The Utah GOP rejected Bob Bennett last night, a conservative Republican incumbent senator. Pundits are suggesting this will have a ripple effect in the upcoming elections, as a strong anti-incumbent sentiment has been festering for a while. From what I can gather, Bennett’s position on TARP (support) and his championing of a bipartisan health care reform bill (not the one ultimately signed into law) were keys to why people wanted to see him leave.
The anti-TARP position is pretty easy to explain; there’s a natural pull to austerity in any financial crisis, and when the government votes to spend taxpayer money to bail out businesses (especially the ones who caused the crisis), an allergic reaction from said taxpayers is not unexpected. I won’t belabor my personal objections to TARP, but will instead suggest (once again) Karl Denninger’s The Market Ticker as a good place to prowl around regarding the bill. Denninger digs into the market implications of the bill (and other political gerrymandering), which tends to make for a fairly nonpartisan critique.
The health care bill issue is a little fuzzier. It’s worth noting that the bill that did pass isn’t popular among American citizens. Those who supported it are also in a bit of political hot water, but in Bennett’s case, he supported a different bill proposed as an alternative. What’s interesting to me is the commentary around this aspect of Bennett’s loss. Nearly every writer who addresses it in this nice roundup of articles tries to blame Bennett’s loss on partisanship. They believe that Utah voters considered it a cardinal sin for Bennett to work with a *gasp* Democrat on the proposed bill. Even Bennett is reported to believe that opposition to him was based on the “toxic” partisan atmosphere of Washington D.C.
No, reasoned opposition to Bennett’s actions in the proposed bill have nothing to do with his efforts to work “across the aisle”, they are purely objections to what the bill contained. It mandated that citizens must purchase health insurance. See, people don’t like Big Brother telling them what to buy. (A critical component of opposition to the bill that did pass as well, by the way.) It doesn’t matter whether Big Brother is using his Democrat hand or his Republican hand, it’s the action of the government trying to direct citizens that doesn’t go down well. (That’s a peculiarly American political thing; the country was formed largely in opposition to an overpowerful government, and established on principles of small central government and self-governing freedom. Almost everyone rebels when told what to do, we’re just wired that way, but the trend seems to run deeper and broader in America, French guillotines notwithstanding.)
Cooperation across the aisle tends to be a healthy thing. The problem isn’t cooperation, if there’s a problem, it’s with what that cooperation produces. When the Democrats and Republicans cooperated on a bill that the people didn’t like, the bill is the problem (and to a degree, the people who supported it), not the principle of cooperation.
It’s amazing to me that the vast majority of commentators don’t see that, and instead, try to frame the discussion in partisan terms. It’s not a surprise, since that sort of juvenile debate tactic has reigned supreme for a while, ever more acrimonious. It’s just… an affront to logic, common sense, and rational thought. It’s also a fine way to dodge the real issues that should be debated, namely the results of the bills in question and why people might be bothered by what they mandate.
It’s not unlike the puerile fanboy arguments that we see in the console wars or the endless debates about WoW vs. MMOoftheMonth. When the arguments turn more to namecalling and ad hominem attacks, the real issues are lost. Sometimes, that’s because the real issues aren’t really anything to argue about, since they are merely matters of opinion and taste. Arguing to try to prove someone else’s opinion is wrong never really accomplishes much.
The more troubling times are when the real issues are decidedly worth discussing, but neither side of the debate wants to address them. As in Bennett’s bipartisan proposed bill, the discussion should have been about whether or not people wanted to be forced by the government to buy health insurance. Increasingly, the debate in American politics isn’t so much Republicans vs. Democrats, it’s the People vs. the Government. The Rs and Ds both want control, and the people want to govern themselves. The niggling little details about what form that control takes isn’t the issue that should be debated, rather, the existence of that control in the first place is the big question.
It’s like the idiotic debates from the 80s about “Coke” vs. “Pepsi”… as if those were the only drinks that anyone would even consider imbibing. It’s the nature of any rivalry played to the crowds; Red vs. Blue, F2P vs. Subs, Engineer vs. Soldier, White vs. Black, Boxers vs. Briefs, Sox vs. Cubs, Horde vs. Alliance, Edward vs. Jacob and so on. The polar argument takes on a life in itself, totally distorting any reasoned critique of surrounding issues. (Twilight is still atrocious, whichever team you’re on.)
It’s almost as if the Rs and Ds are arguing about how the deck chairs on the Titanic need to be arranged, and anyone arguing with them is demonized, while the citizens just want them to get out of the way so they can board the lifeboats. It’s no surprise that some of those squabbling power brokers get tossed out of the way when the people start to panic a bit, and the boat lurches seaward. Suggesting that the people did so because the deck chairs weren’t the right color, or because the arrangers cooperated on one chair is extremely selective interpretation of events, and a gross misunderstanding of the real issues at hand. Just get out of the way!
So, while this particular article is rooted in a singular political event that may well show hints of voter patterns to come, it’s really that sense of larger issues that I wanted to underline. We can’t afford to get lost in the trappings of idiotic debate tactics that dodge the real questions. Bread and circuses can keep people entertained and busy, certainly, and picking sides creates an investment in the show… but more often than not, it’s not the show that’s important. Remember that magicians want you to be distracted while they work their sleight of hand. Less benign characters also benefit from such distraction.
tl;dr version? Learn to read between the lines, ignoring partisanship and fanboy shrieking. Find the real issues, and don’t be distracted. Dig deeper than “Paula vs. Simon”.
Edited to add:
The particular case of Bennett also reminds us that the sense of political entitlement and inertia is a fickle thing. Bennett’s record is fairly conservative, but screwing up on a few big ticket items really can be enough to make people mad… if they are paying attention. (Not unlike WAR’s recent billing issue; a significant blunder can totally destroy the goodwill banked in the past.) I think it’s a healthy thing for politicians to be afraid of their constituents, and to realize that their job isn’t assured. It’s good to know the people are watching, and have the power to change things. The uneasy truce between the power brokers and the people, fueled by healthy distrust and leeriness about abuse of power, goes a long way to forestall any huge abuses. That’s what the balance of powers in the U.S. Constitution is all about.
A while ago, the Illinois Senate seat that Ted Kennedy held for a dynastic 48 years (in itself a symptom of entitlement issues) was up for grabs after Kennedy’s death. It went to an upstart Republican (Kennedy being a Democrat), seen by some as a signal that people are tired of the “same old” politics. Incumbents tend to enjoy a significant edge in most elections, partly because people fear change, and have gotten used to the gravy train.
Still, it’s not wise to push people too far, and increasingly, American leaders are doing so. Bennett is, in some ways, a victim of larger societal forces at work, but blaming those on partisan hackery is missing the point.
That’s not to say that there’s no partisan bickering. There is plenty of that sort of nonsense at play. It’s just not the real issue, and getting caught up in it doesn’t solve anything.