Friday, July 6, 2007

Who's the Bigger Hypocrite? The Most Boring Game in Politics

In the wake of President Bush's controversial pardon, er, commutation of Scooter Libby's sentence for perjury, the Republicans have predictably launched into the most boring game in politics: Who's the bigger hypocrite. This is the technique of dispensing with a rational discusion of the pros and cons of the event in question for a tit-for-tat historical revisionists wet dream. It goes something like this:

Democrat: The commutation of Libby's sentence was an abuse of power and a travesty of justice.

Republican: Well where were you when Bill Clinton was pardoning [insert most hated Clinton associate here]? Why didn't you criticize that?

What follows tends to be a substanceless exchange where each side tries to paint the other as hypocritical, often with the most obscure examples each can find. Never mind that the person being asked "where were you?" was often not even in public life at that time, or possibly not even an adult. Yet they are asked to mold their opinions of the present as if they had been around in the past.

This is not to pick on the Republicans. Democrats are more than willing to play this silly game whenever it is their guy in the crosshairs. But the result is the same: no substantive discussion of what the actual issues are, and a pointless point-counterpoint of interest only to political wonks and hacks who will cheer for their side of the aisle no matter what the facts or circumstances.

This sort of diversionary rhetoric short circuits the democratic process. What needs to be discussed is what is happening now, and those events need to be judged on their merits, and those merits alone, not according to some hackneyed comparison to history. Historical events, even fairly recent ones, always involve different circumstances, and different people. Pretending any perfect parrallel can be drawn is delusional. Bush's commutation of Libby's sentence is justified or not based on the facts of that case. Nothing Bill Clinton did or did not do can change that, just like the pardons Bill Clinton handed out are or are not justified based on the facts of THOSE cases, and not via some obscure reference to something Ronald Reagan supposedly did.

History is just that. We can learn from it, but we must not make the mistake of thinking wrongs in the past justify wrongs in the present. Anyone who thinks President Bush's commutation of Scooter Libby's sentence was justified, needs to make the case based on THAT case. The minute the words "Bill Clinton" exit your mouth, you are conceding that you cannot in fact make your case. Whining "Bill Clinton did it too!" is just a way of dodging the issue, the same way your 5-year-old might try to weasel out of a punishment for not eating his greens by claiming you didn't eat them when you were five.

A democracy requires an informed citizenry critical of its leaders, which holds them to high standards of behavior, regardless of what their predecessors might have done. Doing otherwise guarantees poor behavior in the future, to the detriment of us all.