10/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Speculations on 'Partisan Rancor'

Saturday, September 6th

3:55 pm CDT - If you ever really need to remind yourself that September is not July, jump in a lake in northern Minnesota. If your brain does not immediately enter a state of shock, then you will feel the enlightened joy that comes when nature gives you a firm reminder that there are some things that people are just not meant to do.

I grew up coming to this lake every summer and it's been my end-of-summer ritual for some time now to take a quick swim before retreating back to reality. Normally, my end-of-summer ritual takes place at the end of summer. This is the first year that it's taken place at the beginning of autumn and - now that my anatomy has unshrunk and I have verified that my vitals are normal - I can say with certainty that there are certain rituals and traditions that simply ought to be abandoned.

Let me use that sentence to make a clumsy transition: traditions abandoned is essentially change. Change seems to be a big theme these days... screw it. I want to talk about a line in McCain's speech.

"The constant partisan rancor that keeps us from solving these problems isn't a cause, it's a symptom. It's what happens when people go to Washington to work for themselves and not you."

Here's the line of the speech that has struck me as most absurd in these past few days. I keep running it through my brain and it gets no better with repetition. The theory is that Joe Representative (from your district) is actively and nefariously out to further his own financial, personal, or career interests and thus pisses off his legislative opponents by demanding earmarks, kickbacks, or personal favors (let us not speculate).

Apart from being insulting to his fellow congresspeople, the line grossly understates the importance of differing ideologies. Sure, money plays a part. There is no question that there are politicians who can be bought (Louisiana's William Jefferson, the congressman caught with $90,00 in ill-gotten cash in his fridge, springs to mind). There is also no question that money buys access to a candidate. The freshman West Virginia congressman who receives a huge sum of money from flunkies of the coal industry, will probably set aside some of his schedule to hear what they have to say.

But kickbacks don't cause partisan rancor. Republicans don't oppose welfare-to-work programs because their corporate sponsors tell them to, and Democrats don't support civil unions and gay marriage because the union bosses say so. Partisan rancor occurs when the leadership of one party or both chooses to emphasize a legislative agenda upon which there can be no compromise at the expense of bringing to the floor more agreeable initiatives. And that happens when your governing strategy is to beat the opposing party out of office rather than to take their objections into account... when you seek to appeal to your base rather than capture the middle.

Sunday, September 7th
1:51 pm - After a harrowing flight back to New York through the remnants of a hurricane, I am at home and rethinking things. There is a second, more charitable interpretation of that line in McCain's speech. Perhaps congressman Joe (first names only please, he's a man of the people) refuses to compromise on any of his own principles. The self-righteous bastard blocks any legislation that doesn't fit letter-perfect to his own ludicrously exacting standards. Joe will not compromise and he thus fails his constituency by his mindless adherence to his Snow-White-pure idealism. Rep. Joe's purism serves none but himself, so he is working for himself and not you. And he's a real dick about it. Ergo partisan rancor. QED.

McCain does have a record of reaching across party lines, particularly on good government issues. And he isn't the insane, values-over-evidence conservative that Bush was. Let's hope he and his speech writers had this second meaning in mind.