David Broder is a complete head case -- consumed by the convoluted efforts to square the circle of his own conflicting impulses.
Why would I say such a terrible thing? Is it because I’m a “vituperative, foul-mouthed blogger,” as he described people like me in the first of his two columns saluting the “independence party” of Democratic and Republican insiders that he wishes to see reelected?
No, I use that phrase because those are the very words - “a complete head case…” and the rest -- that Broder himself used to describe Rep. Chris Shays in a column a week ago Sunday. Everyone outraged by the dean’s last two columns in which he salutes the “independence” of a set of politicians characterized primarily by their incumbency, should add the one that preceded that pair as well. Perhaps you’ll come away with a little more sympathy for just what’s going on in the minds of the people who think they know how American politics works.
I’m not one to treat Broder with contempt. He’s worn out more shoe leather than I’ll ever see trying to understand American politics. And he’s written a bunch of books that I’ve learned a lot from (the book he wrote with Haynes Johnson about the politics of the Clinton health care plan, The System, is still the best book of the last several decades on the inner workings of Washington.) There are more than enough journalists out there who obviously don’t work as hard and aren’t as open-minded as Broder, many of them a third his age. It’s true, he doesn’t really get what’s going on in American politics right now. But that says less about Broder himself than about the craziness of the situation.
And that was my reaction to Broder’s column about the centrist Shays. Broder recounts a Washington journalists’ breakfast with Shays, at which the congressman tries to say what he really thinks about Iraq: he still supports the war, but thinks we should get out, but not on a timetable (he has a scheme instead whereby every time one Iraqi policeman is trained, one U.S. soldier goes home). He also thinks that the “president has no credibility,” but that Bush’s second inaugural address, in which he promised to make democracy the primary criterion of American foreign policy, was brilliant. And most important to Shays, no one should ever suggest for a minute that these complex positions were influenced in the least by his reelection race.
All Broder’s vituperative invective was well earned: “tortured,” a “self-absorbed soliloquy,” a “bundle of contradictions.” And Shays is, even by politician standards, unusually self-absorbed. But it seemed to me a week ago that Broder was seeing the problem as if it were a mental disorder in Shays’s head rather than a reasonable tortured reaction to the external situation as faced by a centrist Republican in 2006. Sometimes R.D. Laing is right: what we call mental illness might be a rational reaction to the double binds and cognitive dissonance of a situation.
And so I don’t think Broder is a head case, even though his salute-to-incumbency columns are filled with at least as many tortured contradictions as in Shays’ breakfast ramble. There is, for example, his insistence that Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio must be reelected because opponent Sherrod Brown is “a loud advocate of protectionist policies,” followed without a pause by a declaration that the Independence Party incumbents are those who listen to public opinion: “Americans are saying no to excess greenhouse gases and no to open borders; yes to embryonic stem cell research, yes to a path to earned citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants and yes to a living wage.” Needless to say, the “protectionist policies” Brown advocates (such as incorporating labor and environmental standards into trade agreements) are also things that Americans say yes to; it is elite Washington opinion that rejects them. And have any of the conservative Republicans he salutes as independent ever said a kind word about living wage proposals? Of course not; these are provisions championed not just by Democrats, but by the very ultraliberals that Broder thinks must be rejected.
And we could go on. It’s tough out there for a centrist. Like Shays, Broder has to try to fit the world into a paradigm in which each party is driven equally by extremists, in which there are responsible centrists in both parties who can lead us to hope. And yet, just as with Shays, none of the facts - including the more recent datum that his heroes McCain and Lindsay Graham caved on torture - fit this mental model. And the result may be Broder’s madness, or Shay’s, or perhaps the singularity of our current political situation.