Meaningless words — politics today

I try to confine my political posts to Fridays, but due to user error, my Friday blog posted yesterday. I was just going to link to it again today but then I came across a Vox article about how the current political climate has become a collection of meaningless words.

“Republicans’ Obamacare repeal drive has revealed a political system where words have no meaning”

That’s a helluva headline. And the subhed isn’t any sunnier:

This is not normal, and it is not sustainable.

Writer Ezra Klein doesn’t pull any punches

“This has been a policymaking process built, from the beginning, atop lies. Lies about what the bills do and don’t do. Lies about what is wrong with Obamacare and lies about what the GOP’s legislation would do to fix it. Lies about what Republicans are trying to achieve and lies about which problems they seek to solve.”

Lying is immoral, of course. Think about that the next time these lawmakers piously try to restrict women’s access to abortion and defund programs designed to prevent teen pregnancy. But a bigger challenge than the havoc their policies are wreaking is the havoc created by their policy-making.

meaningless wordsAs Klein notes, the political system

“…is built around the idea that the signals sent by the central players are meaningful, even if the rhetoric is often slippery.”

Politicians may spin but we can generally count on them to do something approximating what they say they will do. Klein again:

“That is not the case here.”

McConnell’s meaningless words

Klein offers some choice selections from “Restoring the Senate,” a speech Mitch McConnell gave in 2014. It includes gems like:

“…if you approach legislation without regard for the views of the other side. Without some meaningful buy-in, you guarantee a food fight. You guarantee instability and strife.”

He also bemoaned the demise of the Senate’s “vigorous committee process,” and promised he would restore it, if given the chance:

“There’s a lot of empty talk around here about the corrosive influence of partisanship. Well, if you really want to do something about it, you should support a more robust committee process. That’s the best way to end the permanent shirts against skins contest the Senate’s become. Bills should go through committee. And if Republicans are fortunate enough to gain the majority next year, they would.”

If the Democrats got the opportunity to filibuster this healthcare bill, forged “in the Majority Leader’s conference room” (a practice McConnell decried just three years ago)—if we had the opportunity to filibuster, I think they should take the floor, one after the other, and read McConnell’s words into the record. Because the things he spoke out against are a blueprint for everything he is now doing.

Meaningless words, empty gestures

John McCain, former American hero, returned early from his taxpayer-funded brain surgery and spoke passionately on the floor of the Senate about returning to the “normal order” of things—the committee process, bipartisan cooperation—the kind of utopia McConnell laid out in his 2014 speech.

Opponents of the bill needed just one vote to stop McConnell’s Motion to Proceed. McCain’s vote. In an alternate reality, we might expect him to vote against the motion. Sadly, we’re living in the reality where words have no meaning. Of course he voted Aye.
UPDATE: Except to John McCain, whose 11th hour No vote struck the final blow. Had he signaled his intention to vote No earlier, his Republican colleagues might have had time to retrench and try again. “Wait for the show,” he told a Democratic colleague as they headed to the Senate floor.

Klein concludes:

“Skepticism is healthy in politics. But this era requires more than skepticism. This is a total collapse of the credibility of all the key policymakers in the American government. Our political system is built on the assumption that words have some meaning, that the statements policymakers make have some rough correlation to the actions they will take. But here, in the era of bullshit politics, they don’t. If this becomes the new normal in policymaking, it will be disastrous.”


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Cancel the reality show

“I’ll keep you in suspense.”

I never watched Donald Trump’s “reality show,” The Apprentice. But since I haven’t been living under a rock, I do know that its conceit turned on someone getting fired every week. Like all reality shows, it saved the final reveal of the unlucky contestant for the last act, just before the credits rolled.

Hundreds of people, famous and not, paraded through the Trump Trump at the last debate of the reality show—er—electionboardroom in the course of that series. And the one certainty of the proceedings was that the only person completely immune from being fired was Donald J. Trump himself.

If anyone doubted that Trump sees this election as a giant reality show, we got our proof Wednesday night. Asked if he would accept the results of the election win or lose, Trump twice refused to say yes. Secretary Clinton described his response as “horrifying.” Indeed.

