photo courtesy Senate Democrats
The treatment of Antonio Weiss, and the wake-up call it delivered to the White House, is the logical conclusion of a quarter-century in which personal attack politics has been honed to a high art in Washington.
At least, we can only hope it is a conclusion. It’s hard to imagine how it can get much worse.
The White House nominated Weiss, the head of Lazard’s investment banking practice, for the position of assistant Treasury secretary for domestic finances. The selection does not seem to have been designed to be controversial. Weiss is a “fairly progressive” Democrat, according to friends and colleagues, and has worked on tax reform issues at a Democratic think tank, the Center for American Progress, where he co-authored a report effectively calling for higher taxes on people like himself. While Weiss’ supporters anticipated some opposition the far left, they were blindsided by the force of opposition the nomination actually triggered.
There was nothing partisan about the Weiss debacle; Obama’s nominee was undone by the political base of his own party, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. These are mostly the same people who put Obama in office, but it seems they therefore felt entitled to deference on policymaking that they did not think they were getting.
The deference: the right to veto anyone in a position of regulatory authority over the financial industry (the shorthand “Wall Street” has become the political left’s canard, though a lot of finance takes place far from Manhattan’s financial district) who actually knows anything about the financial industry. Ignorance is no longer simply bliss; it is a job requirement for senior government positions.
Warren wrote an op-ed for The Huffington Post in which she laid out her case against Weiss, one mostly centered on his private sector experience and the fact that he was one more “Wall Street executive dominating the Obama administration.” Never mind that Weiss received the nomination in the first place partly because no one currently in the Treasury Department’s top tier has substantial experience with financial markets. Still, Warren’s attack was enough to trigger an avalanche of Democrats refusing to support Weiss, who found himself the unwilling center of a rope used for the tug-of-war between centrist Democrats and those roughly pulling the party toward what they perceive as necessary doctrine. Personal attacks, long used between parties, were turned savagely inward.
Conservatives will claim longstanding victimhood in this manner - though Antonio Weiss is not recognizable as a political conservative, from his own description or much of anyone else’s. To the right, being “Borked” is shorthand for being made victim of unjustified distortion and attack, a term coined for Robert Bork. President Ronald Reagan nominated Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987. In the subsequent Senate confirmation hearings, he was viciously and personally attacked in ways that were startling at the time, but have since become largely routine. Since then his name has become, for the GOP, a synonym for any unfair attack on a nominee’s reputation and views.
Those same conservatives count Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as a victim of Borking, though I don’t. Even though I agree with a majority of the votes Thomas casts, I still think he was unqualified the day he was nominated, and that his selection to succeed pioneering African-American Justice Thurgood Marshall was a spiteful retort against perceived racial quotas.
Personal attacks have not always gone one way, of course. Republicans in the 1980s and ‘90s were willing to play the game with sharp elbows, too. House Speaker Jim Wright was targeted by then-little-known Rep. Newt Gingrich in an ethics scandal that was largely ginned up by the GOP, although Wright and his wife carelessly left plenty of fuel for the fire that ultimately torched his career. Gingrich ascended to the speakership when the GOP took control of the House in 1995. His chamber thereupon launched the multiple rounds of investigations that led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, along with Hillary Clinton’s famous complaint of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Unlike Wright, Clinton survived the Gingrich-choreographed efforts with his office and a reasonable portion of his reputation intact. Republicans were willing to do pretty much whatever it took to put George W. Bush in the White House a few years later, aided by the conservative justices who took a majority on the Supreme Court in the years following Bork’s defeat.
But for the past 15 years or so, the politics of personal attack have been practiced at a much higher level by Democrats. They are now plainly prepared to practice on one another, as well as on the GOP. It doesn’t matter what you know. It doesn’t matter who you know. If you want to be appointed to a regulatory position that Elizabeth Warren and MoveOn care about, the only thing that matters is that you show no sign of being capable of questioning liberal orthodoxy. It’s the orthodoxy that says climate change is the world’s most pressing problem, that GMOs have nothing good to offer humanity, and that somehow we are going to make most Americans more prosperous by soaking and strangling those who have capital so they are forced to turn control over its allocation to bureaucrats who are learning to run society by trial and error.
Any capable person of any political persuasion has to look at what happened to Antonio Weiss and wonder whether it makes any sense to try to improve this government from the inside.
Republicans and conservatives generally make most of their policy arguments these days on practical rather than personal bases - with the glaring exception of social issues, in which a part of the political right insists on trying to stir religion into the mix. Even so, it strikes me that by far the greatest share of personal attacks come from Democrats and their allies. It isn’t enough to disagree with the Kochs; to be a good Democrat, you must hate them.
You want good government? Start by creating an environment in which people who are both decent and capable are willing to serve. To do that, insist that people who demand adherence to their ideological or religious orthodoxy actually know who and what they are talking about.