Saturday, October 21, 2017

Intelligent Inquiry

As a way to encourage inquiry, even when they feel unsure of themselves, people often say: "There are no stupid questions." Not everyone agrees with this concept.

Peter Doocy, Fox News: “Has your relationship with the president frayed to the point that you are not going to support anything that he comes to you and asks for?”

Senator John McCain (R-AZ): “Why would you say something that stupid? Why would you ask something that dumb? Huh? My job as a United States senator, is a senator from Arizona, which I was just reelected to. You mean that I am somehow going to behave in a way that I’m going to block everything because of some personal disagreement? That’s a dumb question.”
Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't.
"I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up."
Senator John McCain, Monday, 17 October, 2016.
If the good Senator is willing to go on the record and effectively claim, out of little more than naked partisanship, that any person that Hillary Clinton would have nominated for the Supreme Court would be opposed, what's really so stupid about assuming that there is a level of partisanship between the Establishment and Populist wings of the Republican party that the Senator would decide that any policy advanced by President Trump is a bad one?

Where Mr. Doocy went wrong is in effectively asking Senator McCain to self-incriminate in front of the Fox News audience, who (generally speaking) back President Trump and, like the President himself, expect a certain level of loyalty and deference to him, even from the Establishment Republicans whom the President has no problem attacking when it suits him. Whether he'd hoped to catch the Senator off-guard or elicit an openly disingenuous-sounding answer, Mr. Doocy departed from standard procedure on this one, and Senator McCain verbally spanked him for it. There's a reason why the typical modus operandi in situations like this is to ask an innocuous-seeming question and then spin the answer later through manipulating the context (or leaving it out entirely).

Politicians, especially those who have served for long periods through shifting political circumstances, may think with their party affiliations more often that non-partisans would like, but they aren't stupid. Part of the problem with the common conspiratorial thinking that makes even high-level politicians out to be the bought and paid for puppets of showy wealthy Illuminati is that it allows one to write off as venal and unintelligent a group of people whose day-to-day job (and their longevity in that job) demands a remarkable level of political savvy. And sometimes, that political savvy demands making statements that cloak partisan considerations in ethical or practical ones. Even if the statements made in so doing have to be walked back later.

But there's another way one can look at Mr. Doocy's question, and that is as a veiled form of political research. For anyone reasonably intelligent to go on the record with the idea that they so oppose a sitting President of the United States that they would block initiatives simply because said President supports them, they would have to understand (correctly or not) that they have a strong enough constituency backing them that this is a viable policy. When talking across the Democratic-Republican divide, this is a pretty safe bet. There is a large enough cohort of anti-Tump voters that Democratic members of Congress in many parts of the country can pledge not to support anything that the President might come to them and ask them for and be reasonably assured that voters in their state or district will see that as a legitimate ethical or practical stance. Likewise, a large number of Republican members of Congress could rely on a staunch cohort of anti-Obama voters for the same. But there's an open question, and that concerns the existence of a large enough cohort of anti-Trump Republican voters that a personal stand makes sense.

The other typical Republican holdouts, such as Senator Susan Collins of Maine, while they might be viewed by the stereotypical Fix News viewer as traitorous, place their policy objections in terms of just that, policy. There may have been a lot of grousing from Republicans in other parts of the country about Senator Collins' lack of support for repealing and replacing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but it seems fairly clear that whatever her personal feelings on the subject, she was channeling her constituents in this. Because Senator McCain tends to also invoke Senate ideals in his opposition, it may be easier to cast him as using those as a cover for personal animosity, which would imply a voter base behind him that shares that animosity.

As people come to view American politics as a contest between Purity on one side and Perversity on the other, it's likely, whether its stated publicly or not, that this question of personal, rather than even partisan bias will become more and more prevalent. After all, calling people out as perverse is often a poor way of making friends, and there is an endless litany of angry screeds claiming that one or the other election was effectively decided by hurt feelings. And so it may be a stupid question, but it's not going anywhere anytime soon.

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