Answering Jack Conway's Defenders

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JONATHAN CHAIT OCTOBER 18, 2010

Answering Jack Conway's Defenders

I've seen a couple liberals dissenting from my condemnation of Jack Conway's religious-based attack on Rand Paul. First, here's Matthew Yglesias:

This ad has the virtue—not that common in politics—of being accurate. It also has the virtue of raising actual policy issues about the consequences of Paul’s position on tax reform. It’s true that the implication that unorthodox religious belief should disqualify one from office is ugly, but it’s an implication that I think is extremely common in American politics. Joe Lieberman ran around the country 10 years ago slandering atheists and Mitt Romney did much the same in his effort to make Mormonism acceptable to the GOP’s Christian base voters.

First of all, his conceding that the ad is wrong but common is only a good defense if the behavior is extremely common. It's not. Yglesias cites two examples, focusing on Joe Lieberman. And it's true that Lieberman's statement have logically implied that non-believers are morally inferior. But that's not the same thing is directly attacking a candidate for not being Christian. I'm sure he'd agree that ordering the murders of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis is worse than voting against cap and trade.

Meanwhile, Theda Skocpol argues:

People are acting as if it is some kind of political sin to point out to ordinary Kentucky voters the kind of stuff about Paul's extremist libertarian views that everyone in the punditry already knows. This does not amount to saying that Christian belief is a "requirement for public office" as one site huffs. It is a matter of letting regular voters who themselves care deeply about Christian belief know that Paul is basically playing them. No different really than letting folks who care about Social Security and Medicare know that Paul is playing them,

One reason that Dems do not seem to be able to play hardball -- in a viciously hardball political world -- is that Dems often lack conviction or the will to be eloquently honest (for example, on taxes). But an equal problem is that when someone does play hardball, the rest of the prissy liberal Mugwumps tut-tut them about it.

I say, go for it, Jack Conway. Does anyone doubt that Paul and his supporters would have used similar publicly documented material against Conway (or even less material)?

Is Rand Paul misleading the electorate about his religion? Sure. But he's not running on a religious platform. It's Conway who's making religion an issue. I think an atheist, which is what I'm petty sure Paul is, ought to be able to run for office without having his belief system publicly interrogated.

The rest of Skocpal's argument is a case for "political hardball." First of all, there's a difference between the role of the journalist and the role of the politician. Politicians need to pander sometimes. Journalists need to say what they think is true. I believe that it's bad policy to extend the portion of the Bush tax cuts that has benefits for the middle-class. If I were running for office, though, I'd be advocating those tax cuts, because that's a compromise you have to make. So even if Conway is right to kick Rand Paul in the groin, I'm also right for pointing out that's what he's doing.

That said, there ought to be some ethical lines for politicians. I understand the need to pander on tax cuts, but this kind of pander by Conway is more than I'd stomach. Rand Paul may be a dangerous man and unusually dishonest about his beliefs. But there still need to be some lines.

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posted in: jonathan chait, jack conway, joe lieberman, rand paul

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