Sins of the past darken the political soul. In the electoral environment they nag like a chronic disease: re-emerging at inconvenient times and usually only managed, but never cured. It’s not just about moral lapses, although they create their own conundrums. Political transgressions — policy mistakes and other governing misjudgments that sour voters on a party’s brand — often cause long-term repercussions.
How elected officials collectively repent from public-policy errors is an interesting question. The paths to effective redemption may be well worn, yet not well known. Still, parties need to try. But building back trust takes time — especially when political opponents all too willingly remind voters of past offenses and re-litigate errors in judgment. Unfortunately for the political sinner, there are few dispensations in the church of American politics. And “hypocrisy” is a powerful weapon with which to bludgeon opponents and ignore deeper issues.
Currently, Republicans suffer the symptoms of this truism. President Bush and his party in Congress have fought hard this year to control the Democrats’ voracious appetite for excessive government spending. As the GOP works to rein in the largess, Democrats consistently propose more funding and bigger government. Yet in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Americans still believe (as they have for the past two years) that Republicans are less trustworthy on the issue of controlling wasteful government spending. Now, when Republicans raise questions about Democrats’ fiscal largess, the first retort is always: “What about you?” As an illustration, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in response to one of Mr. Bush’s broadsides about Democrats’ spending binge: “After six years of reckless spending in Washington, President Bush is the last person who should brag about fiscal responsibility.” Never mind.
Apparently there are no statutes of limitation on political memory. Well, maybe there are some. I haven’t heard anyone blame Republicans for the Great Depression lately. But despite Republicans’ best efforts to regain the mantle of fiscal restraint, and a pretty strong track record this year, voters aren’t buying it — at least not yet.
House procedure is another example where Democrats dredge up the past to justify the present. Right before Congress adjourned for the August recess earlier this month, the House witnessed an ugly display of procedural abuse. Even though Republicans narrowly won a motion to deny government benefits to illegal aliens as part of the agriculture appropriations bill, the Democratic presiding officer quickly banged the gavel before everyone voted and announced the GOP had lost. What followed was one of the most horrid displays of partisan acrimony in many years. But when Republicans remind Democrats and the press that Mrs. Pelosi and others promised a more open and fair process, most retort immediately that Republicans engaged in the same kind of political abuses during their tenure as majority party, pointing to the marathon vote and arm-twisting when Congress passed the Medicare prescription-drug bill in 2003.
“You did it too” is the first refuge of the Democrats this year — a thinly camouflaged form of irresponsibility, but one that seems to work with the media. It’s the political equivalent of a rebuked teenager saying, “Well, you did it too dad.” This kind of discourse is just a variation on a broader theme. I call it “deflective hypocrisy.” And we see it all around us in Washington. It’s easier to attack someone for their shortcomings than address the issues they raise.
The conservative, pro-family advocate becomes disqualified from talking about his views if there are moral lapses in his background. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is prohibited from talking about issues related to the poor because he paid too much for his house and his haircuts. Republicans are barred from serious criticism about Democrats’ spending or procedural abuse because “they did it too.” Deflective hypocrisy means the deeper, harder discussion about family values, marriage, the poor, federal spending policies, procedural fairness or other thorny subjects gets shortchanged by silencing the advocates due to gaps between their values and behavior. Deflective hypocrisy is popular because it works so well. Why confront tough issues and difficult choices if you can end the debate by calling people charlatans? Unfortunately for Republicans, Democrats and the media figured out that throwing stones at glass houses has few downsides and is a great way to deflect responsibility for their own deeper challenges. But all that broken glass still leaves a lot of blood on the floor and does little to change the underlying problem.