Dick Cheney’s bizarre speech last night accusing Democrats of violating the sacred canons of Washingtonian candor and honesty is drawing the catcalls it deserves, but it does help raise an issue that’s been percolating just between the surface about the nature of this administration’s obstinant mendacity. Have these guys been consciously lying through their teeth all this time about Iraq, about the economy, about the budget, about, well, all those things they are getting so egregiously wrong? Or is there an element of self-deception going on? Now, for many Democrats, this very question is provocative: of course they are consciously lying, every day, on every subject, and to suggest otherwise is to go soft and concede some decency to people who will just see this as a sign of Democratic weakness. But as Mark Schmitt usefully points out over at TPMCafe, self-deception in high office is arguably more dangerous and damning than conscious deception. His post lays out the idea that the White House under Bush has been dominated by an “ideology of information” that sorts evidence into “useful” and “not useful” categories based on a pre-conceived agenda, essentially filtering out any empircal data interfering with the administration’s agenda in a way that creates a hermetically sealed echo chamber of self-validation. Even as the bloodhounds continue to search out and find multiple examples of conscious White House mendacity, the one truly incontrovertible thing about this administration is its incredible intolerance for anything like internal debate and self-criticism. Sure, there are differences of opinion, but only at the margins, and only on occasions where The Line is not dictated by ideology or the dark political calculations of Karl Rove. In the Bush White House, the only deadly sin has been anything like a continuing internal, much less external, dissent (see O’Neill, Paul and DiIulio, John for Object Examples of what happens to people who violate this rule). This is an inherently disastrous approach in any executive operation, much less one commanding a multi-trillion dollar budget, the world’s most powerful military, and to be blunt about it, the power to ruin and end lives, and shape a society for decades to come. There are very few costless mistakes in the White House. In my first government job, working for a Georgia Governor (recently deceased) named George Busbee, anyone briefing the Governor knew he would have to run the gauntlet of an incredibly smart young lawyer named Cecil Phillips, whose job was to sit in on any policy discussion and raise tough questions about anything proposed. This Policy Ombudsman approach always struck me as one of the smartest and simplest quality control arrangements I’ve ever seen. Nobody went into that Governor’s office without marshalling facts and thinking about contrary opinions. And a lot of bad policy decisions were probably avoided as a result of that process. In the White House of George W. Bush’s predecessor, you didn’t need an Official Devil’s Advocate, because free-flowing debate went on every day on every subject, and nobody shut up until The Big He made a final decision. And even then, dissenters did not get sent to Siberia. Moreover, Bill Clinton’s intellectual voracity–so different from Bush’s remarkably unreflexive nature–drove him to seek out advice from people who were not on his payroll, over and over again.Many of the failures of the Bush administration are easily and directly attributable to this huge blind spot: a White House hostile to debate, dissent and contrary evidence on issues large and small, and where all the incentives pointed to lockstep conformity and demonization of any divergent point of view. And this attitude of “don’t-confuse-me-with-facts” has been echoed among the Republican regime on Capitol Hill, especially in Tom DeLay’s House.Given the overwhelming evidence that Republican self-deception is feeding its attempted deceptions of the American people, why do some Democrats insist on proving that these people are consciously lying to us? After all, it’s easier to prove criminal negligence than criminal intent, and even though the latter carries heavier penalities in courts of law, the former is if anything more damaging in the court of public opinion.It’s entirely possible that some key White House players are in fact cynical liars, and Dick Cheney and Karl Rove are obvious suspects in this case. But in general, a president and an administration so isolated from reality that they don’t even know when they are lying to themselves or to us, is a bigger danger and a bigger target for Democrats.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
When Fritz Mondale passed away this week, I eulogized this Democratic leader at New York:
Some career politicians who achieve national fame are known as policy innovators or political insurgents, while others flame out and return to obscurity thanks to bad luck or bad behavior. Walter F. “Fritz” Mondale was another type altogether: a reliable public servant in all of the many jobs he held and a steady steward of the Minnesota liberal political traditions he inherited. He was also, by all accounts, a decent man, and it was characteristic of him that just before his death this week at the age of 93, he sent a grateful email to former staffers, saying “Never has a public servant had a better group of people working at their side! Together we have accomplished so much, and I know you will keep up the good fight.”
Mondale was fated to spend much of his career in the shadow of other leaders. A protégé of Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party legends Hubert Humphrey and Orville Freeman, he was appointed state attorney general by Freeman in 1960 and then four years later occupied Humphrey’s Senate seat when his mentor became Lyndon Johnson’s vice-president. Like Humphrey, Mondale was a rigorous New Deal liberal who was quick to support the labor and civil-rights movements and slow to abandon the Vietnam War. He began and quickly dropped a presidential candidacy in 1974 after Humphrey’s ill health kept him from running; Mondale famously said he didn’t want to spend the next two years living in Holiday Inns. But when eventual Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter needed a northern running mate with close ties to labor, Mondale signed up after securing a pledge from Carter that they would form a true partnership in office.It speaks well for both men that Carter kept his promise and Mondale redefined the vice-presidency, “with full access to intelligence briefings, a weekly lunch with Mr. Carter, his own office near the president’s and his own staff integrated with Mr. Carter’s,” noted the New York Times in its obituary. His elevated role made it possible for Al Gore, Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden to become similarly significant veeps. And he served as something of an internal lobbyist for the progressive tendencies of a sometimes conservative Carter administration, while remaining loyal, which had particular value when Carter was challenged by Ted Kennedy in the 1980 primaries.
The wheels soon came off for the coalition Carter and Mondale had put together in 1976, and when Mondale finally ran for the top spot in 1984, the Republican ascendancy that had been delayed by Watergate and Carter’s southern identity fully arrived. The Minnesotan narrowly won the presidential nomination against forward-leaning candidacies by Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart, but eventually won just his own state plus the District of Columbia against the “Morning in America” reelection campaign of Ronald Reagan. The Mondale presidential campaign’s only positive legacy was his pioneering choice of a woman, New York’s Gerald Ferraro, as running mate. Again, All Things Veep was Mondale’s signature.
He returned to public office when Bill Clinton reclaimed the White House, spending over three years as U.S. ambassador to Japan, where he is still remembered for his efforts to scale back the U.S. military presence in Okinawa.
But after he returned to Minnesota to practice law and semi-retire, this paragon of party loyalty had one more bitter cup to drink. He was drafted in 2002 to run for his old Senate seat after Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane accident just 11 days before the general election. A close race turned into a Democratic defeat, after a boisterous Wellstone memorial service that offended some voters. Mondale finally retired from politics.
His and Carter’s longevity (the former president is 96) made them the longest-surviving ex-president and vice-president ever. And the strong personal qualities of both men have allowed their political mistakes to fade over time.
Upon news of Mondale’s death, President Biden released a statement crediting his vice-presidential predecessor with offering him sound counsel when Barack Obama chose him as his 2008 running mate. And in some respects, the old-school liberal tradition Mondale typified is shared by Biden, who served with him in the Senate for eight years (four when Mondale was president of the Senate) more than four decades ago. Ideology aside, both men unfashionably viewed public service as an honorable profession. One lives in the White House, and the other lives on in many fond memories.