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
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
While mulling some recent material from The Bulwark, I thought I’d explain something to the converted “Never Trumpers” the outlet represents, and did so at New York:
For a while now I’ve had a guilty-pleasure reading habit: The Bulwark, that semi-official outlet of Never Trumpers who view themselves as having definitively broken with the GOP thanks to their former party’s thralldom to Donald J. Trump. I share its contributors’ belief that they (the tribe usefully described by Miller as Red Dog Democrats) represent not just a self-promoting claque of elite scribblers but a real if marginal faction of the Democratic Party, having burned a lot of bridges on their way out of the GOP. Their views appear to parallel those of a significant number of suburban Republicans and independents who voted Democratic in 2018 and 2020. And given the very close balance between voters of the two parties, as reflected most recently in 2020, Democrats really can’t afford to contemptuously reject any potential adherents, however alien or even repugnant they might find their backgrounds.
So it’s understandable when Bulwark co-founder Charlie Sykes expresses frustration that Democrats refuse to consider their pleas for policy concessions on grounds of holding old grudges:
“The spending. The wokeness. The repeal of the Hyde Amendment. I could go on …
“These are difficult times for folks on the center-right, who’ve tried to join Democrats in a loose alliance to protect the Republic from Trumpism …
“Litmus tests are applied: it’s not enough to be pro-democracy, NTers are also expected to embrace the elements of the progressive agenda — from free community college, to abortion, rent moratoriums, police funding, transgenderism, CRT, social spending, and the candidacy of Greta Thunberg for sainthood.”
Sykes fears it’s all very personal, and warns, “If you cancel moderates/conservatives for their past sins, you don’t have a coalition.”
Here’s the thing, though: It’s not really about the Red Dogs. Yes, I’m sure it’s been tough for them to watch Democrats largely come together around a legislative program that’s significantly more progressive than the one advanced by the Obama administration. But Democrats have been coalescing around the basics of the Build Back Better agenda for some time now. That the famously moderate Joe Biden now embraces it is a sign of how the party has slowly evolved, not some sort of betrayal or surrender to the left. And anyone who paid close attention to the 2020 presidential primaries should have understood that there is less distance between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders than between Joe Biden and the Joe Biden of the 1990s.
Part of what has happened is simply a resolution of internal conflicts among Democrats that left them defensive and at times incoherent. A classic example is one that Sykes mentioned: abortion policy. For years, Democrats claimed to value reproductive rights even as they accepted significant limitations on them: e.g., the Hyde Amendment, which made abortion services, unlike any other medical services, ineligible for any sort of federal support. That amendment, along with acceptance of some largely symbolic restrictions on rare late-term abortions, and the whole “safe, legal, and rare” messaging introduced by Bill Clinton, represented concessions to a significant bloc of Democratic voters and Democratic pols who did not recognize reproductive rights at all.
That has changed over time. Anti-abortion Democratic politicians are a rare and shrinking breed, and there are now significantly fewer anti-abortion Democratic voters than there are pro-choice Republicans. Most Democrats, including Joe Biden, have made the leap into a more coherent and unified position. They aren’t going to turn back the clock to satisfy ex-Republicans, but they aren’t insisting on a “litmus test” just to annoy or exclude them, either. The same could be said for other policy tenets once beloved by a significant number of Democrats — from fiscal hawkishness to armed interventionism to an openness to “entitlement reform” — that remain attractive to the newest proto-Democrats. As for the idea that Democrats are some sort of rigid ideological cult: Come on, seriously? Look at what’s going on with the attempted enactment of the Build Back Better reconciliation bill. If this is an intolerant and exclusive political party, I’d hate to see a loosey-goosey one try to function. It may just be that the issues Red Dogs fret about may lie outside the still relatively loose bounds of party unity.
This doesn’t mean Red Dogs should despair, but it may mean another painful reevaluation of priorities, recognizing that most have already had to sacrifice a lot of old allegiances and even the habitual language used to make sense of the political world. In many respects, the Never Trumpers resemble their spiritual (and in some cases biological) predecessors, the neo-conservatives. These were people who broke with the Democratic Party out of a conviction that Democratic views on national security made continued party loyalty impossible. But most of them retained many views that horrified their new Republican allies until they accepted the inevitable role of a factional minority and grew to accommodate or even share the policy positions and ideological language of the GOP, which was increasingly dominated by conservatives with their own ideological-consistency demands.
Most Red Dogs have no illusions about the party they’ve left and understand their constituencies are too small to form a third force or demand concessions from a position of strength. Most, I suppose, will get used to the strange and sometimes lurid landscape of the Donkey Party. Others will embrace the posture of the gadfly, the people of no party or coalition. But it’s really not personal. It’s just politics.