Only Hypocrisy Is Truly Bipartisan

by Stuart Rothenberg June 1, 2011 · 9:25 AM EDT

It’s no wonder many Americans hold politicians in low regard.

Our political “leaders” often say one thing when they are in power and something diametrically opposed when they are not. They often appear to be reading from a script, changing roles depending on whether they just won or lost a special election or whether they are in power.

Probably the best example of political hypocrisy is Gerald Seib’s terrific column “The Politics of the Debt Ceiling” in the April 26 edition of the Wall Street Journal. Read it if you haven’t yet done so.

Seib points out that in seven votes to raise the debt ceiling since 2002, Iowa’s two Senators voted directly opposite. When a Democrat was in the White House, Sen. Tom Harkin (D) voted to raise the limit and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) voted against it. When a Republican occupied the White House, Grassley supported raising the limit and Harkin opposed it.

Seib calls President Barack Obama to task for doing much the same thing. In the Senate, Obama said raising the debt limit would be a “leadership failure” and voted against it. But — surprise, surprise — now that he is president, Obama says failing to raise the debt limit would bring financial disaster.

Yes, the president says he “regrets” that vote, which he calls a mistake. I’d take that reversal seriously if it didn’t seem like a transparently political flip-flop to explain his new position.

I encountered another role reversal recently when I interviewed former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D), who was defeated in November but is back again to try to regain her Arizona seat, now occupied by freshman GOP Rep. Paul Gosar.

Kirkpatrick is extremely nice and clearly sincere about wanting to improve things for her district and the country as a whole. I liked her a great deal.

But as I interviewed her, I could only think of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s comments last cycle about Republican former Members who suffered defeat but were running to regain their old seats.

The DCCC mocked these former Members as “retreads,” dismissing their efforts to return to Congress.

For example, in late October of last year, then-DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) told this newspaper that then-Rep. Frank Kratovil (Md.) would be re-elected, in part, because “Andy Harris is the same guy who lost last time so he’s a retread.” Harris, of course, won.

Van Hollen used the same demeaning “retread” label elsewhere to describe former Reps. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) and Steve Chabot (R-Ohio). All three of them won their races last year.

When I asked Kirkpatrick about being, in the DCCC’s words, a “retread,” she smiled and wisely dismissed her party committee’s language as merely part of the political game. Yes, it really is a game — and a very silly one.

Kirkpatrick, by the way, isn’t the only Democratic “retread” who has either decided to run again or is considering a bid.

In New Hampshire, Carol Shea Porter is running, while Dina Titus is likely to run again in Nevada. Other Democrats who lost last time are looking to run again, including Tarryl Clark in Minnesota, Ami Bera in California and Dan Maffei in New York.

I haven’t asked Van Hollen or current DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) whether they think these Democratic “retreads” could win in 2012. I know the answer I’d get.

But for sheer gall, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) probably takes the cake. No, I’m not talking about the presidential candidate’s characterization of Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, which already has received plenty of attention, or about his Tiffany credit card account.

Appearing on Fox News’ “Hannity” program shortly after he announced his presidential bid last week, Gingrich blasted Obama’s campaign for trying to raise $1 billion.

“He can’t afford to run in a fair election,” Gingrich said.

When even Hannity seemed a little confused by the statement, Gingrich added, “If he was on an equal playing field, he would lose.”

A “fair election?” The former Speaker apparently believes that “fairness” requires candidates to have the same resources. Did he promote that idea when he was in the House leadership? Did he abide by that view himself?

In 1994, Gingrich easily dispatched challenger Ben Jones (D), a former Member of Congress, outspending the Democrat $1.8 million to $321,000. Two years later, Gingrich outspent wealthy challenger Michael Coles $5.5 million to $3.3 million.

Even more to the point, Gingrich’s 1992 primary opponent, former state Rep. Herman Clark (R), challenged Gingrich to limit his spending to $750,000, an offer that Gingrich never accepted. Gingrich ended up spending $1.1 million to Clark’s $150,000 — and winning renomination 51 percent to 49 percent.

Apparently Gingrich didn’t see those elections, when the playing field wasn’t close to equal, as “unfair.”

But take a step back and consider the utter absurdity of a conservative Republican who generally supports the idea of the free market and bridles at liberals who equate equality with fairness talking about the “unfairness” of the president trying to raise $1 billion for his re-election.

It’s mind-boggling. If Gingrich deems an election as “unfair” because one candidate has more money than the other, just imagine what he must think about a country where some have much more money than others.