Tuesday, February 20, 2007


By William Fisher

We all know why our public servants are held in such low esteem: earmarks, bribery, corruption, obfuscation, et cetera.

But there is another practice just as cynical, just as toxic, and just as widespread.

It’s called pandering. And it’s not only practiced – but widely accepted as “professional politics” – by office-seekers and their campaign staffs -- and apparently by voters.

Pandering is particularly useful in primary contests as a means of telling the voters exactly what the latest polling tells you they want to hear. Never mind what a candidate said last week or last year. Never mind principles. Never mind that when the campaign is over, we won’t have the foggiest idea of what a candidate actually believes.

Obama is moving to the left. Hillary is triangulating. Giuliani and Romney are moving to the right on social issues. McCain is moving to the center. And so forth.

On Wolf Blitzer’s CNN “Strategy Session,” guests like conservative Bay Buchanan and liberal Donna Brazile accept these left and right movements as what candidates are supposed to do. Ditto for Chris Matthews “Hardball” with political pillars like onetime presidential wanabee Pat Buchanan and master strategist Bob Shrum.

So it’s not like voters don’t know about these sudden shifts. But, more often than not, they apparently prefer to believe not that the candidate is pandering, but that he or she has experienced some miraculous epiphany.

The most recent epiphany belongs to Senator John McCain, whose “Straight Talk Express” ran off the rails this week, as he wiggled his way from moderate right to hard right to please Falwell evangelicals and conservative primary voters in South Carolina.

In 1999, McCain said overturning Roe v. Wade would be dangerous for women and he would not support it, even in “the long term.” He told the San Francisco Chronicle:

I’d love to see a point where it is irrelevant, and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary. But certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America to [undergo] illegal and dangerous operations.

But that was then and now is primary season for presidential hopefuls.

This week, McCain was interviewed by ABC’s George Stephanopoulis and expressed his unequivocal support for overturning Roe v. Wade.

Here’s part of the transcript:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me ask one question about abortion...You’re for a constitutional amendment banning abortion, with some exceptions for life and rape and incest.

MCCAIN: Rape, incest and the life of the mother. Yes.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So is President Bush, yet that hasn’t advanced in the six years he’s been in office. What are you going to do to advance a constitutional amendment that President Bush hasn’t done?

MCCAIN: I don’t think a constitutional amendment is probably going to take place, but I do believe that it’s very likely or possible that the Supreme Court should — could overturn Roe v. Wade, which would then return these decisions to the states, which I support.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you’d be for that?

MCCAIN: Yes, because I’m a federalist. Just as I believe that the issue of gay marriage should be decided by the states, so do I believe that we would be better off by having Roe v. Wade return to the states. And I don’t believe the Supreme Court should be legislating in the way that they did on Roe v. Wade.

The straight talk senator did another one-eighty on former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

When Rumsfeld resigned in November, McCain said, “"While Secretary Rumsfeld and I have had our differences, he deserves Americans' respect and gratitude for his many years of public service."

But in speaking to a conservative South Carolina audience on Monday, McCain scrupulously wiggled out of laying any blame at the feet of President Bush by saying, “The war in Iraq had been mismanaged for years and…Rumsfeld will be remembered as one of the worst in history.”

He added, “We are paying a very heavy price for the mismanagement -- that's the kindest word I can give you -- of Donald Rumsfeld, of this war. The price is very, very heavy and I regret it enormously." Never mind whom the Secretary of Defense works for!

The saddest part of this tale is that many voters will believe the flip-flops of candidates like John McCain.

We should never expect consistency from human beings – we are blessed with brains to be able to rethink issues and change our minds. But not to rewrite history.

It has to be just a tad suspect that an oncoming primary can result in so many epiphanies.


By William Fisher

One of the uglier paradoxes of our time is that, as the world becomes vastly more complicated, the punditocracy becomes more simplistic.

