Someone recently asked me what, after all these years around politics -- 25 years of covering politics, 37 years involved in one way or another -- I liked best and what bothered me the most.
To my alarm, I found myself exhibiting far more passion in delineating what I didn't like: the increasingly hateful tone of the discourse, the hypocrisy of selective outrage and the feigning of disgust over behavior of an opponent while turning a blind eye when it occurs in one's own party.
To be sure, one can go back to the earliest days of our country to find hateful behavior in the discussion and execution of American politics. But there is far more today than when I worked on my first campaign as a senior in high school in 1972 or worked on Capitol Hill while attending college starting in 1973.
People rarely stop at simply disagreeing now. For many, if someone has a different position on an issue, it isn't enough to think them wrong -- they must be stupid; they must be corrupt; their motives must be questioned. Just believing someone is wrong isn't sufficient anymore.
Disclosure and embarrassment were once considered enough punishment. Now, we want investigations, "truth commissions" and punishment, what some have come to call the criminalization of the political process. It isn't enough to beat someone. You must try to throw them in jail or, at the very least, cost them a fortune in legal fees. The fact that neither side can afford that level of scrutiny seems lost on many.
The problem with this, beyond simply being narrow-minded, is that it makes it harder for those individuals to work together on some other issue where they might actually agree. The way Capitol Hill and politics is supposed to work is that while we may disagree on X today, we might agree and work together on Y tomorrow.
But the growing relish and intensity of ad hominem attacks makes such a scenario more difficult to achieve, leading Congress to become increasingly dysfunctional, regardless of which party is in charge.
The second is selective outrage. The most recent example was the attack by the Republican National Committee on President Obama and the first lady for flying to New York "at taxpayers expense" for dinner and a play. Let's just put aside for a moment the fact that presidents aren't really allowed to just hop on the Metroliner on their own dime to go to New York.
I don't recall the RNC taking a position on former President George W. Bush's 77 trips to Crawford, Texas, covering all or part of 490 days -- whenever you see these kinds of numbers, you know they come from CBS Radio's Mark Knoller, the semiofficial keeper of all White House statistics -- while Bush was in office. Or for that matter, the 11 trips to Kennebunkport, Maine, which covered another 43 days. For those slow at math, that's 533 days out of 2,920 in office. And those were generally flights on the 747 version of Air Force One, not the three much smaller, and less expensive, Gulfstream jets used to ferry the first couple, staff, security and press on this past weekend's trip.
During the eight years of Bush's presidency, this column never criticized his travel, and it wouldn't now, except that his party is attacking his successor for a pattern of personal travel that, at least so far, has been considerably less costly to the taxpayer.
Now the question is whether the RNC staffers responsible for putting out this release do not remember their last president's travel patterns, do they think we won't recall or do they simply have no shame?
To be bipartisan about all of this, there is a deafening silence from Democrats as the stench of scandal increases around some members of the House Appropriations Committee, most recently Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., and members of his staff who have been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury.
We don't hear quite the uproar from Democrats that we heard when former Reps. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, Randy (Duke) Cunningham, R-Calif., Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and others received similar invitations from authorities. Sure there is the "presumption of innocence until proven guilty in court" refrain, but Democrats didn't seem to care so much for that presumption back when it was Republicans in the hot seat.
Sooner or later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is going to have to deal with the problem of House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-Pa., choosing between one of her earliest and most loyal backers and the reform message that Democrats ran on in 2006 when they recaptured the House.
It would seem to me that Murtha's days are numbered, politically or legally speaking. The question is how long will it take and how bad will he make his party look before he's gone? Voters aren't likely to distinguish between scandals involving Jack Abramoff and the now-defunct PMA lobbying group; it smells the same to them.
It would seem that when Democrats talked about draining the ethical swamp on Capitol Hill a few years ago, they must have been talking just about the Republican end.
It's watching these kinds of things that make long-time observers cynical and jaded. There is so much to be faulted and so much hypocrisy from each side that it would strike me as difficult to, over a long period of time, see either side as that of truth, justice and prudence. It comes down more to which side is the lesser of two evils, the sides changing with some degree of regularity.
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