It’s as if we are all standing on an observation deck above a highway in thick fog when suddenly a speeding car slams into a slower-moving tractor-trailer. Seconds later, a van slams into the car, then a pickup truck slams into the van, then an SUV slams into the pickup. We see this happen, and it’s shocking to most, exciting to others. We hear another car approaching; we shout and wave our hands but the chain reaction continues. Incredibly, some people cheer. In this noisy nightmare, we look over to the right and see a man operating a fog machine, making conditions worse.
So there it is — my attempt at a KAL cartoon in prose.
It’s actually a metaphor for the historically awful moment we find ourselves in — a bitterly divided country, six weeks from a national election, seven months into a pandemic, with more than 200,000 deaths; a president undermining public health experts at every turn; violent crime rising in cities; angry and violent protests against racism and police who brutalize or kill suspects; protesters destroying property and defying police, with some officers shot; a president exploiting the harsh divisions and fanning flames, claiming the opposition political party sponsors anarchy; a president constantly and baselessly fueling skepticism about the coming election and mail-in balloting; his appointed postmaster making changes to mail delivery that cause delays and raise suspicions; the president refusing to commit to accepting the results of the election and, should he lose, honoring a peaceful transition of power.
Did I leave anything out?
Of course I did. We’re in the middle of a chain-reaction crash involving countless vehicles and, as the personal injury lawyers know, it’s usually difficult to determine who’s to blame.
Into this mess comes Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, with his prime suspect: Both sides.
Both sides are to blame, Hogan says, for the state of our political system and, on a deeper level, our political culture.
Just over a year ago, Hogan established a national organization called An America United. Its mission: Get Democrats and Republicans working together.
If you haven’t been to the organization’s website, you should. Clearly, An America United is Hogan’s platform for a run for the presidency in 2024.
He’s presenting himself to the country as a champion of bipartisanship, a claim derided by Democratic politicians who say the evidence of that in Annapolis is pretty thin.
Still, while it might be hard to see Larry Hogan as the country’s great healer and the GOP’s rebuilder, his theme of fostering bipartisanship might have some appeal when, and if, we ever emerge from the wreckage.
But there’s one annoying thing about the way Hogan executes his strategy, and that’s his tendency toward bothsidesism.
Bothsidesism in politics — and more so, some say, in journalism — avoids placing blame for any particular failure on one side over another. It tries to strike a balance that presents both views as equally valid or wrong. It takes on a middling tone, but the problem with middling is that it rhymes with piddling. When one side is clearly wrong, or its actions more egregious than the other, engaging in bothsidesism is pretty lame.
Consider Hogan’s public comments on the effort by President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to quickly fill the Supreme Court seat left empty by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“We can’t let her death create even more division in this country and perpetuate this toxic politics … that is creating so much gridlock in Washington,” Hogan said.
That was pretty good. Hogan sounded like a reasonable Republican, not one in lockstep with Trump, the guy who keeps the fog machine running in my car-crash metaphor.
But then came this: Asked about the outrage expressed by Senate Democrats and their talk of expanding the court beyond nine justices in the future, Hogan said that would be a “tragic mistake.”
He added this: “There’s more than enough hypocrisy to go around on both sides.”
This is where bothsidesism sounds mealy-mouthed and disingenuous.
When it comes to filling Supreme Court vacancies, the hypocrisy before us is glaring, and McConnell and all but two Senate Republicans own it.
In 2016, McConnell refused to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill a vacancy with almost a year to go in the Democratic president’s second term, arguing that voters should get to decide who picks the next justice. Here we are, with early voting in the 2020 election already underway in some states, and McConnell and all but two Republican senators are downright gleeful in their haste to let Trump pick the next justice.
That’s hypocrisy, and Hogan should just call it out if he wants to stand out.
And keep a dictionary handy: When Democrats speak of expanding the court to restore some ideological balance, that’s not hypocrisy. That’s candor, a pledge to play hardball the way Republicans have.
If Hogan wants to present himself as a reasonable Republican who can restore bipartisanship and clean up the wreckage in Washington, I wish him luck. It might turn out to be a good strategy. But spare us the bothsidesism, especially when the evidence points clearly to one side being to blame for the wreckage.