Means Matter

This morning, Matt Zeitlin wrote a completely reasonable, accurate post pointing out that despite the many process-based attacks he’s made over the course of the campaign, and despite his almost moral justification for accepting public financing, John Edwards has all the still relied upon independent expenditure loopholes such as 527s during his primary campaign. It’s a real critique, and for people who care about process and are supporting Edwards, it’s something they’ll have to grapple with. Just as Edwards’ political views seem to people like me to be little more than a tool with which to get elected, Zeitlin’s observation seems to suggest that Edwards views his statements on process as disposable as well.

So I was happy when I saw that Neil Sinhababu, without a doubt the most clear-headed, honest Edwards supporter in the blogosphere, responded to Matt. If anyone was going to have a convincing defense of Edwards on this point, it was Neil.

But Neil didn’t end up defending Edwards much at all. He more or less concedes the hypocrisy, and justifies it by claiming that Edwards, at the end of the day, doesn’t care all that much about process. What Edwards really cares about is ending poverty, and critiques like Matt’s are just distractions from the infinite good that Edwards will do the world.

This disturbs me. It disturbs me not just because Edwards’ poverty-ending mission hasn’t struck me as completely sincere. It disturbs me because it can justify anything. It’s already been used to justify silly things like Edwards’ proposal to deny Congress health care if they don’t pass his health plan. But it could be used to justify far worse. Like signing statements. Or bribing congressmen. Or passing legislation in the middle of the night and not ending the vote until you’ve got the support you need.

When Bush/DeLay did these things, progressives objected, not just because they were working toward nefarious ends but because they fundamentally corrupted the political system. A political system where both sides agree on limits is better than one in which political outcomes are determined by how hardcore each side is willing to be. That’s a big part of the reason why I support Obama, because after growing up with the Bush administration I want a president who can make the political process reasonably sane for once in my life. And when I hear Neil throwing process considerations under the bus because the ends are just so benevolent, I fear that other progressives don’t have the same desire I do.

So let’s grant for a minute that Edwards would do the most good for the nation. Let’s grant that, by not caring about process, he’d be able to accomplish feats of which he otherwise wouldn’t be capable. Even granting all that, Edwards’ hypocrisy, his Congressional health gimmick, and Neil’s defense of him all suggest that he wouldn’t do much to remove the taint Bush has left on the way politics is conducted in Washington. And I care enough about repairing our national political process that that renders Edwards – even if I agreed with him on policy – a non-starter.

4 thoughts on “Means Matter

  1. I don’t concede that Edwards is a hypocrite — I argue that his principles are tied more tightly to outcomes than to process, and that he’s true to those principles.
    For most of this post, it looks like you understand that. And I’d expect an Obama supporter to argue against my outcome-oriented approach here, and think a lot more about removing “the taint Bush has left on the way politics is conducted in Washington.” I, on the other hand, would be happy to see universal health care pushed through Congress with sales tactics borrowed from Bush’s promotion of the Iraq War.
    Mike’s point (at his blog) that a little bit of 527ery is way short of Bush’s worst abuses of power is also a good one. And when it comes to Bush’s worst abuses, Edwards has been on the side of the angels.
    We could argue it out, and maybe we will in the month to come. But perhaps the need for the argument will be eliminated by the events of the next day. So I’ll leave it at that for now.

  2. I, on the other hand, would be happy to see universal health care pushed through Congress with sales tactics borrowed from Bush’s promotion of the Iraq War.
    And there, I think, is the rub. That’s what I was sensing from your defense of Edwards, and I think Mike accepts it as well. I know that you’re a utilitarian, Neil; so am I. But I think we need to take the damage done to the political process by such slash-and-burn tactics into account when doing a moral calculus here. I think that the legitimization of such methods will prevent more progressive reforms than it will enact, and more than that is a moral harm in and of itself. I think the transformation of the political world into a place in which politicians can fabricate intelligence and lie at will to promote their favored policies is one in which truly deliberative democracy cannot take place, and that that not only produces worse outcomes, but is an inherently bad outcome itself. But the people of Iowa are already deciding now, so perhaps this will all be academic soon enough.

  3. We already live in that world. Pretending otherwise when the interests of the working class are on the table is poor practice. And, again, I don’t really accept any kind of equivalence here.

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