Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Assessing the "Real" Motivation of Politicians is Perilous Terrain

The liberal press critics roaming the blogosphere are uniformly panning Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller's remarkable take on President Bush's immigration speech. But Bumiller's analysis -- and the explosive reaction to it -- highlight a much bigger problem journalists face regularly: How far to go in assessing a politician's character and motives and the extent to which their history has shaped their present positions.

Very briefly, Bumiller argued that Bush's effort to take the middle ground on immigration was rooted in his past in a border state (Texas) and in his longtime personal principles, which allegedly hold that he views immigration as a positive force. Yet the truth is that Bush's speech was, if anything, a betrayal of those principles. Which gives rise to a question: How do we best address the question of whether personal principles are at play in the determination of a politician's position, particularly in a situation where the decision in question appears overwhelmingly political in nature, rather than personal?

My take is that it's usually a mistake to completely discount character and principles and see everything a pol does as pure political calculation. In the real world, politicians are human beings with prejudices just like the rest of us, and they often have to balance those prejudices against political or governmental realities or against the competing demands of constituents, all of whom have their own competing prejudices. And if a pol does something he or she doesn't believe in but is being demanded by those constituents, that's not automatically naked political pandering; after all, that pol is supposed to represent those constituents. Plus, policy outcomes are what really count -- or should really count -- in the real world, anyway. All this is why, as TAPPED's Sam Rosenfeld has quite rightly observed, the quest for some sort of Holy Grail of "authenticity" in a politician is a foolish one.

At the same time, there should come a time when the statute of limitations, as it were, should run out on our willingness to allow that pols are complex beings dealing with complex pressures and even core principles. If a pol has, again and again, proven himself willing to indulge in the rankest pandering to one constituency or another -- as Bush has -- then maybe he or she should stop be given the benefit of the doubt, and we should simply call his or her behavior what it is -- that is, rank pandering. In Bush's case, the statute of limitations expired a long time ago, which is why Bumiller's piece is rightly getting panned as loudly as possible.

Anyway, here's my take on Bumiller's piece. Here are some trenchant and funny observations from Rosenfeld. Here's Atrios's take. And here's a fun one from Salon. Enjoy.

I think it was Molly Ivins, appropriately enough, who said that the first three rules of political reporting are look at the record, look at the record and look at the record. Pay less attention to what they've said than to how they've acted. That advice has been more accurate w/r/t George W. Bush than anyone else I've seen in a quarter-century of paying attention to politics.

Forget the dime-store psychology. Look at the record.
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