The only person who benefits from “keeping us in suspense” is Trump. He apparently wants to trigger a civil war. Someone should explain this to him in terms he can understand: Donald, no one will be able to afford to stay in your fancy hotels or buy your condos or play on your golf courses after the economy collapses.

I used to fear that armed militia would bring down our country. Now I fear all it would take is words.

Reality show vs. reality: Words, used well

In response to Trump’s narcissistic reality show tease, The Washington Post published an article about the concession speech of “the most beautiful loser”—Adlai Stevenson, who lost to Eisenhower in 1952.

“It is traditionally American to fight hard before an election. It is equally traditional to close ranks as soon as the people have spoken,” he said in the brief but poignant speech. Stevenson thanked his supporters before continuing. “That which unites us as American citizens is far greater than that which divides us as political parties. I urge you all to give to Gen. Eisenhower the support he will need to carry out the great task that lie before him. I pledge him mine. We vote as many. But we pray as one.”

“We vote as many. But we pray as one.” I don’t know about you, but reading those sentences brought tears to my eyes.

Stephenson delivered this speech more than 60 years ago, but we don’t have to reach back that far to find civility in a concession speech. Eight years ago, I blogged about John McCain’s remarkably gracious concession. He didn’t demonize his former opponent—that may be difficult to recall, since the loudest voices in his party have spent the last eight years doing little but demonizing Obama.

McCain recognized the historical import of the moment, electing the first African-American president. And he respected the Constitutional compact that has kept our country united through more than 40 hard-fought presidential elections.

One line brought me to tears—serious, entire-box-of-Kleenex tears (I still remember)—and gave me a great deal of respect for the man:

“Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.”

The crowd responded, according to The New York Times‘s transcript: “(Cheers, applause.)”

It’s too far-fetched to expect Adlai Stevenson Trump to take the stage. And he has no respect for McCain (I’ve lost mine too with his recent comments about obstructing the new President Clinton’s nominations for the Supreme Court, but that’s another story).

Perhaps Ivanka can deliver his concession speech. Sell the idea to him as a plot twist for the ages. And then please, my fellow Americans, cancel Trump’s destructive reality show for good.

“we are fellow Americans…”

This week’s issue of The New Yorker has a great exegesis of President-Elect Obama’s victory speech. (And yes, I know that word is usually reserved for religious texts.) But as great a night as it was, and as eloquent and moving a speech as it was – exactly what was needed at the end of a divisive campaign and the beginning of an era of historic change – for me, the most memorable speech-giving of the night happened an hour or so earlier, and half a continent away.

I did not vote for John McCain, but his concession speech was remarkable in its sincerity and humility. I can’t recall another concession speech in which the just-defeated candidate spoke so warmly and with such appreciation for the accomplishments of his opponent.

It reminded me of the John McCain I read about in a Vanity Fair article a couple of years ago*, talking in a speech about his imprisonment in Vietnam:

“Very far from here and long ago, I served with men of extraordinary character, honorable men, strong, principled, wise, compassionate, and loving men,” McCain told the students. “Better men than I, in more ways that I can number….Some of them were beaten terribly, and worse. Some were killed….Most often, they were tortured to compel them to make statements criticizing our country and the cause we had been asked to serve. Many times, their captors would briefly suspend the torture and try to persuade them to make a statement by promising that no one would hear what they said, or know that they had sacrificed their convictions. Just say it and we will spare you any more pain, they promised, and no one, no one will know. But the men I had the honor of serving with always had the same response, ‘I will know. I will know.’

“I wish that you will always hear the voice in your own heart, when you face hard decisions in your life, to hear it say to you, again and again, until it drowns out every other thought: ‘I will know. I will know. I will know.’ ”

If that John McCain had run in this election, the outcome would have been far closer – and perhaps not to my liking.

But at least that John McCain showed up on Election Night, to try to heal some of the divisions he and his campaign team exacerbated, and to point the way forward for us. The New York Times transcript captured it like this: ” ‘Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.’ (Cheers, applause.)”

*Unfortunately, the Vanity Fair web site only carries an extract of this article. Look it up in the original mag – “Prisoner of Conscience” by Todd S. Purdum, February 2007.