The Democratic Party’s Moral Imperative
If Democrats adopt the Republican playbook, Senate rules will largely work in their favor (“A Game Plan for Senate Democrats” by Sarah Binder in The New York Times, February 10, 2017).
I’ll state my thesis directly: Losing is not the worst of all outcomes—not for athletes or political parties or even nations.
And here is my antithesis, a quote Vince Lombardi borrowed from his fellow football coach Red Saunders: Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
For the next four years at least, politicians will face an intense temptation that probably won’t receive much media attention. Because the President of the United States interprets the world and all that is in it as a game of winners and losers, our elected officials might lock themselves into the same stunted, hostile paradigm.
One obvious shortcoming of regarding life as a game is that victory is slippery. History often declares today’s winner to be tomorrow’s loser. Cheating Olympians, for example, get stripped of their medals and worse, their dignity.
Another problem: If winning is the only thing, then the rulebook and sportsmanship are stomped with soggy beer cups under the bleachers. Unless honor and honesty are prerequisites, then the final score bleeds out the game’s meaning and purpose.
A competitor’s greatest temptation, perhaps, is to ignore rules and unspoken agreements when the opponent has done the same. When players on all teams make pragmatic arrangements of conscience for long enough, clever rule breaking and scurvy conduct become parts of the sport.
If losing is an athlete’s worst outcome, then cheating makes perfect sense. Likewise, if leaders of political parties regard every debate as a battle that must be won at all costs, then the United States Constitution isn’t a benevolent document with our country’s best interests at heart, but a set of obstacles to be overcome, or worse yet, archaic words to be twisted beyond recognition. And if victory really is the only thing, then manners and tradition are relics, as irrelevant as powdered wigs and waistcoats.
Republicans and Democrats have taken turns deflating constitutional footballs and throwing spitters at each other. Historians have no doubt produced damning cases against politicians of all ages, and even present armchair observers can list specific offenses of those across the aisle.
But in these days after Donald Trump grabbed arguably his most coveted prize, Democrats Senators face the temptation to win by forsaking their souls. How might this happen? If they “adopt the Republican playbook,” as Sarah Binder suggests, or at least parts of it, they will sacrifice core values of our American Republic. On a practical level, they will also lose the moral high ground Democrats have held over the last eight years.
During Barack Obama’s two terms, the Republican playbook has consisted largely of obstructionism—not the strategic filibuster here and there to prevent intolerable nominees or legislation, but the blanket opposition of the legally elected President.
Elsewhere on Matters of Conscience I’ve substantiated this claim, so I’m not going to chew that bitter tobacco again. It is a matter of public record from multiple reliable sources—yes, journalists with principles still exist—that starting in January of 2009, Republicans in both the House and Senate understood their marching orders to be simple: If Obama is for it, you’re against it. The merit of his vision and initiatives was beside the point. Until the Oval Office was again occupied by a Republican, compromise and collaboration were off the docket.
The Party of Lincoln’s playbook was also propped up by what Kellyanne Conway now calls “alternative facts.” Anybody who was unduly surprised by this sinister euphemism for “lies” hasn’t been paying attention. No argument here, politicians from left to right have made Faustian bargains with the truth. But for Donald Trump, truth carries no moral weight; in fact, it doesn’t exist. God help Republicans when world leaders figure out that our POTUS will say whatever it takes to make them his bitches. Whew! The fallout may be literal.
Democrats with integrity and kindred spirits across all aisles will also need divine assistance if we assume that losing is the worst thing that can happen to us.
Why do President Trump’s recent statements about torture trouble us so? Why did the Republican-led Senate’s decision to stiff Merrick Garland make millions see red?
Easy. Thoughtful Americans know when our collective souls have been sold. No matter what the gain, we don’t water board prisoners. Faced with loss, we still do what’s right.
Calling ourselves American has nothing to do with being great. Greatness is a red herring. Being American is about doing what we know is right and honorable regardless of the outcome. And what is right? We work together for the sake of strangers and tell the truth.
Millions of Americans, then, and Democrats especially, face a moral imperative in the years ahead. Martin Luther King understood this imperative, as did Mahatma Gandhi on another continent.
Republican playbook be damned! Although the temptation to cheat because others cheat is keen, history demands much of great athletes and still more of patriots.
What is greatness? To act not for ourselves, but for others. To speak the truth in all circumstances.
The cost of such foolishness may be defeat. History can be fickle, though. Today’s losers might be judged tomorrow’s heroes.
Great human beings and nations, it turns out, are often foolish. What they insist upon is being just and kind.