Kavanaugh and the Politics of Bad Faith

Sep 17, 2018 by

The New York Times


Why the modern G.O.P. keeps abandoning principles it claims to honor.

Paul Krugman

By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

Judge Brett Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearing in the Senate two weeks ago. Credit Eric Thayer for The New York Times

Activists in Maine opposed to the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court are trying to put pressure on Susan Collins, the state’s Republican senator. If Collins votes for Kavanaugh, they say, they will donate substantial sums to her opponent in the next election.

Whatever you think of Kavanaugh, this is surely a legitimate tactic: Donors and activists try to influence politicians’ votes all the time, often by warning of adverse electoral consequences if the politicians make what the activists consider the wrong choice. Last year, for example, major Republican donors openly threatened to withhold contributions unless the party gave them a big tax cut.

But now Collins, other Republicans and conservative activists are describing the pressure over Kavanaugh as “bribery,” “extortion” and “blackmail.” And some of those claiming that normal political activism is somehow illegitimate are the very same big donors who warned Republicans to pass tax cuts or else.

Senator Susan Collins met with Judge Kavanaugh in August and is under dueling pressures over whether to support his confirmation to the Supreme Court.Credit Erin Schaff for The New York Times

Calling this about-face hypocrisy is fair, but feels inadequate. We’re looking at something much bigger and more pervasive than mere hypocrisy: We’re talking about bad faith on an epic scale.

“Bad faith” is, by the way, a legal term, referring to “entering into an agreement without the intention or means to fulfill it, or violating basic standards of honesty.” In politics, it usually means pretending to be committed to principles you abandon the moment they become inconvenient. And bad faith in this sense pervades almost everything the modern G.O.P. says and does.

The very process that brought Kavanaugh to the brink of a lifetime Supreme Court appointment was saturated in bad faith.

Remember, Republicans wouldn’t even give President Barack Obama’s nominee a hearing, claiming that because Obama was late in his second term the process should wait, leaving a court seat vacant for more than a year, to let voters weigh in. Now they’re trying to ram Kavanaugh through in a matter of weeks, despite incomplete vetting of his legal record and major questions about his personal history. (Explosive sexual charges aside, will anyone ask about his huge personal debts?)

Why the rush? Because there’s a chance the G.O.P. will lose the Senate soon. That whole thing about letting the voters have their say was dishonest from the beginning.

And there are many more examples. Remember when Paul Ryan posed as the ultimate guardian of fiscal responsibility, releasing manifestoes warning in dire terms of the “crushing burden of debt”? The moment Republicans found themselves in control of the White House, Ryan helped ram through a huge tax cut that will add $1.5 trillion to the deficit.

Paul Ryan, speaker of the House, and Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, with fellow Republicans at a press conference last year on tax legislation.CreditJim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency

Ryan’s hyperventilating about the deficit was focused mainly on social programs; in particular, he proposed large cuts to Medicare, converting it into a voucher program that would eventually receive far less money than the existing program. Some pundits praised his courage in making such a proposal. But now a political action committee tied to Ryan is running ads falsely accusing Democrats of … planning to cut Medicare.

Wait, there’s more. For years, Republicans tarred their opponents as unpatriotic. Remember the whole thing about Obama supposedly apologizing for America? Now we have a president who praises brutal foreign dictators and whose national security adviser and campaign chairman were both undisclosed foreign agents — and it doesn’t seem to bother the G.O.P. at all.

Oh, and let’s not forget that Bill Clinton was impeached over a consensual affair, because Republicans insisted that the president’s personal behavior must be above reproach. Need I say more?

And there are many, many more such stories. In fact, what’s really hard is to come up with significant areas of politics or policy where Republicans are acting in good faith, where their deeds really correspond to the principles they claim to have. Offhand, I can’t come up with any examples.

Why has the G.O.P. become the party of bad faith? Mainly, I suspect, because its core policy agenda of cutting taxes on the rich while slashing social programs is deeply unpopular. So to win elections it must obscure its true policies — like the Republicans now claiming, falsely, that they want to protect Americans with pre-existing medical conditions — and constantly pretend to stand for things it doesn’t actually care about, from fiscal probity to personal responsibility.

The key thing to realize about the G.O.P.’s near-total commitment to bad faith is that voters aren’t the only victims.

It’s true that many Trump supporters will get a rude shock if Republicans hold Congress, imagining that they’re making America great and losing their health care coverage instead. But bad faith takes a moral toll on Republican politicians, too. We keep seeing people who once appeared to have some sense of decency turn into abject apparatchiks. Remember when Lindsey Graham seemed to have some independent conscience?

Is Susan Collins next? Instead of attacking those activists back in Maine, she should be thanking them, for giving her one last chance to save her political soul.

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Paul Krugman has been an Opinion columnist since 2000 and is also a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He won the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on international trade and economic geography. @PaulKrugman


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