Saturday, August 13, 2005
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My thanks to Dan, first of all, for turning his blog over to me this week. There are hundreds of bloggers on the Web today discussing politics and policy issues, but people looking to learn something new, to have the essentials of complex issues clarified or just to read good writing are regularly rewarded by only a few. Dan has been one of those for almost three years now (it will be three years next month), which considering the many other demands on his time is just remarkable.
In a polity grown used to overheated rhetoric it takes a major effort to step so far over the line of propriety that one's own allies object. The National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) made such an effort this week with its television ad charging that John Roberts had been a patron of abortion clinic bombers in the 1990s. The New York Times today asked that NARAL apologize; The Washington Post called the ad a "smear." Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter said NARAL's ad was"...blatantly untrue and unfair." Mildly conservative but pro-choice John Tierney now describes himself as "pro-choice but anti-NARAL."
Well, there's one blow struck for civility: NARAL pulled the ad. But on NARAL's own web site, targeted at its fundraising base, the message hasn't changed at all:
"Roberts argued in support of the violent clinic protesters at Operation Rescue who have tried to block women's access to basic health care services with bombs and threats of murder."
"At the time, Roberts ignored widespread clinic violence and please [sic] from women and state law enforcement."
NARAL is an experienced and competent lobbying organization; its leadership knows it will probably lose the confirmation battle over Roberts. Why the vitriol? Sen. Specter's August 11 letter to NARAL head Nancy Keenan nails the issue in one sentence:
"I have...previously raised questions about using Supreme Court nominations as fundraising events without appropriate regard for the subject matter involved."
The playing to the activist base that Tierney and other commentators criticize as a political tactic is not primarily that. It is instead a fundraising tactic; NARAL used, and continues to use, violent rhetoric to its most committed (or most gullible) supporters, seeking not votes against John Roberts but money for itself.
There are dozens of institutions in Washington doing the same thing. If an issue that can be used as a hook for fundraising doesn't exist, one can be invented. It isn't enough for institutional advocates to be effective; they also have to look busy. An example of this phenomenon in action is legislation passed last year in the House striking down gun laws in the District of Columbia. The institutional advocate behind this is, of course, the National Rifle Association, which has been successful enough on its big issues that it now has to keep the money rolling in by conjuring up new mortal threats to gun rights, in this case local laws and ordinances that have been in place since 1976.
Media coverage of hot-button issues usually skirts this aspect of them. There may not be a good way for a reporter to ask a source who works for one of Washington's institutional advocates whether his employer is only taking a position on some bill or nomination to pay for a new building or a bonus for the senior management. Elected officials have little interest in raising the subject either; facing low-turnout elections in which interest group money and activist voter turnout can be decisive, Senators and members of Congress would have powerful incentives to ignore the self-interest behind institutional advocacy even if they had strong views of their own about the issues in question. And more often than not, they don't.
The easy thing to do is to take institutional advocacy at face value, something most observers of Washington learned long ago is often a mistake with respect to advocacy from business, labor groups or other organized interests with a stake in legislation and government policy. Controversy itself is the stake for institutional advocates, many of which may indeed have other reasons for the positions they take, but all of which need a certain level of alarm, hostility and bitterness in Washington in order to prosper and grow.
> In a polity grown used to overheated rhetoric it
The Swift Boat division of the Bush Campaign put out numerous well-funded TV commercials and radio advertisments containing scurrilous and utterly unfounded allegations concerning John Kerry. Allegations which included statements by the principals that they had participated in combat actions when Navy records clearly showed they had not, and allegations that Mr. Kerry's combat medals had been unearned which were so false that the Navy was obliged to correct them.
NOT A SINGLE REPUPLICAN REPUDIATED THESE COMMERCIALS. Yet when NARAL approriately questions whether Roberts' actions as a lawyer had the effect of encouraging domestic terrorists, that is "going too far"?
Thanks for that insightful look into the mind of a Radical.
Oh, wait. I forgot. Bombing buildings with people in them, using phalanxes of bruisers to intimidate women on the sidewalk, and overwhelming local and state police resources with violence actual and implied isn't terrorism. It is Christian charity. Sorry about that misunderstanding.
Crankyposted by: Cranky Observer on 08.13.05 at 01:56 PM [permalink]
In a controversy that concerns actual abortion clinic bombers, it's pretty rich to accuse NARAL of "violent rhetoric". I followed the link that you provided to their site and see nothing that remotely deserves that description.posted by: DonBoy on 08.13.05 at 01:56 PM [permalink]
I doubt that "domestic terrorists" were "encouraged" by the Supreme Court's decision in the case in question. Do you think abortion clinic bombers (or protesters) sit around worrying about whether the federal courts have jurisdiction over their activities?posted by: Andrew Steele on 08.13.05 at 01:56 PM [permalink]
Having spent approx 6 years living in DC the lack gun rights there is important, and there was no way that any purley local group could have been effective in changing the policies. The strange set up of the DC being governed by congress means that local residents have limited opportunities to play a role. The NRA may have used the DC laws in its fundraising but if you lived here it felt like a mortal threat.
The two "current" quotes you provide:
seem to be blatently true, although the "widespread" is arguable. Do you think NARAL isn't justified in caring about violence which disrupts access to abortions?posted by: yoyo on 08.13.05 at 01:56 PM [permalink]
The left just can't get over the whippin' Bush put on Kerry. That's why you keep hearing that the Swift Boat charges about how JFK(2) grossly inflated his activities in Vietnam to heroic proportions are false. Kerry, by the way, still hasn't released all of his military records, including a piece of paper that almost certainly says he got a dishonorable discharge.posted by: Banjo on 08.13.05 at 01:56 PM [permalink]
In this area, never underestimate the power of blogs, which puts the power of instantaneous incivility at the fingertips of millions.posted by: Appalled moderate on 08.13.05 at 01:56 PM [permalink]
For some groups, it may be backfiring a bit. I can think of about eight, whose goals I share, to which I have stopped contributing because of the hysteria and hyperbole of their appeals for funds or action; I've told their callers so.
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