True (but Trivial) Equivalence of Political Functionaries

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

The big political news of this week was the Democrat's strategic withdrawal from the race for the U.S. Senate seat in Kansas.  The very unpopular Republican incumbent, Pat Roberts, had succeeded in defeating a Tea Party challenger in his party's primary, only to find himself with embarrassingly low poll numbers in a three-way general election race.  The embarrassment would have been bearable, however, because the Democrat and the independent candidate were splitting the anti-Roberts vote, so that polls showed Roberts set to win reasonably comfortably (perhaps along the lines of 38% to 32% to 30%).

Democrats saw an opening, and they convinced their candidate to drop out of the race.  This immediately made the independent, an unknown named Greg Orman, a strong favorite to win.  And given that everything that matters in this election season boils down to control of the Senate, the change from a sure Republican win in Kansas to a loss rather significantly changed the landscape.  The problem is that Democrats do not know whether Orman would caucus with them (as the two current independents in the Senate do), so a win for Orman could still be a win for Republicans.  Nonetheless, a non-zero chance of Orman siding with the Democrats changes everyone's calculations about this election season.

Predictably, Orman makes his case by attacking Republicans and Democrats alike.   His campaign website's headline reads: "I’m running as an Independent for U.S. Senate because Washington is broken and we need a new approach."  He has said that he will caucus with whichever party is in the majority, which is unhelpful if he is the deciding vote.  That is probably just cagey politicking.  He has, however, also said that he would caucus with the party that is willing to ignore its extreme base.

Again, Orman is an independent, and he is thus all but forced to say such things.  Even so, it reminds us once again of the problem of false equivalence in U.S. political discussions.  What is the "extreme base" of the Republicans?  That is hardly a mystery.  On both policy and tactics, the most extreme of the extreme is Ted Cruz, but the whole point of the Tea Party era is that it is only a matter of degree separating him from dozens of other Senators and most Republican House members.  (Rep. Ted Yoho, for example, has argued that a U.S. debt default would please financial markets.)

In terms of Republicans in Congress all-in on extremist agendas, the queue behind Cruz includes Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Steve King, Jim Inhofe, Paul Ryan, Roy Blunt, Marco Rubio, and (to be honest with ourselves) Mitch McConnell.  Who are the supposedly-equally-crazed Democrats?  Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren, I suppose.  As I pointed out almost three years ago, however, the hatred of Warren by Wall Streeters is truly odd, "because she believes in capitalism more than they do."  The point being that the designated Cruz-equivalents are seen as extreme only by comparison to how crazy things have become on the Republican side.  (Alan Grayson is the one Democrat who has been willing to be as shrill as Republicans, but his policy agenda is hardly extreme.)

Along with plenty of other commentators, I have written about this false equivalence with some frequency.  (Two good examples are my Dorf on Law posts from December 12, 2013 and August 26, 2011.)  Once, I even wrote a post describing "False Equivalence About False Equivalence."  In fact, the ubiquity of false equivalence in U.S. political commentary has led me to keep an eye out for examples of true equivalence, where both parties really are pretty much indistinguishable in terms of their actions or tactics.

I can think of two such examples, both having to do with the people who populate the staffs of political campaigns, and the staffs of the people who eventually take office.  Because campaign staffers are generally rewarded with office jobs by the winning candidates, of course, we are essentially talking about the same people: politically ambitious folk who are willing to throw themselves into the mindset of the loyal functionary.

Not long ago, I was looking to rent a house near Washington, DC, and as I talked with the owner of the house, I learned that she had spent her entire adult life (probably 25 years post-college) working for Democrats in the Maryland legislature.  Interestingly, as she warmed up to the discussion, she began to talk about national policy issues.  Well, that is not true.  She began to use words that other people use to discuss policy, without having any clear idea of what she was talking about.  For example, she insisted that Democrats were better than Republicans because Democrats really delivered balanced budgets, whereas Republicans only talked about it.

When I tried to engage her on the question of why anyone should be committed to year-by-year balanced budgets, she looked at me as if I was asking her why puppies are cute.  The blank stare was, in its way, chilling.  This was a person who was deeply committed to electing people with whom I generally agree, but she had no more knowledge about the actual policy questions of the day than a third-grader.  I have had similar conversations with Republican staffers, with similar results.  I realize that there are surely people in Republican and Democratic offices who are true believers on policy matters, and those people are non-equivalent precisely because the policies to which they are committed are non-equivalent (as I discussed above).  However, it is common to see partisans on both sides who simply mouth the words that they have picked up along the way, without undestanding or caring what they mean.  It is careerism of a sort, but it is worse than that, because these people put their hearts and souls into electing people, and then helping them govern, without having a clue about how policies affect people's lives.

The other, related, example, comes from the public relations arms of campaigns.  For some reason, I have started to receive emails from a functionary at the National Republican Campaign Committee, who has been tasked with sending out attack emails in a race in Northern Virginia.  Here is a typical "argument" from such emails: "Why is John Foust running for Congress?  Well because Nancy Pelosi told him to run."  Zing!  Wow, we can bet that Foust is smarting from that one.  Because that was surely too subtle, another email announced: "John Foust is the definition of a tax and spend liberal. If sent to Congress, Foust would become even closer BFFs with Nancy Pelosi and support her radical liberal agenda."  BFFs with Nancy Pelosi.  Shocking.  The fact is, however, that the same kind of nonsense comes out on the Democratic side.  That is how campaigning at this level works.

I am obviously not saying that there is an equivalence between this type of silly partisanship and the partisan differences on policy for which there is no equivalence.  I am simply acknowledging that, yes, there are times when Democrats and Republicans do the same kind of things, and they both are embarrassing.