Friday, February 24, 2006

Senator Yosemite Sam

Washington defines politics downward.
February 24, 2006

Witnessing the political reaction this week to the administration's Dubai ports-management decision, the phrase that insistently called out from memory was the title of a famous essay by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "Defining Deviancy Down." One would not have thought it possible, but Washington's political class is defining our politics down.

After nearly seven days of elevating the Cheney bird-hunting accident to the level of a national crisis, now comes this week's flap over managing the ports. To be sure, the matter of secure U.S. ports trumps the hunting of quail as an affaire d'├ętat. But it was the strikingly low quality of the politicians' commentary and behavior that attracted notice.

Within hours, if not minutes, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Rep. Robert Menendez announced "emergency" legislation to "ban foreign governments from controlling operations at our ports." No matter that most of the current operators of our ports are from Denmark, Britain and, uh-oh, China. Chuck Schumer: "It's hard to believe that this administration would be so out of touch with the American people's national security concerns." Yes, that is hard to believe.

Once the match was put to the ports decision in Washington, the bonfire spread quickly to the governors' mansions. New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, until recently a U.S. senator, told Ron Insana he was filing a federal lawsuit to thwart the move because the roads near the Port of Newark are "the two most dangerous miles in America." They are? Maybe he should put warning signs on the Jersey Turnpike.

What we have here is the dawn of the new Yosemite Sam school of national politics. Put any news event in front of our politicians now--Hurricane Katrina, Terri Schiavo, Dick Cheney's quail or this week the ports--and like Bugs Bunny's hair-triggered nemesis they'll start spraying the landscape with wild remarks and opinions decoupled from what is knowable about these events. Wait to learn the facts--as almost alone, Sen. John McCain, suggested? Why bother?

Yes, there are matters of substance in the ports decision about which serious people could disagree, but there's not much chance of that now, not after the politicos have poisoned the well. On Sunday Rep. Peter King of Long Island, chairman of the homeland security committee, was virtually the first pol to light up the ports issue: "How are they going to guard against things like infiltration by al Qaeda or someone else?" Three days later Mr. King announced: "Lawmakers are responding to incredible local pressure." But it was the remarks of Mr. King and his colleagues that drove the torrent of calls to the talk shows. Hold hearings to learn more? Sure, why not. But what chance is there that the Dubai Ports World hearings, like those just held on the NSA antiterror wiretap program, would result in other than more hyperbolic grandstanding?

What ever happened to the habit of political judiciousness in public life? One expects on occasion that Washington will march en masse through the swamps of overstatement. But it is now the habit to be intemperate. Rep. Sue Myrick in a letter to the President: "Dear Mr. President, not just NO but HELL NO!" This is a member of Congress?

It is being said that the Dubai decision has merely given Democrats a chance to get to the president's right on a terror issue (a week after they dove over the ship of state's port side on wiretapping terrorists). Or that election-needy Republicans are distancing themselves from a president with a 40% approval rating. Possibly so, but I thought the war on terror was about something real, not just this fall's dog-catcher elections.

An alternative way of looking at the Dubai Ports World decision is that it finally binds an Arab nation to our side in the war on terror and that it represents a recognition by some Arab elites that their self-interest coincides with ours. Dubai was already cooperating in tracing and identifying al Qaeda's financial flows. Presumably they are in the port-management business for the money. Now you may disagree with this, but there is at least an upside and downside here worth weighing. No chance of that now. The press yesterday clearly set the chalk lines for public discussion on the ports: The only issue now is whether the White House caves to "bipartisan pressure."

It has been a truism for a century that press stereotypes set the tone of many public events. We used to call this the conventional wisdom; now it's a "narrative." By and large it's a neutral phenomenon. But in our jacked-up media age, first impressions--false or true--becomes powerful and hard to alter. Surely this is one reason Vice President Cheney's office resisted "releasing" the shooting incident into the media ozone.

Our political elites, rather than recognize they are playing with a new kind of fire, instead have become pyromaniacs, lighting the fires. New Orleans even now can't get out from under the initial crazy statements the pols were hurling over Katrina. Our politicians seem to have arrived at the conclusion that they somehow no longer bear responsibility for what they say, or that there is no consequence to what they say. But they do and there is. Yosemite Sam was a cartoon. The ability of government to function in a dangerous world is not."


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