As the Massachusetts General Court debates whether to give Governor Deval Patrick the authority to name an interim senator to fill the seat of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy until the special election to fill the seat his held in January, Republican cries of partisanship fill both the State House and the news wires.
Of course partisanship is at play. The public would expect nothing less. But partisanship is not what has the public so disenchanted with legislators -- at the federal and at the state level. What sticks in the public's craw is not partisanship, but raw, blatant, in-your-face hypocrisy.
Massachusetts Democrats are hypocrites because they voted to take the power to appoint an interim senator away from the governor, just a few short years ago, when it seemed that John Kerry might be elected President and Massachusetts' sitting governor, Republican Mitt Romney, would name the interim successor, thus potentially giving that appointee a leg up in the special election. But Massachusetts Republicans are just as hypocritical, for they were in favor of the governor having that power when one of their own was the chief executive. Now they oppose it.
The argument has all of the maturity of a grade school playground fight -- "You did it to me, so I can do it right back!"
How can the public not be cynical?
The latest lunacy in Massachusetts would hardly matter if it were sui generis. It is not. It is the norm. When President Obama announced that he wanted to speak to the nation's school children at the start of the school year, Republican cried "Foul!" He would be spewing forth partisan propaganda, pushing his socialist agenda. But, of course, they did not object when President George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan did the same thing.
After reading the President's prepared remarks, one GOP stalwart went so far as to say, "Well, that's fine, but that isn't what he would have said had we not complained." Based on what evidence? One's sense of paranoia does not count as evidence.
Examples abound. The current health care debate in Washington has raised some very serious questions, but we rarely here about these. Instead we get sound bites! Instead we get Congressman Joe Wilson (SC) calling the President a liar.
Wilson knows the President is not lying. Republicans know that there are no "death panels" written into any version of health care reform. Democrats know that their claims that the GOP has put forth no alternatives are false.
Partisanship is all well and good. But hypocrisy is not. Even the least sophisticated citizen recoils when confronted with blatant hypocrisy. And they tune out.
The 2010 congressional election is fast approaching, with primaries in the earliest states just months away. For decades citizens have supported their own incumbent while expressing disapproval of the Congress as a whole. Now, incumbents must worry--not because they are in the wrong party, but because respect for everyone in Washington is on the decline.
For good reason. Time to leave the school yard and give serious, even principled consideration to the nation's agenda.
L. Sandy Maisel is director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College.