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McCain, Obama, and the Inherent Advantage of Caring More About Ends Than Means

August 19, 2008

Robert Reich

We’ve been here before: The Republican attack machine at full throttle, spewing lies in best-selling books, on Fox News, on talk radio. The mainstream media reporting on the controversy, thereby giving it more air time and squeezing out the Democrats’ affirmative message. Followed by accusations by Democrats that Republicans are playing unfairly. Responded to by smiling shrugs and winks from Republicans, who say Democrats can’t take the heat or can’t enjoy a joke or are out of touch with average Americans who are concerned about whatever it is the Republicans are lying about. This ignites a furious debate among Democrats about how negative they should go against the Republican. “If we use their tactics, we’ll lose the moral high ground,” say the Democratic doves. “If we don’t, we’ll lose the war,” say the Democratic hawks. The debate is never fully resolved. The Democrats sort of fight back but don’t have the heart to do to Republicans what Republicans do to them. And so it goes.

The underlying problem is that Democrats care about means as well as ends, while Republicans care almost exclusively about ends and will use any means to get there. The paradox lies deeper. For most Democrats, the means are part of the ends. We want an electoral process that eschews the lying and cheating we’ve witnessed since Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks. If we use their tactics, we undermine our own goal, violating one of the very things that distinguishes us from them. Yet if we don’t stoop to their level, how can we prevail in a system that allows – even rewards – such lying and cheating?

“If we use their tactics, we’ll lose the moral high ground,” say the Democratic doves. “If we don’t, we’ll lose the war,” say the Democratic hawks.

It’s the same with governing. Right-wing Republicans detest government, so when they screw it up – failing to protect the citizens of New Orleans or returning veterans in Walter Reed hospital, or wasting billions of taxpayer dollars on non-competitive bids for the military, turning budget surpluses into massive deficits – they’re proving their own subterranean point that the public can’t trust government to do anything right. Democrats, once in power, inherit this legacy of distrust and deficit, and spend much of their time in office working their way out of it. And also inordinate time and energy promoting good governmental processes (recall Al Gore’s “making government work” crusade, which holds the record for the most arduous effort generating the least media attention).

Democrats also care about the rule of law – adherence to legal norms, rules, and precedents – as an end in itself. Republican administrations view the law as a potential obstacle to achieving particular ends. Anyone trying to chronicle the Bushie’s disregard for the rule of law is quickly overwhelmed with examples, such as violating civil service laws to fill up the executive branch with political hacks; riding roughshod over constitutional laws in firing federal prosecutors; wiretapping Americans in clear violation of law; holding prisoners of war without charge, in violation of international law; using torture. Democrats, once in power, regard laws as serious constraints on that power. (When I was secretary of labor, the department’s lawyers would instruct me about what I could not do because I was unauthorized to do it, rather than how I might reinterpret or bend the laws in order that I could. The lawyers who work in the Bush administration do the opposite.)

Those who are willing to do anything to achieve their ends will always have a tactical advantage over those who regard the means as ends in themselves. The question posed in this election, and, one hopes, by an Obama administration, is whether the moral authority generated by the latter position is itself enough to overcome these odds.

Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books (including his most recent, Supercapitalism). Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s “Marketplace” are heard by nearly five million people. This entry appeared on his blog.

Copyright 2008 Robert B. Reich

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