In examining this week whether partisanship is a good or bad thing, NPR has produced an artful and rich examination of precisely the wrong question. In a forum where anecdotes reign, the pro- and anti-partisanship partisans have plenty to say, and, as is the case in any good debate, nobody wins. There are plenty of examples, after all, of deleterious bipartisan decisions (think Prohibition and Japanese internment). But there are also examples of partisan disasters (the Johnson years, or more recently, the dramatic rise in spending under Republican rule). No matter whether you are a dyed-in-the-wool party hack, or a transcendent, smarmy Independent, there was plenty this week to bolster your self-perception.
The question we ought to ask, however, is whether our representatives are loyal first to principle, or to party. Former RNC Chair Ed Gillespie tried to thread the needle, by arguing that the two are married. "Parties are based," he said, "on political philosophy."
This is akin to stating that NFL teams are based on a love of the game. Political parties, like professional sports franchises, are built to win. Principles are, at best, means to that end rallying cries we shout to convince ourselves that ours is the team favored by God, and the other the team of Satan. (Of course any thinking person understands that this is only true when my North Carolina Tarheels face the aptly named Duke Blue Devils, but that is not something one can expect the common man to discern.) To today's professional partisan, principles are communication tools, carefully worded to elicit votes, crafted to tap into whatever deep beliefs we citizens tell ourselves we hold.
Former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile, also on the NPR program, best summarized the dilemma when she declared, "Partisanship is a good thing when your party is guided by principles." This is a wonderful statement, coming from a woman with a track record of vicious and unintelligent rhetoric, because it encapsulates the very problem, to wit, that the parties are controlled by the likes of Donna Brazile, Karl Rove, and a host of others who long ago abandoned principles as anything other than slogans, as rallying cries in the fight for victory and its accompanying spoils.
Do you ever get the feeling, when you listen to a politician speak, that he is more like a trained monkey (or Keanu Reeves, to go a step lower on the performance scale) than an actual human person? Ironically, it was the professional actor, Ronald Reagan, who was last able to make us feel like he really meant what he said. Even better, one got the sense that he had arrived at his convictions without first asking himself what would make him most popular among swing voters in Ohio.
Jean Giraudoux wrote, "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made." I get the feeling that today's politicians don't get the humor in that quip. Witness Democrats consulting experts in order to learn how to "communicate their faith." The American people want me to love Jesus? Fine, I'll squeeze that in between health care and legal reform. "Lou! Write me a few lines about my faith in Jesus! And make it sound sincere, for Christ's sake!"
Perhaps principle will never mix well with partisanship, because politics is, by its very nature, transactional. We give to some and take from others in the hopes of getting a little something nice for ourselves. In the grubby political marketplace, where the wealth and freedom of strangers is what's being traded, we shouldn't expect principle to flourish. If so, then maybe the solution is to keep the political marketplace as small as possible. We still need one, to be sure if nothing else, as a jobs programs for mediocre lawyers and former student body presidents but perhaps we should confine it a little more tightly. Like in an iron box. At the bottom of the ocean.
I think something like that was the idea behind situating our nation's capital in a swamp. But then somebody went and built bridges, and then some other bozo invented air conditioning, and now we can't seem to be rid of these people.
With that in mind, and in spite of all my anti-partisan talk, I'm looking forward to this new period of partisan bickering. It means that our politicians will be so busy sticking it to each other that they will have less energy to stick it to us. So I guess that makes me a pro-partisan. In a principled sense, of course.
Rose Macaulay once wrote, "It is a common delusion that you make things better by talking about them." This assumes, of course, that one actually cares to make things better, which is not something to assume about members of the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, which yesterday released a non-binding resolution declaring President Bush's proposed troop surge not to be in the national interest. For humor value, the bloviations were hard to beat witness Chuck Hagel, would-be president and tough guy, declaring that his courageous decision to vote for words that have no direct binding power on outcomes is an example of the "tough business" that tough men like him engage in every day.
Beyond an opportunity for Senators to pose and preen before the cameras, however, the resolution does little more than announce to the world, as well as Iraqi insurgents (one instance where these tough little words may have a very real and deadly effect), that the U.S. military will not up its ante in Iraq.
Perhaps retreat is the best outcome. What American citizens should expect from our Congress, however, especially from tough guys like Chuck Hagel, is that they take definitive action. In the words of John Kerry to his fellow Senators, if we believe President Bush's strategy is misguided, then "we have an obligation to do something." And so the brave little prince lent his support to words that carry no force. What he was against, before he was for it, he is now courageously against again.
It puts me in mind of the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, after Robin has run from a fight. His minstrel is following him, gaily singing his praises: "When danger reared its ugly head, Sir Robin turned and bravely fled..."
As an election strategy, it's shrewd capitalize on the public's dissatisfaction by appearing to do something, without actually taking action that might directly backfire. Should a slew of Iraqis be slaughtered in the wake of U.S. troop withdrawal, the John Kerrys and Chuck Hagels of the world are clean as a whistle they never forced Bush to withdraw troops, after all. This is why they'll not use the power of the purse to restrict Bush's hand in Iraq either, because they fear being blamed for inadequately equipped soldiers. What's a brave and principled Senator to do?
Why, issue a proclamation, of course, boldly announcing what each has already been shouting from the rooftops to news reporters and Iowa focus groups. Does it change the outcome? Certainly. But it does so in a way that leaves no fingerprints.
I suppose we shouldn't expect any better.
