Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Gordon Smith Tells All: I Do Conservatives' Bidding

Well, Srinu Sonti over at the Senate Majority Project is taking it a little further than the context in which Gordy said it, but it's certainly true that in The O's Paen of Moderacy bestowed on Smith in Friday's editions, he did say if someone checks his votes, "I've done everything that conservatives want." He was speaking of trying to hold a middle position on immigration, keeping the left and middle happy while sweet talking Oregon's angry right.

Even if he didn't put it that way, the hard truth for Smith is that he doesn't have to admit it in a universal context for it to be true. Sonti serves up Congressional Quarterly's annual ratings, claiming "conservative" vote patterns in the high 80s-low 90s range of compliance since 2003. Toss in a couple of selected hard-right advocacy group scores showing nearly-pure fealty, and you've got your standard boilerplate political attack.

I say it's a hard truth, because the reality is that Smith is a moderate sort of guy, personally speaking. He's not a fire breather or an absolutist. I think he's mostly wrong for the state of Oregon, but he's not Rick Santorum--heck, he's not even John Warner, and I LIKE John Warner. So while it's sadly true that Smith usually lacks the will to go against the team, and is one of the more vanilla of Capitol Hill's 100 flavors, most voters understand in what ways Gordon Smith is a moderate. And so as a mid-term shot into the bunkers from an offshore armada, it's good politics. As 'news' and rhetoric that will stick, unlikely.

But I wanted to talk about how much more revealing Smith's statement is than mere votes on bills and amendments. Look at all the substantive things he says supporting his "see all sides" strategy on immigration, and of course if those are his views he really has nothing to offer the militant right. But he does indicate the one thing that may resonate even better than results: loyalty.

When Smith says he's done everything conservatives want, it's more of a complaint than a note of pride. I don't know whether there's pride in his fealty to Bill Frist, but frankly I suspect there isn't. Seomtimes Smith has taken an early, hesitant tack regarding a bill, only to find himself on the wrong side and having to switch his ballot to the party line come vote time. Or he simply hedges his bets until the leadership indicates which version to support. He danced for months on Bush's Social Security plan, not committing to anything while the court of common opinion ruled on it first. (One assumes he eventually came out against; it was probably best he make that 'tough' decision quietly, after the way Bush's plan flamed out).

So let me be the 414th political writer to tell you that for the current GOP leadership, from the top down, getting good results for the country ranks about fourth in importance--well behind loyalty, somewhat behind ideology, just behind personal or peer-group enrichment. In an atmosphere intentionally fraught with incited fear, and stereotypical 'others' manufactured on which to vent that fear, loyalty is indeed the best weapon. (Even if the fear and 'others' are real, loyalty is crucial--but the point here is that the public's political adrenal gland is being vastly overprimed by Republican leadership in order to manipulate opinion).

But that's not what I wanted to talk about. What I really wanted to get across, he said in another classic case of burying the lede, is the projection Republicans make onto their view of Democratic politics. I won't dignify it by providing a link to the GOP direct-mail strategy machine, but I'm on their list and I can tell you that an explicit campaign of the Republicans this fall will be that if you let Hillary, Reid, Pelosi and Dean take over Washington...fill in the apocalyptic blanks here. If you're Karl Rove, it's that impeachment and hearings will stifle government. If you're business it's that taxes will shoot through the roof. And if you're the religious right it's that they will allow 38 week abortion on demand by 9 year olds. It's an effective argument: demonize the leadership and then say, "Look where these fringe zealots want to take the country, by their sheer political will!"

But it's effective because it's being sold to people for whom loyalty is the key test. There is no cognitive dissonance involved at all, for conservatives to imagine the Democrats marching us towards a Cuba-style government in merciless lockstep. Why? Because if that's what the Republican leadership asked of them, they'd do it faster than you can say "I don't believe the Gospel of Judas."

I wish I could call it the dirty secret, but it's an entirely open one and I'm still a little disbelieving that the Republicans aren't aware of it: the Democratic leadership can't control shit. Sure, they've held the line on a couple things that were important, and they've done a lot of stuff temporarily that stalled the inevitable, but as a caucus they neither get nor expect full fealty to leadership. There is definitely some whipping of the fringe members, but not even when in the majority did the Democrats practice leadership tyranny from the Majority Leader's office.

But it goes deeper than that. The GOP machine throws all four Democratic guns together in their political view as if they work as a seamless team, attracting the same wide body of adherents. The reality is that if the Deaniacs and Hillarians had to work a ribbon cutting ceremony together, there'd be blows before the scissors sniffed the tape. The Reids aren't especially impressed with the Pelosis, and they're only keeping their mouth shut about the Deaniacs. It's that way with the Democrats, and always has been.

So to make a claim that reinstalling the Democrats will result in a dynastic reign of tyranny wherein the Liberal Machine will roll across the midwestern landscape, replacing Dairy Queens with Starbucks and McD's with Chipotles, assumes that the rest of the Democratic Party pledges to follow those four in lockstep towards their goal of world domination. And let me be the first to say, HA! to that. I just laugh when I see the ads; all I can think is, "Fear the intractable political control in the unyielding iron hands of...Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean..." and that's when I start to laugh.