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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Deception and Self-Deception

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.

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