On second thought, I think we should. Our representatives don't have to get it right all of the time, but I don't think it's too much to expect them to do what they believe is right for the people they claim to represent. If the Senate peacocks really do believe that the Bush administration lied to get into the Iraqi war, and has since grossly mishandled it, and is now poised to do even more grievous damage, then the courageous thing to do is stop him. The cowardly thing to do, on the other hand, is squawk and blather, without accountability for an alternative course of action.
One of the managers I admire most in the world has a delightfully offensive saying he likes to use with his employees: "no bitch without a pitch." The point being, of course, that anyone can complain. Constructive action, on the other hand, involves crafting an alternative to the status quo, and being willing to make the case for it, and to stand by its consequences. All of his shop floor workers get that. Perhaps that's why none of them will ever become a U.S. Senator.
Sometimes I Google my own name. I do this because I am a shallow person. And I've discovered that operatives working for the Prudential Beazley Real Estate Company in Georgia have managed to manipulate the website for one of their housing developments to the top of Google search results for "Woodlief."
I don't know whether to be offended that they have usurped my rightful position as the most popular Woodlief on the Internet, or flattered that they chose to name their cluster of distinctive yet strikingly identical homes after me. For the record, however, since I am not currently being compensated by the Prudential Beazley Real Estate Company, I'd like to stipulate that the Woodlief housing development in Evans, Georgia is not endorsed by Tony Woodlief or Sand in the Gears.
And for all of you other would-be real estate moguls out there, I am in fact open for business. I will be happy to endorse your properties, homes, condominiums, duplexes, and/or assisted living facilities, for a reasonable fee. I'm not cheap, mind you, but I am running a special this month.
Isaac is in his literal stage. His mother asks, "Isaac, where is your sock?" Isaac replies, "I took it off." (He's also in his stripper stage. I thought this only happened to girls whose parents give them names like "Brandi," but like so many other parental notions I entertained before this boy came along, this is not true.)
"Where did you take it off?" asks his mother. "Off of my foot," he says, with that you idiot tone of voice typically heard only from teenagers and customer service representatives.
He's also in his legalistic stage. We don't allow the children to throw around words like "pee-pee," because if we did allow it, every other word in our house would be "pee-pee." These boys are with "pee-pee" the way the writers of The Sopranos are with the f-bomb.
So no "pee-pee," is the rule, unless it's necessary, as in: "I have to go pee-pee," or "Ouch! The toilet seat fell on my pee-pee!"
Well, Isaac has picked up on the spelling of "Mississippi." He can't quite spell it, but he knows there's a couple of "p's" in there somewhere. So he'll burst out with something like, "Ess-I-ess-I-ess-ess-I-pee-pee-I." Then he'll glance at his mother. "I said 'pee-pee' Mom. Should I say 'pee-pee?'"
I have an instinctive distrust of anyone who is absolutely certain of his correctness. Perhaps this is why I am ill at ease around the adamantly pro-choice as well as the steadfastly pro-life. My heart lies with the pro-lifers, because I believe they are right, and because they are the underdogs. It is hard not to remember, however, that the same Bible we lift up outside that abortion clinic recounts how God himself ordered the slaughter of infants on more than one occasion. I wrestle with those passages, and I reject the logical and theological contortions one must engage in to conclude that God requires a woman to carry the child of her rapist. I stand with the pro-lifers, but sometimes they make me wince.
The same goes for those who are pro-choice, yet who steadfastly oppose any measure (informed consent, sonograms) that might lead to a more informed choice. I suspect that technology will slowly erode any ground for the assertion that what exists inside a pregnant woman is not a human life every year the pictures become clearer and more available, while the odds of surviving pre-term birth increase. Perhaps in a hundred years we will regard pro-choicers the way we now regard slaveholders. How could they have done such a thing? This is what people will ask, while they shake their heads and feel very self-righteous about themselves.
I think very often our personal politics boils down to this root question: how does it make me feel about me? It is a politics of self-expression. This one volunteers her time at Planned Parenthood, because it affirms her as an independent and progressive woman. That one pickets the abortion clinic because it makes him feel less a sinner. It's human nature, and it's the foundation of every social and political movement. As I search myself, I discover that I am this way too often, and perhaps you are as well.
It doesn't describe everyone, of course. I once met a man who volunteers his time at an abortion clinic because his dead son was severely disabled, and suffered most of his life. He wishes he hadn't allowed his son to be born. This is how he shouts at God for what his child endured. I know another man who abandoned what could have been a comfortable business career in order to picket and shut down abortion clinics. He supports his family on thin dimes, because he is convinced that innocents are being murdered. Each of them does what he does because he is searching the deep places within himself.
I believe one is terribly wrong, while the other is a saint. But this is no matter. The point is that they act out of their principles, not out of self-affirmation.
I suppose there will be plenty of self-affirming statements today, the 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. We'll chatter a lot about politics, and judges, and rights. But I wonder how many of us can fathom the meaning of 47 million, which is the number of abortions that have occurred in the U.S. since 1973. Regardless of one's politics, it seems that anyone with a brain or a heart has to pause at this number. It means that there have been 47 million times, over the past 34 years, that a woman has faced the possibility of becoming a mother, and decided that it would be better for her child not to be born. What does that say about us?
I imagine it says many things: that there is great hopelessness among us, and great selfishness, and great thoughtlessness, and ignorance aplenty. We might also ask what it says about us should we not pause, in the face of those 47 million choices, and consider if only for a scrap of a moment that we may well have allowed something horrific to occur in our midst.
I wonder if this ever crosses the mind of people who support the right to abortion, among whom I once counted myself. What if we are wrong? How would we even begin to repent, as a nation that has countenanced such a thing?
About this I haven't a clue. I only know that the number keeps rising, and most of us think nothing of it.