Wednesday, April 12, 2017

One-Sided Dishonesty

by Neil H. Buchanan

My two most recent columns addressed two very different subjects.  The Senate Democrats' filibuster of the Gorsuch nomination to the Supreme Court is worlds away from the Republicans' continued faith-based belief in supply-side economics, but both columns ultimately came back to the same larger points: Republicans' embrace of shameless dishonesty, and how everyone else should respond.

Yes, I know that no political party can ever be made up of angels, and people who write columns like this one are supposed to say that "both sides do it."  A few months ago, for example, after The New York Times published a guest op-ed arguing that Donald Trump is a threat to democracy, two letter writers were irate.

Supposedly, the problem was not that the op-ed had argued that Trump is a danger to democracy.  The big sin was instead that the op-ed's authors had not also chided Democrats.

"Failing to provide a more balanced assessment of our political establishment widens the partisan divide that fuels the current scorched earth political playbook," one wrote.  "Where are the Democrats who should be teaching democratic principles to their constituents instead of just moaning about Mr. Trump?" asked the other.

If it feeds the partisan divide to say that one side is more at fault than the other, however, then we will simply have to live with that.  The alternative approach, which we have been seeing in action for decades, simply allows one group of people to become more and more extreme while insisting on "balanced treatment" in public discussion.  Anyone who honestly has not yet figured out that this is a chump's game needs to do some catching up.


But my point in those columns was not merely that the Republicans are being uniquely dishonest, or that it is good that the Democrats have stopped running scared.  It is that the Republicans' particular style of dishonest argumentation is based on a rejection of facts at a fundamental level, and in particular a strategy of turning their own worst moments into mythical talking points that they then repeat until their lies become conventional wisdom.

Take the Gorsuch nomination.  The Republicans were shocked -- shocked I tell you -- that the Democrats would even consider blocking a qualified jurist from being placed on the nation's highest court.  Having spent a year repeating over and over that Merrick Garland should not receive a hearing because he was the nominee of a president who was in his last year in office, the replacement for that big lie was that the Democrats started it when they voted down Robert Bork's nomination in 1987.

Who cares that the 58 votes in the Senate against Bork included six Republicans?  Who cares that Bork was given a full hearing, during which he doubled down on his most controversial views -- and as a result of which he convinced some senators to vote against him?  The claim now is that he was subject to uniquely intrusive questioning, which ignores the simple fact that he was a uniquely extreme nominee.  Of course he would get a different kind of reception than, say, John Paul Stevens or Warren Burger received.

None of that matters in the Republicans' universe.  Their talking point, which they repeat with unshakable faith, is that the Democrats conspired to keep Bork off the bench in a way that all but required Republicans to retaliate.  As I noted in my column, it would be understandable for a conservative to lament Bork's defeat, but it is absurd to argue that he did not get a fair shake.

This strategy of rewriting history is hardly limited to the Bork nomination.  Combined with the Republicans' relentless demonization of the press -- which long predates Trump's rise -- the standard move is to claim that any Republican who publicly embarrasses himself was the victim of dirty tricks by Democrats and their supposedly liberal enablers among the media.

One of the most fascinating examples of this strategy is now mostly forgotten, because the person involved was now-Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.  Because Paul was such a bad presidential candidate in 2016, his story was never interesting enough for people to pay much attention.  During the time that he was still considered a rising star, however, he had his own mini-Bork moment.

In May 2010, during the rise of the Tea Party movement that led to Republicans' big wins in that year's midterm elections, Paul had been nominated by Republicans to an open seat in his home state.  Lacking much public profile, other than being the son of a quirky protest candidate in the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, Paul decided to appear on "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC.

I wrote about the interview in a column published shortly after it aired, and it is interesting to revisit that particular moment.  The controversy arose when Maddow asked Paul whether he believed that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had wrongly required providers of "public accommodations" to serve all customers regardless of race and other factors.

What seemed like an easy question became an excruciating ordeal, as Paul continually tried not to say that he thought that restaurant and hotel owners should be allowed to discriminate, even while making it obvious that he did in fact take that view.  Instead, he kept saying, "I think racism is bad," and "I am not a racist," but Maddow was patiently insistent, repeatedly reminding him that he was evading the question.  It was not whether he personally would discriminate, but whether the law should prohibit discrimination by those who would like to do so.

