Joe Nocera’s Phony Defense of Bipartisanship

March 4, 2012   ·   2 Comments

Source: NYTX

Olympia Snowe

By Marie Burns:

[Senator Olympia]Snowe [R-Maine] said the current [federal] regulations are ‘an albatross around this economy.’ And on tax reform, Snowe noted that the United States had the second highest corporate tax rate in the industrial world. That is keeping capital investments out of the country in this global economy, she said…. Snowe …voted earlier this week to kill the White House’s $447 billion jobs bill. – Bangor Daily News, October 14, 2011

Joe Nocera’s column in yesterday’s New York Times is a case study of the Both-Sides-Do-It Fallacy. Nocera’s assertion is particularly insidious because he uses as his Democrats-Do-It exemplar an historical event which most readers will not remember, so may not realize is false. Nocera compares George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, to Rick Santorum, the Republican presidential candidate. Nocera characterizes both men as “extremists.” While he’s at it, Nocera also smears former Vice President Walter Mondale, implying that he too is an extremist: “During the McGovern-Mondale era, the Democrats were exactly where the Republicans are now: the party had been taken over by its most extreme liberal faction, and it had lost touch with the core concerns of the middle class, just as the Republicans have now.”

Let’s compare George McGovern’s major policy positions from 1972 (and earlier) with Rick Santorum’s positions:

Defense. McGovern was an early and vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. Santorum consistently supported the Iraq War; he has said as president he would bomb Iranian nuclear sites, perhaps precipitating another world war, inasmuch as both China and Russia back Iran. McGovern repeatedly tried to reduce the defense budget. Santorum said he “would absolutely not cut one penny out of military spending.” McGovern, like all Americans of his day, opposed the use of torture. When asked if he would support a resumption of waterboarding, Santorum said “Sure.”

Women’s Rights. McGovern supported the Equal Right Amendment but said abortion rights legislation should be left to the states. Santorum opposes abortion even in cases of rape, and says women who become pregnant during a rape “should make the best out of a bad situation.” Further, Santorum is personally opposed to contraception and to any sexual relations not entered into for the purpose of procreation. He says birth control harms women and society.

Education: McGovern supported broad federal college loans and tax breaks for higher education. As a Senator, Santorum also advocated for programs to make college more affordable, but he has changed his tune: during the campaign he called President Obama a “snob” for advocating programs that encourage Americans to pursue higher education.

Social Safety Net. McGovern pioneered the food stamp program and was involved in numerous efforts to abate world hunger. Santorum worked to save the food stamp program while he was in the Senate, but he has vowed during the campaign to cut the program to alleviate the national obesity problem: “If hunger is a problem in America, then why do we have an obesity problem among the people who we say have a hunger program?” (Really. Check the link. I did not make this up.) McGovern favored a national healthcare system. Santorum favors repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which greatly expands the availability of healthcare coverage; he is the “Republican presidential hopeful who has most ardently argued for privatizing Medicare”; he favors “dramatically overhauling Medicaid in order to reduce national spending.” Like all politicians of his era, McGovern supported Social Security. Santorum was an early advocate for privatizing Social Security, and he supports raising the age eligibility to “70 and beyond.”

As to their personal biographies, both McGovern and Santorum are well-educated – each holds two advanced college degrees. McGovern, a World War II hero, volunteered early in the war; he received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal. Santorum did not serve in the military. (So once again, we have a war hero opposed to war and a person with no military experience advocating for it.) When he was voted out of office in 1960, McGovern became the first director of the Kennedy Administration’s Food for Peace program. When he was voted out of office in 2006, Santorum became a “stealth lobbyist” and Fox “News” contributor.

To some extent, extremism is in the eye of the beholder. But, for the sake of applying some sort of extremism measurement, we might call a position “extreme” if it falls far outside the mainstream of American political thought and public opinion. (In principle, I don’t think it extremist to hold forward-thinking views. Rather, I call that “leadership.”) Did George McGovern, and the even more moderate Walter Mondale represent, as Nocera claims, the “most extreme liberal faction” of the Democratic party? Were George McGovern’s positions far outside the mainstream? His opposition to the Vietnam War was shared by most Americans by 1972. The last time Gallup asked about support for the war was May 1971; by that time public support had dropped to 28 percent. So in this – his best-known position – McGovern’s pioneering views had become thoroughly mainstream by the time he ran for president in 1972. Some of McGovern’s other positions were quite conservative. Though a majority of Americans favored abortion rights in 1972, McGovern was not a strong supporter. He also opposed gay rights. The Democratic party that year beat down efforts to insert statements into the platform in support of abortion rights and of gay rights. Too extreme, you know. McGovern, a Senator from a farm state, was a big advocate of farm subsidies. He also was an early advocate of vouchers for parochial and private schools – a favorite cause of today’s conservatives, who want to dismantle the public school system. In their historical context, McGovern’s positions on these issues were either mainstream or to the right of prevailing public opinion rather than to the left.

Santorum advocates for war, for defense spending, for tax breaks for millionaires and corporations, and against Social Security, against Medicare, against Medicaid, against contraception and against gay rights (a states’ rights advocate when it’s convenient, Santorum says he would propose a Constitutional amendment to nullify gay marriages and end the right of gays to marry). In all of these major policy positions, Santorum is out of step with the views of a majority of Americans. They oppose war with Iran; they want to cut defense spending; they want to raise taxes on the rich and on corporations; they want to preserve Social Security as it is; they want to save Medicare and Medicaid; they use contraception and favor contraceptive care coverage; they now favor same-sex marriage. Even in his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which a slim majority of Americans still say they oppose, Santorum’s position is probably contrary to Americans’ actual views: it turns out a majority favor the provisions of the ACA; what they say they oppose is “ObamaCare,” a law that the GOP – especially Santorum – has spent the past three years vilifying – and mischaracterizing – at every opportunity.

