I was struggling for an opening topic that would fit the theme and mood of this blog when I came across the video below, a government trainwreck that illustrates why our constant failures in oversight and policy are not only explainable but entirely predictable. What makes the behavior in the video so shocking is not that it is uniquely awful but that it is commonplace and accepted as normal political discourse.
The video above is a remarkable illustration of how our government operates. The content of the video is a fascinating subject in itself (which I hope to cover in later posts), but the broader relevance of the video is the picture it paints of our broken political discourse, not in the oft (and rightly) disparaged media but in the government itself, among our own elected representatives.
The remarks of Rep. Kingston that start at 18:55 are a mini-primer on the rhetorical tricks our representatives use to avoid honest discussion and to shirk their responsibilities as our elected officials. His contempt for the presenters is thinly masked under a guise of noble civility, and rarely if ever does he engage in the subject manner in any meaningful way. Instead he moves from one ill-fitting right-wing talking point to the next, inserting words into the mouths of the presenters, attacking their character while ignoring their presentations and expertise entirely. A summary:
- Kingston begins by attempting to portray Mr. Greenwald as a biased liberal.
- Kingston informs that it is "somewhat of an insult" to tell a soldier they are underpaid, because they are "not motivated by pay as much as they are by patriotism" -- as if Mr. Greenwald was questioning their patriotism merely by pointing out that contractors make far more money than soldiers.
- Kingston moves on to "producers make a lot of money - do you know what kind of money you've made on any of these movies?" This line of questioning continues uncomfortably as Kington's mocking assumed voice describes "dastardly capitalistic corportations."
- Switching to Jeremy Scahill, the Representative uses a comment on Jeremy Scahill's blog to attack the "Democrat party" by proxy.
- We are now at the 27 minute mark; 8 minutes after Rep. Kingston began his remarks and he has yet to engage in the subject at hand. The entire first 8 minutes of his comments, in a hearing that lasts only an hour, are composed of tangential attacks on the character of the presenters. Not on their facts or figures, not on the accuracy of their reports or even of their analysis and conclusions.
- "When was the last time you were in Iraq, by the way?" Just a harmless aside.
- Kingston implies that the presenters have talked to only one soldier; clearly an absurd accusation. He lectures them about proper data collection without attacking their methods directly. The relevance of these comments is a mystery.
- "There's a huge amount of rhetoric around here." Indeed. Kingston, who has spent 10 minutes failing to do anything other than sling innuendo and accusations, is pontificating on the need for honest discourse.
Comments by Representative Kingston starting at the 52 minute mark are similar, accusing the presenters of being anti-Christian, challenging them to propose legislation on the spot, declaring them anti-capitalists and even managing to bring up the conservative trope of Hollywood liberals who live in mansions and hang out in circles that include Barbra Streisand.
Mr. Kingston's style of congressional fact-finding and debate is not an aberration. Kingston is a respected 8-time representative. From http://kingston.house.gov/Biography/:
His down to earth style and common sense approach to issues have made him one of the strongest communicators in Congress and he is often a guest on network television shows such as Fox News, MSNBC, the Daily Show, the Colbert Report and Real Time with Bill Maher. Known as an effective communicator and a conservative voice, Kingston has served as the Chairman of the Theme Team since 1997.
Mr. Kingston can be an effective communicator when it serves his interests, to wit his comments on a recent non-binding Congressional resolution. Agree or disagree, his comments on the nature of non-binding resolutions demonstrate engagement and understanding of the material. His failure to engage on the issue of military contractors appears to be a concious decision rather than a failure; the meandering obfuscation he employs is a familiar Republican tactic:
Democrats want to force us to focus on defending the surge, making the case that it will work and explaining why the President's new Iraq policy is different from prior efforts and therefore justified. We urge you to instead broaden the debate to the threat posed to Americans, the world, and all "unbelievers" by radical Islamists. [...] If we let Democrats force us into a debate on the surge or the current situation in Iraq, we lose.
Let's rephrase that slightly:
Democrats want to force us to focus on defending the use of military contractors, making the case that they do not require oversight and explaining why the use of such contractors without oversight is justified. We urge you to instead broaden the debate to the principles of capitalism and to the political leanings and afiliations of those criticizing the use of such contractors.
That exactly decribes the strategy Rep. Kingston employs. Contrast the behavior of Rep. Kingston to the other members of the committee. They apppear genuinely frustrated and concerned. Mr. Kingston is simply not taking part in the discussion at all -- as per the Republican strategy of avoiding detailed and specific debates when politically inconvenient.
Kingston claims to represent an ideology, but the only ideology present is one of obstruction, maintenance of the status quo and the steadfast refusal to engage in the activites Congress is elected to perform. It is a mistake to characterize the proceedings as Democrats against Republicans; it is a battle of discussion vs. irrelevant and deliberate obfuscation.
Why have seven separate Pat Tillman investigations failed to produce an adequate explanation of what transpired? Why did the administration claim that "there was no indication that the levees would break", that Jessica Lynch bravely fought off her attackers with pistol fire? Why have we been subjected to constant scandal and failure? A partial answer is that the executive and legislative branches are populated with people like Mr. Kingston who are disinterested in investigating wrongdoing, providing oversight or improving policy when those actions would repudiate their political maneuvers and allies.
They are not incapable, only unwilling. For Rep. Kingston to admit that there is any problem with military contractors would be to attack, if only slightly, previous decisions made by he and his compatriots. Political preservation is such a compelling force that it takes precedence over American dollars and lives.