Politics is often compared to football, with blustery talk of moving the chains and scoring points, but there is one huge difference: For politicians, what happens in terms of passing meaningful legislation is not nearly as important as what they are perceived to be working on.
On the other hand, politics, like football, is very much a team sport. For many politicians − a cynic might say most − scoring political points for themselves and their party is much more important than accomplishing some good for the country. They focus most of their energy on distracting their audience to keep them from realizing exactly what game is being played. It could be reasonably argued that politicians often have more in common with cheerleaders than with football players.
Political slight of hand is very effective with the help of the media. Even attentive activists often fail to recognize that, unlike football, in politics not everybody keeps score in the same way. In politics every player on the field sets their own goal lines and score-keeping systems. For instance, there is individual scoring (things that help personal reelection prospects), team scoring (things that help their party’s reelection prospects) and idealistic or “good-of-the-Republic” scoring that is motivated by ideas and core values. Sadly, the last tends to trail far behind the others.
Within those broad scorekeeping areas are subsets and subcategories ad infinitum, but the important thing to remember is that, with few exceptions, everything a politician does is first and foremost aimed at winning the next election.
As I mentioned in this space a couple of weeks ago, the primary goal of virtually every politician is to maintain his position or move up to an even more prestigious office. A politician’s most important skill and asset – indeed, the only asset a politician needs – is the ability to be elected. Without the ability to be elected, a politician is not a politician at all but rather an ex-politician, or a wannabe politician. The ability to be elected is what defines every politician.
In football, coaches use flashy passing plays and razzle-dazzle to keep their opponents off-balance and to excite the fans. In politics, razzle-dazzle is everything – and often the only thing. The drudgery of taking care of the nation’s business does little to excite the “fans” or attract favorable attention. What politicians want and need is to make themselves and/or their party look good and to make the other party look bad.
Consider the recent, highly publicized rant of Representative Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., on the House floor. The rant was delivered in response to the failure of a bill providing federal health benefits for Sept. 11 first responders. While it was reported as a spontaneous emotional outburst after the bill had failed to get enough votes for passage, the reality is that Weiner’s diatribe was a calculated piece of political theater.
The bill in question is pretty strongly supported by the general public and has over a dozen Republican cosponsors. The majority of Republicans in the House, however, oppose the bill because it is somewhat redundant, invites waste and fraud and is just one more open-ended expense piled onto an enormous and steadily growing national debt.
Seeing that supporters of the bill had more than a 40-vote majority, guaranteeing passage, some Republicans decided to exact a price for its passage. They drew up an amendment exempting anyone in the country illegally from the benefits of the bill. That would force Democrats to either vote for benefits for illegal aliens or against the wishes of their important Hispanic constituency.
Rather than do that, Democrats turned the tables and brought the bill to the floor under a procedure that does not allow amendments, but that requires a two-thirds majority for passage – two-thirds that the Democrats knew they did not have.
That left it to the Republicans to either vote for what they said was a bad spending bill or take the fall for killing the popular measure. When the bill failed as expected, Republicans got the blame, but it was actually the Democrat leadership who killed the bill by choosing to require a two-thirds majority. The only thing that really mattered was that it made the Republicans look bad.
The Democrats delivered another bit of partisan political theater the same week when they “leaked” a memo discussing the possibility of President Obama unilaterally granting amnesty to millions of illegal aliens without going through Congress. The media and Republican politicians took the bait, and all of the discussion was about whether the president could legally take such action and what Republicans would do to block such a move.
The memo was, of course, a public-relations maneuver, and it worked perfectly. Democrat stock went up several points with Latino voters, and that credit will remain even after the Democrats allow the “evil Republicans” to bring the power of their “superminority” to bear and block Obama’s amnesty plans. Democrats two – United States zero.
To be effective, activists must learn to distinguish between razzle-dazzle and real action. Recognizing the difference is not especially difficult, but it requires a couple of degrees of separation. The key is to step back and get a view of the whole field. Lay down some lines to provide a reference, and establish first-down markers to provide short-term objectives, and, most important, draw a hard, clear goal line.
Anything that a politician does that does not move down the field toward that goal is either razzle-dazzle or opposition, and it should be booed. Once you have your field clearly marked, you need to make sure the politicians know exactly where your lines are and what you expect from them.
Actions that constitute forward progress and indicate a true commitment to the cause include introducing legislation that improves the overall position and has a chance of passing, and pushing hard for record votes at every opportunity. Everything else – all of the bold speeches, aggressive legislation, complicated maneuvering – everything that does not move forward toward a reachable goal or generate a record of accountability, is just so much huff and bluster – razzle-dazzle.
Unfortunately, razzle-dazzle is much more exciting to watch and talk about than the rare short-yard gain, so don’t expect the lamestream media, or even your favorite activist organization, to point out the difference between motion and progress. Razzle-dazzle is better for ratings and fundraising than real progress, and it’s so much easier.
It’s up to the grass-roots activists to stop being suckered by the trick plays and distracted by the cheerleaders and to score the game on the progress made, not the noise generated. The grass roots must paint the lines and control the scoreboard.