It's naive to expect partisan politicians to play fair, I know; still, I'm always surprised by the boldness of their hypocrisies. Take the initial reaction of Bush administration cheerleaders to demands for an independent investigation of intelligence failures before September 11. Critics of the intelligence community were playing the "blame game," they intoned, practically in unison.
Before the administration grudgingly relented and agreed on Sept. 20 to support a limited, independent post-9-11 commission, Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) summarized the party line when he dismissed calls for an independent investigation. "I think the last thing we need is another one of these blame-game commissions that, you know, is just looking to lay blame on an administration or a director of an agency," LaHood said in a National Public Radio interview in September. He professed concern that a special commission would simply duplicate efforts by the Joint House Senate Intelligence Committee. "Members of Congress and members of the Senate really are not going to be looking to lay blame but looking to try and find solutions to how we prevent this, and to have people from around the country who know little about the intelligence-gathering capability -- I think it makes no sense and I think it would be just a long-delayed kind of an activity if we were to turn it over to some -- what I would characterize as a blame game commission," LaHood said.
You have to admire the chutzpah of Republicans who suddenly declare themselves above finger-pointing. These are the people who blamed corporate crimes on Bill Clinton's libido. (By lying about his sex life, he created a climate of dishonesty that caused corporate chieftains to steal, Republicans have lamely asserted.) These are the people who brought us the Ken Starr investigation, not to mention impeachment. These are the people who blame pornography for sexual violence, marijuana use for terrorism and the 1960s for what they condemn (when convenient) as a culture of blamelessness. Listening to them denigrate the blame game, you know what it means to be shameless.
Personally, I've always been in favor of blame and shame -- in moderation (and I wish Bill Clinton would accept his share of both, for public, not private offenses). In fact, almost everyone, right and left, believes in blameworthiness, although people on the right and the left define it very differently. Conservatives have cloaked themselves in the virtues of judgmentalism (but don't accuse them of playing blame games), while liberals have been stigmatized as bleeding hearts and moral relativists. But the roles are often reversed. Some religious conservatives take seriously the virtues of forgiveness. Some liberals pass judgment with fundamentalist moral fervor, as the rise of political correctness showed (consider the condemnation of evildoers who engage in "offensive" speech). Generally, thoughtful people on all sides struggle to balance justice and mercy. American culture is regularly criticized for its permissiveness, and we do enjoy relative social, sexual and political freedom; but the harshness of our penal system testifies to the popularity of assigning blame and the drive to hold people accountable for their sins.
The president, who fervently supports the death penalty and has promised to "hunt down" our attackers, would agree that justice requires accountability and that accountability requires blame -- so long as no fingers are pointed at him. The administration's refusal to cooperate with Congress has greatly hampered congressional investigation of U.S. intelligence agencies, according to Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Select Committee on Intelligence. Shelby, one of the administration's few GOP critics, made news around the anniversary of September 11 by citing "deep" and "widespread" failures in American intelligence.
The first president Bush has suggested that pre-9-11 intelligence failures don't merit investigation, lamenting the blame game that followed September 11 and likening it to "Monday morning quarterbacks" -- as if an investigation of the nation's intelligence capabilities could only be idle hindsight. He didn't explain how we might fix problems in intelligence that we don't bother to acknowledge and understand.
He didn't have to say that his opposition to investigating U.S. intelligence failures reflects the fear that his son would be blamed for them. That much is obvious. (It's not surprising that the administration has refused to divulge any information to Congress about what the president was told about terrorist threats before September 11.) I suppose it gives neither the elder nor the younger Bush any comfort to know that an honest, nonpartisan investigation would blame both Democratic and Republican administrations dating back some 15 or 20 years. Contributory negligence is too nuanced a notion for the black-and-white blame games of American politics.
After last year's devastation, the president and his minions exhorted us to stand together and to eschew partisanship -- in other words, criticism of his administration -- and most Democrats obeyed. The Senate passed the USA Patriot Act with one dissenting vote (from Russ Feingold), and Democrats continue to be cowed by the president's popularity and his ability to rally voters with talk of war. (War never loses its romantic appeal to people who don't fight in it.) But the surrender of partisanship was predictably one-sided. By obstructing efforts to investigate the nation's intelligence apparatus, by marketing a war just in time for an election, the administration has elevated partisanship even over security. We're supposed to sacrifice liberty for safety, or the promise of it, while the administration clings at all costs to power. There's not likely to be regime change here.