Today, those who get paid to deliver their opinions and convictions in newspapers, on television, in the White House, and on the floor of Congress, are more undeniably, more absolutely, more positively certain their point of view is not only the right one, but the only one.

What ever happened to respect for the ideas of another? What ever happened to the question that anyone about to put forth some set-in-concrete viewpoint should ask him or herself: What if I’m wrong?

It’s called intellectual humility. It’s the opposite of hubris. It’s the un-arrogance of the thoughtful.

And it’s gone.

It’s gone because it doesn’t sell newspapers, doesn’t raise cable TV ratings, doesn’t score party political points, makes the Commander-in-Chief look weak, doesn’t further the presidential ambitions of wanabee leaders, doesn’t support ideological dogma based on “to hell with inconvenient facts.”

No one forced us to accept this construct as the “new normal.” We capitulated. We gave up. We surrendered to people who think we are stupid and uninformed. And, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, we indeed became stupid and uninformed. The world is just too nuanced for us to understand, we complain, and throw up our hands. We feel more comfortable with well-modulated voices and well-crafted words, the more vitriolic the better. We’d rather live with the faux certitude of flawed ideas than with ambiguity.

Yet the world is intrinsically ambiguous. And no one-dimensional conviction, however passionately or sonorously expressed, changes that reality.

What stirred up this rant was Howard Kurtz’s Washington Post story about Michelle Malkin. Ms. Malkin writes a column syndicated to 150 newspapers, runs a blog and an Internet talk show, and makes frequent appearances on Fox television. She is a mini-darling of the right, a kind of wanabee Anne Coulter.

And like Coulter, she prospers on outrageous rhetoric, the more outrageous the better. Howard Kurtz published this example about the Democrats:

"The donkey party is led by thumb-sucking demagogues in prominent positions
who equate Bush with Hitler and Jim Crow, call him a liar in front of high
school students and the world, fantasize about impeachment and fetishize the
human rights of terrorists who want to kill me. Put simply: There are no
grown-ups in the Democrat Party."

How’s that for nuance?

Or her book, "In Defense of Internment," in which she endorses the World War Two internment of Japanese Americans, and praises racial profiling as a vital tool against terrorism.

Doesn’t exactly exude respect for those with other perspectives, now does it?

Nor is this daughter of Filipino immigrants shy about responding to her critics—moonbats, she calls them. For example, she told Kurtz, "Particularly when you're a minority conservative, you get a lot of ugly, hysterical, unhinged attacks, because you're challenging so many liberal myths about what people of color should think."

Well, Ms. Malkin’s moonbats have their own views on just who is launching these “ugly, hysterical, unhinged attacks.”

But the far right is not the only party guilty of simplifying the world to its virtual vanishing point. For example, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann – one of my personal favorites – rarely invites guests whose views do not match his own. And the only reason we don’t hear more of this from the left is that the right owns most of the media outlets.

This is not a right-left question. There’s more than enough blame to go around. The question is what all of this intemperate, arrogant rhetoric accomplishes?

It dumbs us all down. The common ground it seeks is a burial ground for all ideas “not invented here.” It blurs the line between informed opinion and entertainment. It adds nothing to our understanding of the world or the nation. It makes us less, not more, informed. It further divides us on a myriad of issues. It moves us not a centimeter closer to being able to suggest practical strategies to attack desperately urgent concerns. It serves only to raise TV ratings and enrich the commentariat. We might as well be watching professional wrestling.

There are zillions of facts about which left and right largely agree. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator. Millions of American kids have no health insurance. Et cetera.

Beyond these truths, however, lies the question, “Can we fix it and, if so, how?”

Today’s Firing Line style of “debate” does everything to move us further away from ever finding real answers.

We have a right to expect proponents of ideas to advocate passionately. But that doesn’t mean heaping derision and abuse on everyone whose ideas aren’t our own. No one has a monopoly on wisdom.

The bottom line here is that the choice is ours. Thankfully, we still live in a country where the most lethal weapon in the arsenal of ordinary citizens is the TV remote.