benefits or drawbacks of a simple majority vote—doesn’t elevate your opponent’s hypocrisy to a different category. In fact, in the case of arguing whether a majority vote should be sufficient to pass legislation, the fact that both sides have simply exchanged positions adds to the nullifying political benefit to the charge.

Republicans would like to conflate the two kinds of hypocrisy. If all kinds are the same, their current infractions are less serious. They are helped in this by the fact that Obama ran for president in part by arguing that process was policy. By practicing government out in the open, he would make policy better.

Some procedural hypocrisy isn’t really hypocrisy at all. Republicans tried to filibuster the recent Senate jobs bill, and when they failed, some of those Republicans voted for the final jobs bill. This is familiar from any kind of negotiation. You threaten to walk, and when your bluff is called, you take the best deal you can get. If you ever have to explain this move out loud, however, it can be extremely politically damaging—as John Kerry learned in 2004.

There is at least one other category of hypocrisy: sanctimonious hypocrisy. Here, too, there are gradations. Sen. John Ensign presented himself as a defender of the institution of marriage while carrying on an affair, a grade less severe than Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who prosecuted prostitution rings and was then caught soliciting a prostitute. Fortunately, at the moment this kind of hypocrisy isn’t a part of the health care debate. At least not yet.

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