Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Defending Hack Politicians

I've been thinking about Ross Douthat's case against Charlie Crist that he presented after Crist jumped last week.  Douthat basically says that rather than a case in which the rabble knocked off a good man, this was a case of a hack pol getting what he deserved.

I do think that one can overdo the meaning of all this.  While Crist is a sitting governor, that certainly doesn't make him entitled to a Senate nomination, and Marco Rubio isn't chopped liver; he was briefly the Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.  And just because Florida Republicans chose (at least in enough polls to matter) their very conservative former Speaker over their sitting moderate governor doesn't mean that Crist was necessarily "purged."  It's just an election (well, sort of) outcome.

However, that doesn't get to Douthat's case against Crist. 
The Florida governor may be a moderate in some sense, but his real loyalties are to cynicism, self-interest (though this time, I’m pretty sure that he’s misjudged where those interests lie), and the persistent pursuit of the budgetary free lunch.  At a time when the country desperately needs politicians who are equipped to make tough choices, Crist’s record suggests that he’s the last person that anyone — conservative or liberal — should want to see in a position of responsibility in Washington D.C.
For Douthat, Crist and Arlen Specter, along with Dede Scozzafava, are "time-servers, trimmers and party hacks" that everyone, and not just conservative Republicans, are better off without.

So, what's his case?

Well, first of all, he says that Crist is ambitious (motivated here by "self-interest," and earlier Douthat quoted at length an article about how unusually ambitious the governor supposedly is).  I'm sure Crist is ambitious; they're all ambitious.  Surely the difference in "ambition" between any two people running for the same office has to be slim at best.  They may have different agendas within their ambition; they may have other things going for them or lacking; but ambition?  They want to be United States Senators, and after that virtually all United States Senators want to be president.  So I'm not buying that part of it.

Second, Douthat gives a range of issue positions.  In one post: "Fiscally irresponsible on taxes and spending alike, and eager to use bailout dollars to delay the hard choices that Crist’s own profligacy created."  In the other, we get links to people complaining about those same things, and a claim that this is a "a time when the country desperately needs politicians who are equipped to make tough choices."  The one other specific "tough choice" that Douthat does talk about is that Crist is against cutting Social Security benefits, while Rubio supported such cuts (by slowly raising the retirement age).  That's it.  So the case against Crist is that he was "eager" to use stimulus dollars, as opposed to other GOP governors who railed against the stimulus package, loudly proclaimed their intention to reject the money, and then quietly accepted whatever they could get.  Is that an "easy" vs. a "tough" choice?  I don't know.  Politically, it was obviously the wrong choice if he wanted the GOP nomination; that might make him a poor judge of politics, but it's hard for me to see it as taking the "easy" choice. 

OK, what about Social Security?  Here, I think it's fair to say that Crist's call is, in fact, the easy (that is, popular) one, while Rubio's is politically far more risky.  The question then becomes: are easy choices bad?  What does it mean for a politician to make an "easy" choice?  Generally, what it means is that whoever is talking thinks that he or she is correct, but that the pol's constituents are wrong -- no one calls something unpopular an easy choice, and I've yet to see anyone seriously commend a pol for doing something the observer thinks is a stupid, but unpopular policy.  Such as, for example, Crist's decision to take stimulus money.

So then the question becomes: why should Crist's character come into question because he sides with his constituents against Ross Douthat?  Maybe his constituents are right!  In that case, he's doing the right thing, "easy" or not.  Maybe neither is "right" in any absolute sense, but as their governor and would-be Senator, Crist will choose the interests of Floridians over the interests of the rest of the nation.  Is that wrong?

Well, now I get (yeah, I know: finally!  Sorry.) to the main point, which is that I don't think it is wrong, in the abstract.  Or right, in the abstract.  It is a legitimate representative style, no more, no less.  There is no "correct" thing to do when a pol must choose between the narrow interests of her constituency and the broader interests of the nation.  At least, not across all districts and all representatives.  Instead, the best way to think about these things, as I've argued before, is in terms of the representative relationship that a pol has with her constituents, and not about "representation" as some sort of abstract, unchanging rulebook.  Thought of this way, what matters are the promises that pols make to voters: specific promises, such as a promise to reform or to protect Social Security, but even more importantly promises about representation, such as a promise to fight for one's state or ideology.  So if Crist claimed to be a strict conservative but then accepted stimulus money and hugged the president, that's a failure of representation -- but if he promised to fight for Florida regardless of the partisan consequences, then it's probably good, solid, representation.  Even if it's a position that Ross Douthat doesn't hold.  The same thing is true, in my view, of true partisan hacks.  If a pol basically promises to be blindly, unthinkingly loyal to the party above all else, and then carries that out in office, he's done what he said he would do -- and that's probably good, solid, representation.

Now, there is one accusation Douthat levels that I do think is a serious one: that Crist is a "time-server."   In fact, I think that's a reasonable charge against Arlen Specter.  Beyond his comical repositioning to enable him to win reelection (which is a lot of fun to ridicule, but I think can be defended on grounds of representation), I think Specter has remarkably little to show for his century or two in the Senate (not quite thirty years?  Go on, tell me another one).  If Crist really has nothing to show for his time in government, then that's a good reason to feel that he's no loss to the nation should his campaign collapse.  But if he's actually fought for the people of Florida, even if it was motivated purely as a means to the end of his own career...well, in my opinion, we can never have too many of that sort of politician.  Now, I have no idea which of these is true about Crist, and of course whether one votes for him is a whole 'nother kettle of fish -- for example, I'm a dead partisan, so I'm not voting for independents or candidates from the other party even if I think they're terrific pols.  But as far as the Republican Party being better off without Crist, I don't think that Douthat has made a convincing case so far.

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