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Republican hypocrisy is almost funny

Americans’ disdain for politics is overdetermined — there are dozens of reasons for it. But the rank hypocrisy being displayed by Republicans in recent years is likely a contributing factor.

Americans’ disdain for politics is overdetermined — there are dozens of reasons for it. But the rank hypocrisy being displayed by Republicans in recent years is likely a contributing factor.

Nearly every day, Republicans tell the American people, in effect, that the struggles in Washington are not about philosophy or principle but rather focus on power and partisanship.

How else can one explain the ever-changing views of Republicans on fundamental issues?

Republican senators such as Orrin Hatch of Utah and Trent Lott of Mississippi demand that 60 votes be required in the Senate to raise taxes because that is “important.” But they argue Democrats are shredding the Constitution by suggesting a 60-vote majority for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.

I’m sure there is intellectual honesty evident in these seemingly contradictory positions, but please forgive my ignorance in not seeing it. I can only see a commitment to supermajorities when it serves their political interest and opposition when it does not.

Or take the Republican reaction to charges of perjury. When the charges were made against President Clinton, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson was unyielding: “The reason that I voted to remove him from office is because I think the overriding issue here is that truth will remain the standard for perjury and obstruction of justice in our criminal-justice system and it must not be gray. It must not be muddy.”

But when Republican Scooter Libby, the indicted former chief of staff for Vice President Cheney, is at issue, she categorizes those same offences as “technicalities,” suggesting they shouldn’t be cause for indictment.

In attempting to extricate herself from this public display of hypocrisy, she misrepresented the facts, arguing, “There were charges against Bill Clinton besides perjury and obstruction of justice.” In fact, the Senate voted on two articles of impeachment — one alleging perjury, the other obstruction of justice. Sen. Hutchinson seemed clear about those charges when she justified her vote to impeach Clinton by saying, “The principle of the rule of law — equality under the law and a clear standard for perjury and obstruction of justice — was the overriding issue in this impeachment.”

Principle or politics?

We have been witnessing a similar spectacle in the debate around Supreme Court nominees. When John Roberts is the nominee, questions about Roe v. Wade are out of order. When Harriet Miers is under discussion, Republicans want assurances that she will overturn the decision, against the express wishes of two-thirds of the public.

At some point, it should be just plain embarrassing to be them. To watch Republicans talk out of both sides of their mouths at the same time would be hysterically funny if the issues were not so serious.

Of course, it is President Bush and his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, who have elevated the strategy of obfuscation to high art. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was willing to debate his viewpoints openly and honestly. He was willing to just say no — to cut Medicare, to cut education, to reduce environmental protection. Gingrich believed in his positions and was willing to argue his cause forthrightly.

Bush has the same views but is unwilling to defend them and unwilling to debate them honestly. He led Republicans to abandon the “just say no” strategy and embrace “me too.”

Democrats are for education. Us too. Democrats want to strengthen and protect Medicare. Me too. Protect the environment. Exactly what Republicans want to do.

No doubt it can be good political strategy, but it debases the political dialogue and helps lead voters to conclude that politicians are hypocrites — that conflicts really are about power and partisanship, not about principle. It is just one more, less tangible cost Republicans are imposing on the nation.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.