Watching politics can be confusing because we so often see, hear or read one thing and then get something very different. It leaves us with that Matrix-y feeling - like we know there's an underlying reality that exists and that really defines everything, but that we can't really see.
There's a logic to the deception, of course: Politicians looking for public approval tell us via press release and campaign ad that we're finally getting "real change we can believe in" so as to secure our votes in the next election. And then when we get no such "change we can believe in," we have trouble understanding why because, after all, we were promised that change.
Though we rightly suspect that there's dishonesty embedded in the gap between public pronouncement and actual legislation being discussed, it is - by design - difficult to pinpoint who is actually spearheading the deceit, and how. Rarely do we see how the obfuscation actually works, which is a tragedy because, as Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi says, "If the public understood better how rigged this game is, and how few issues are actually left to an honest vote in the legislature, I'm pretty sure the pitchfork factor would be twice even what it is now" - and the real organizing for change could start.
Thus, when we have a glaring example of this reality, as we do this week in the middle of a hotly contested U.S. Senate primary, it's particularly important - to overuse the already-overused Matrix metaphor, it's the red pill letting us see exactly what's going on.
As the Denver Post reports, C-Span caught on camera Colorado Democratic senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall appearing to switch their votes on a key measure back in May to crack down on credit card profiteering. Specifically, during a vote on an amendment capping credit card interest rates at 15 percent, both senators at first voted "no" on the idea when the outcome was uncertain, but then, when they were confident the measure would go down by a comfortable margin, both senators changed their vote to "yes."*
You can watch the C-Span video here. To see the sequence, watch at 3:03:30 Bennet vote against the interest rate cap amendment. Then watch at 3:05:23 Udall vote against the amendment. Then, watch Bennet and Udall confer with Senator Charles Schumer, waiting to see if the amendment will lose. Once the amendment is guaranteed to die, Bennet switches his vote at 3:07:57 and 15 seconds later Udall does the same.
A spokesman for Bennet's opponent in the August 10th Democratic primary, Andrew Romanoff, rightly said it looks like "Bennet changed his vote after it was clear the cap proposal would die, so he could tell constituents he voted 'yes' for consumer protection" - even though he voted "no" minutes before when it actually counted.
While getting caught on camera is certainly clumsy, Bennet's calculation makes a certain kind of (grotesque) sense - he is among the top recipients of financial industry cash in the Senate, but also running in a contested Democratic primary at a time when core Democratic voters in particular despise Wall Street. He, out of any senator, has a particular interest in trying to simultaneously look like a courageous populist to voters and a reliable corporatist to his big campaign donors.
Typically, this kind of subterfuge isn't caught on tape - most often, a legislator in a contested race will, until the last moment, hold his/her vote on a wildly popular measure that might offend Big Money interests - and then once the outcome is clear, cast his/her vote once in the most politically opportunistic way. Only occasionally do we see it so brazenly played out right in front of the cameras - and the few times we do are almost always this same sort of situation, whereby an electorally endangered politician is trying to square the circle of appearing to serve voters while actually serving the corporate interests that voters hate.
I recall back in 2002 while working in the House a similarly egregious situation. As the Washington Post reported at the time:
With major corporate responsibility legislation passed, elected officials are turning to a new target -- business tax evaders -- in a scramble to convince voters they are cracking down on corporate wrongdoing...
While debating a less-noticed provision in the president's homeland security proposal, 110 Republican members defied their party's leaders to confront another brand of questionable corporate behavior: companies locating overseas to escape U.S. taxes.
The question was whether to deny federal contracts related to homeland security to companies that establish offshore tax havens. House GOP leaders opposed the move as a heavy-handed job killer.
But in an extraordinary turnabout, scores of Republicans changed their votes at the last minute, after it became clear that an obscure Democratic procedural motion on the issue would pass. The 318 to 110 vote underscored politicians' eagerness to show they are battling perceived corporate wrongdoing, and suggests seekers of tax shelters may be the next target.
This is the kind of thing that makes people hate politicians and - worse specifically for the progressive agenda - government itself. And when, as Bennet and Udall are now doing, the politicians caught trying to trick voters then refuse to even try to explain themselves or offer a substantive (if post-facto) defense of their actions, it only reiterates that the whole American legislative process has become kabuki theater - no more legitimate than a banana republic's politburo.
* NOTE: The Post points out that in the legislature, Romanoff switched his vote on a lending issue. That's true - but there's a key distinction. He changed his vote days later, after the legislation had been amended. He didn't switch his vote moments later on the very same bill. I'm not defending the substance of Romanoff's vote, and I'm neutral in the Bennet-Romanoff primary. I'm just pointing out that there's (obviously) a huge distinction between switching a vote on legislation that has been amended, and switching one's vote in a matter of minutes on a piece of legislation that hasn't changed at all.