I watched that interview while it was happening, which meant that I (like Maddow, Paul, and everyone else) did not know that this was going to be such a fascinating incident.  My big takeaway from the experience was that, like the Bork hearings, the person on the hot seat had been given repeated opportunities to clarify himself or to say that, no, he was really not saying something that most Americans would find unacceptable.

Again, I have some measure of respect for both men, because they were not willing in the moment to say whatever was expedient.  Paul differed from Bork, of course, in trying to tap dance around his real views, but he did not say something that bluntly disavowed his honestly held opinion.

Later, of course, Paul tried to muddy the waters by suggesting that he might have had a different view as a senator presented with the bill in 1964, but he understood that people now have different attitudes.  Even supposedly straight-talking politicians know how to obfuscate when they run for office, after all.

The reason to discuss the Maddow-Paul interview here, however, is not the subject matter but the immediate post-interview spin from Republicans.  Without breaking a sweat, their story immediately became one of Maddow having played "gotcha" with Paul, unfairly hitting him with a loaded question, twisting his words, and putting him in a negative light.

As with Bork, my response was: "Wait a minute, I saw this with my own eyes.  I can see why this guy's supporters are disappointed, but they're peddling pure fantasy.  This is simply not what happened.  Maddow was dogged, but she gave him every chance to answer, explain, and clarify.  She stuck with the topic because he made it worth her while to do so, and she could not get a straight answer from him."

It is, of course, a real skill to make lemonade from lemons.  Taking a bad moment and turning it into something useful is often a sign of growth.  A politician might say: "I learned not to make matters worse by evading questions."  Or he might use the incident as a touchstone to differentiate his current behavior from bad acts in the past, such as John McCain's treatment of his role in the Keating Five scandal.

Republicans, however, have instead mastered the dishonest version of lemonade-making.  Take bad facts and lie about them, claiming unfair treatment after having lost an honest fight.  Repeat as needed.

As I noted above, there is a similar problem with the way that Republicans have talked about tax policy.  Although there are no "moments" of the sort that I described above with Bork's hearings or Paul's interview, Republicans have been struggling for decades to figure out how to deal with what lawyers call "bad facts" about tax policy.

My column describes Republicans' commitment to trickle-down (that is, supply-side) economics as the political equivalent of religious devotion.  Who cares that the evidence shows again and again that tax cuts for the rich do not have the effects that Republicans claim?  Who cares that the evidence regarding Bork or Paul (or many other examples) is 180-degrees opposed to the subsequent Republican spin?  We have faith!

What is most interesting about the supply-side liturgy is that it is so focused on theory and not evidence.  And where it is focused on evidence, that evidence is treated in exactly the same way that the evidence regarding Bork has been handled, that is, as something to be rewritten or ignored.

If regressive tax cuts are everything that Republicans say they are, after all, it should not be difficult to find a couple of outstanding examples where we would be able to see something big, even without using fancy statistical techniques to prove the point -- although even the studies that do use high-level econometrics can only reach Republican-friendly results with a big dose of results-oriented analysis.  (I made a similar point a few years ago about the supposed dangers of the national debt, which are also surprisingly difficult to find in the data.)

That is, while liberals can note that taxes went up early in Bill Clinton's presidency yet the economy boomed, whereas George W. Bush cut taxes and the economy stagnated, where is the big example of supply-side tax cuts having a dramatically positive effect?  In my column, I describe why the Reagan tax cuts do not serve this purpose, and the other supposedly definitive example is an even bigger reach: the Kennedy tax cuts in the early 1960's, which were passed in the midst of a military spending surge (that is, demand-side policy).

What do Republicans do?  Do they follow Bork's example (during his hearings, not his approach during the decades of bitter Monday morning quarterbacking that followed his defeat), saying that they in fact do not care whether tax cuts for the rich do or do not trickle down, and people who do not understand the wisdom and morality of making the rich richer are simply benighted fools?  Of course not.  As they did in the decades after Bork's hearings, Republicans invent their own reality.

It must be exhausting for Republicans to have to remember so many alternative facts.  But for the rest of the world, there is no reason to continue to act as if these Republican stories are not contrary to reality.  And if Democrats do not engage in such dishonesty (in degree or kind), that should be viewed as good news, not as a reason to pretend that they are just as bad as Republicans.