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September 20, 2011

The Perils of Partisanship

What will it mean to her or his election chances? What do the political experts think? What do the polls say? What political advantage was he or she seeking when she or he proposed this or that? And will he or she achieve it?

What's missing in the litany above are all the important questions: was the proposal a good idea or not? Does it have the right objectives? Is it the right means to achieve those objectives? What are the negative consequences of acting? Of not acting? Are there better alternatives? How will it work? How do we know? How do we decide?

It's easy to see that Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell can't be effective if he believes what he said: "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." We need him to give priority to the economy, the deficit, jobs to the extent government can do anything to create them, national defense, etc. etc. In fact, though, much of the media (including we bloggers) and many Americans discuss politics and partisan advantage instead of policy almost all of the time. The obsession, itself, is bipartisan.

For example, Shay Totten is a bulldog of a reporter for Seven Days. He did a great job of being a one man twitter hub during the chaos immediately after Irene. But his article about why Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin appointed long-time Republican Neale Lunderville as Vermont's Irene Czar for the next four months forsakes substance for political speculation:

"Gov. Peter Shumlin's appointment of a top GOP operative to oversee the initial recovery actions in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene was cronyism and political genius….

"This appointment is about one thing and one thing only: Shumlin's reelection and the political power that GMP wields in Vermont

"With one shrewd, calculated appointment, Shumlin took away the opportunity for an opponent to say that a Democrat mucked up Vermont's disaster recovery efforts."

The important questions of whether this is a good appointment and whether Lunderville is the best person for the job are simply not addressed. (In my opinion, he is – substance here). Totten acknowledges that Lunderville has been both Vermont's transportation secretary and administration secretary. Did he do a good job in those positions? That's relevant but no discussion of it here. There are no interviews with people from the legislature or state government who worked with Lunderville. There is no suggestion of who might have been better-qualified. The article has only snarky speculation of what motives – beyond getting well-qualified help with Vermont's recovery – Shumlin may have had.

Some Republican "operatives" have been critical of Lunderville – maybe the only time they ever agreed with Shay Totten. They're afraid that Lunderville'll make Shumlin look good by making the rebuilding a success, by helping the state be better than it was before the storm hit. Like McConnell, they care more about the next election than the fate of the State.

It is true that politicians – and all office holders in a democracy are politicians – are surrounded by people who are more concerned with spin and partisan advantage than substance, as I learned when I worked in Governor Richard Snelling's administration 30 years ago. To put things in perspective, he said: "First, we have to decide what the right thing to do is; then we'll think about the politics. Otherwise we'll just confuse ourselves."

Yesterday President Obama announced a deficit reduction plan. "With the 2012 election just around the corner…." is the way the coverage I saw on CBS began. Clips of the President talking about millionaires paying their fair share and Republicans sticking to their class warfare script. Nothing in that coverage about the amount the tax would raise; how much of an increase it is for whom; what percentage of their income they already pay in tax (or don't). There was no attempt to verify or disprove the Republican claim that the proposed tax increase will fall mainly on job-creating small businesses.

If we the people don't insist on getting the meaty facts, if we gorge on the sugary coverage of the partisan effect of each proposal, then we'll get more of what we ask for. We have big decisions to make; we need to know more than what someone may have been thinking about the effect on his or her re-election when she or he framed a proposal. Even if re-election was all the politician was thinking about, we need coverage of the substance of the proposal long before we need speculation about the motives behind it or even the likely effect on the next election.

Related posts:

CEO Lesson: Decide First; Spin Second

Shumlin Appointment of Lunderville as Irene Czar Great non-Partisan Decision

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