Partisanship and the Balance Myth

In this Washington Post story, we learn that the usually less-partisan Senate intelligence committee is growing more divided along party lines. The code word here is partisanship, and it adumbrates the assumption that both parties are equally guilty. It implies that Republicans and Democrats alike are refusing to compromise with one another.

Absent from the piece are any investigation or reporting on who is right in these matters. Some examples of this:

Their anger has focused mainly on the committee’s chairman, Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas. A staunch defender of Bush administration policies, he recently said some of the panel’s Democrats “believe the gravest threat we face is not Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, but rather the president of the United States.”

When Roberts adjourned a committee meeting last month rather than allow a vote on the proposed wiretap inquiry, Vice Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) declared the panel “basically under the control of the White House, through its chairman.”

There are some assertions here that could bee fact-checked. Do Democrats believe that the President is a graver threat than Osama Bin Laden? Is he? Why, if Osama is such a threat, did we not focus all our efforts on capturing him, instead choosing to invade Iraq? No reporting on these factual questions is contained in the article. Republican says this. Democrat says that. Next point.

Insiders say nothing angered Roberts more than last November’s parliamentary tactic in which Democrats, without warning, briefly forced the Senate into an unusual closed session. Democrats were protesting the intelligence committee’s delay in completing the second phase of its promised inquiry into how intelligence was used before the invasion of Iraq.

In an interview last week, Roberts cited the 2003 leaked memo and the Senate shutdown as evidence that Democrats are at least as culpable as Republicans for the partisan bickering. Democrats, meanwhile, note that the committee still has not completed the inquiry’s long-promised second phase.

Take a moment to decode all of this. Some relevant reporting might have included:

  • Whether or not the second phase of the inquiry had been completed as agreed.
  • If not, what reasons were given for the failure, and are those reasons understandable.
  • If the closed session really warranted the use of the word “shutdown,” particularly given that the Senate continued to function throughout the closed session.
  • If the use of this parliamentary tactic represents a comparable level of partisanship to the Republicans of the committee deciding to retroactively make illegal acts legal.

Lots to think about. It’s a pity that the Washington Post didn’t think its readers deserved answers to these questions. Let me also note that this is a problem for anyone who believes a well-informed electorate is a necessary component of our government. In these terms, partisanship serves to equate all the actions of either side, thus dulling any actual policy differences between them.

As a thought experiment, imagine each side compromising by allowing the other to get its way in some instances. If the Democrats compromise, the President may break the law when he feels like it, with the assurance that the law will be changed to suit him. If Republicans compromise, we get an investigation of the President’s choice to break the law, and we can make an informed decision. Which outcome seems better to you? We can all agree that, “partisanship” blather aside, they are not the same thing.