Based on public opinions about their various policies, Santorum is an extremist. In 1972, George McGovern was not.

Joe Nocera goes on to argue that the Democrats’ big losses in 1972 and 1984 were the result of the party’s having “lost touch with the core concerns of the middle class.” While there may be some truth to that, Nocera neglects to mention the major reason for Democratic losses since the beginning of the 1970s: civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other civil rights legislation turned the Solid South from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican; many white Americans from other parts of the nation also opposed extending civil rights to minorities and women. President Johnson thought the Civil Rights Act had cost Democrats the South for a generation. Johnson’s gloomy assessment turned out to be too optimistic: bigots pass on their prejudices. Over the decades, though, as racial integration has become the norm and not just the law, succeeding generations of whites, especially outside the South, do not see race as an issue and are appalled by incidents of racism. Still, Republicans – including Santorum – have spent nearly half a century exploiting white racial prejudice. Santorum famously had to pretend he said “blah people” when he told a group of Iowa voters, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.” It is this exploitative technique that has made the Republican party one that is dominated by – and must cater to – resentful old white people.

Nocera says he hopes Rick Santorum wins the GOP presidential nomination because that would save the Republican party from itself: “If … Santorum is the nominee – and then loses in a landslide – the party will no longer be able to delude itself about where its ideological rigidity has taken it.” Apparently Nocera doesn’t read the news. Party leaders already know that. Joe Nocera claims to be a liberal. I don’t believe many liberals want to save the Republican party. Liberals I know would like to see another political party challenge Democrats. But they do not have in mind a party coming from the right or from what Nocera characterizes as the center. Liberals want to see a viable progressive party develop to the left of the Democratic party. Liberals want to see Democratic challengers like independent Bernie Sanders, not like Olympia Snowe.

Nocera holds up Sen. Snowe (R-Maine) as a model of “moderate beliefs.” If you call it moderate to vote against the Affordable Care Act, after forcing the removal of the public option on the pretense that she would vote for the final bill, then Snowe is a moderate. If you call it moderate to take a stand against a jobs bill because it imposed a teeny tax on millionaires, then Snowe is a moderate. If you call it moderate to back “a balanced budget amendment, which “is likely to push the economy back into recession,” then Snowe is a moderate. If you think “it’s just too darn easy to get legislation through the U.S. Senate,” then Snowe – who partnered with Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to try to make the process even more convoluted – is a moderate. As far as I can tell, Snowe’s actual positions on economic and other issues put her in lock-step with many conservative Republicans. As Jonathan Chait of New York magazine wrote this week,

… moderates like Snowe and their fans worship bipartisanship for reasons that have nothing to do with good government. A Republican representing a blue state, or a Democrat representing a red state, faces an inherently precarious situation. Often she will find the demands of her party’s national base pitted against those of her home state electorate…. Creating legislation … is not done out of a desire to bring bills closer into alignment with any abstract standard of good government, but to ensure her vote sits comfortably in the middle of a wide swath of support from both sides…. For [Snowe], though, such careful positioning was a matter of political self-preservation.

That is, Snowe is as moderate as her constituents force her to be. She has perfected the art of having her cake and eating it, too. Apparently this is such an exhausting effort Snowe is giving it up. She will retire at the end of her term.

The evidence is that today’s so-called moderate Republicans and ConservaDems are not all that moderate. In fact, this analysis demonstrates “Republicans have moved further to the right than Democrats to the left in the contemporary period.” Similarly, “President Obama is the most moderate Democratic president since the end of World War II, while President George W. Bush was the most conservative president in the post-war era.” That is, both parties already have shifted right.

Saving a right-wing party which has spent half a century ginning up the worst instincts of a shrinking minority is not a liberal priority. Joe Nocera is not advocating for saving the democratic process; he wants to sabotage it. He wants to reinvigorate and re-legitimize a party which has survived by pandering to prejudice in service of a tiny rich minority for whom it deregulates, cuts taxes and provides corporate welfare. That is not democracy. It is oligarchy.

Marie Burns blogs at



Readers Comments (2)

  1. alphonsegaston says:

    As usual, you have explained to me what I think. I read this column by Joe Nocera with great curiosity–where was this argument going–and why? I wondered if he was being fantastic and perhaps dabbling, in an amateurish way, in magic realism.

  2. maineprep says:

    Each year, the false equivalency arguments get harder to make. It’s amusing to witness the contortions that “big tent” apologists like Mr. Nocera must go through to execute that hoary trick. As viewed from the lens of 1850 or even 1920, America has become a radically liberal state, but each phase of that evolution has been slow and painful. During my Roman Catholic boyhood in the early ’60s, there were few Americans discussed with more furious condemnation than Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who had the temerity to propose an alternative to basing one’s life on an anthology of desert poetry written by those who thought disease was caused by curses. Currently, the forces of reaction see Santorum as perhaps their last hope, and for good reason. People will continue to evolve, and the fundies’ religion is as necessary as tonsils to that evolution.



Reload Image

More in JOE NOCERA, REALITYCHEX, U.S. (577 of 725 articles)
Rick Santorum