Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Deep Dark Truthful Mirror

I got into this a little yesterday, but I don't think I was very clear about honesty and politicians.

As I said, liberals are upset with Kent Conrad (and other moderate Democrats in the House and Senate) not just for opposing them on public option, but for being slimy about it (instead of saying that they oppose it, they say that there just aren't enough votes). Here's Yglesias today:
Meanwhile, centrist Democrats who want to kill the public plan need to be made to at least stand up and take responsibility for what they’re doing—it’s they themselves who don’t want to create one.
No, Matt, they don't "need to be made" to tell the truth. To the extent that politicians are playing a Washington game involving negotiations, it is perfectly reasonable for them to avoid the blunt truth about their intentions and goals, just as we don't consider it unethical when a poker player bluffs. Right now, liberals in the House should be claiming that they'll never vote for a bill without a public option, even if they know very well that they will, if they think that's the best move to produce the best bill in their view. Nothing wrong with that at all.

Moreover, politicians who are negotiating in Washington are also up for reelection in their districts, and know that anything they say can be held against them. If Conrad says that he's against a public option now but winds up voting for a bill with it, not only is he going to take flack for the vote, but he's also subject to accusations of flip-flopping.

In other words, there are good reasons for politicians in these type of situations to treat the truth as a rare commodity, and to therefore try not to use too much of it.

Now, there are lies that are unethical for politicians. I think "death panels" would qualify: demagoguery is, in my view, flat-out unethical for politicians. Granted, in the abstract it's hard to draw a line between garden variety spin (ethical: politician puts the best face on a set of facts, retaining loosely bound by a reality of things) and lying (unethical: politician makes up stuff). But such a line does exist. However, that's not what's at issue here.

On substance, I don't really see how it would help liberals to force Conrad, Baucus, et al. to fess up to opposing the liberals' bill; I'd argue that liberals would be a lot more productive if they found ways to keep their ideas from appearing controversial.

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