In Defense of Partianship

“We are told that Mr. Blaine has been delinquent in office but blameless in public life, while Mr. Cleveland has been a model of official integrity but culpable in personal relations. We should therefore elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office for which he is so well qualified to fill, and remand Mr. Blaine to the private station which he is admirably fitted to adorn.”

-Grover Cleveland supporter, 1884.

At Ethics Alarms, Jack Marshall writes:

I’ve been reading defenders of Anthony Weiner proudly proclaim that they would vote for lying Democrats over honest Republicans, just as the supporters of assorted Republican liars—Senator Paul Kirk comes to mind—clearly feel the same way.

I’d vote for Rep. Wiener over a Conservative Republican.

I think there’s such a thing as ethical partisanship, and unethical partisanship.

Partisanship is unethical when partisans seemingly jettison principles in order to support their party.

So, for example, when George Bush was president, Democrats thought it was horrible that he invaded Iraq with barely any input from Congress. Now, Obama joins a military action against Libya with even less input from Congress, and few Democrats object.

Another example: the individual mandate, once widely supported by leading Republicans, has become a horrible affront to freedom and the Constitution since it became associated with Democrats.

This sort of behavior is, very literally, unprincipled. Laura Chapin described this sort of partisanship well:

This is exactly the kind of action that breeds voter cynicism about public officials. They’re no longer interested in what works, or whether it’s a practical idea, or whether something–like universal coverage–provides for the common good. They don’t care whether they’ve supported an idea in the past.

All they care about is power and loyalty to their party.

But it’s also possible to be partisan out of principal.

Let’s take UNFPA, which is short for UN Population Fund. (I realize that makes no sense, just go with it.) UNFPA provides prenatal, natal and maternal medical care in dozens of poor countries, and saves thousands of lives. Republicans oppose UNFPA, because of false claims that UNFPA supports forced abortion in China.

So US funding for UNFPA is a political football; when Republicans are in power, UNFPA is defunded and can provide correspondingly less lifesaving medical care. When Democrats are in power, the US contributes to UNFPA and more lives are saved.1

From an article in Salon describing the freeze in UNFPA funding during the Bush administration:

The result of Bush’s freeze has been a reduction in medical services to women worldwide. According to the UNFPA, in Bangladesh, where 67 percent of pregnant women receive no medical care, programs to train doctors to deal with pregnancy complications will be put on hold. In Vietnam, according to UNFPA field worker Tran Thi Van, a program to train 4,000 health workers in reproductive issues and to provide medical equipment and drugs to 500 remote clinics is in jeopardy. In Kenya, where the UNFPA has been working with the Catholic Church to prevent teenagers from getting AIDS, the church’s request to expand the program will probably have to be rejected. Overall, UNFPA’s funding shortfall is $52 million, because some other countries failed to meet their contribution targets due to financial constraints. The agency estimates that the lack of resources will result in 3 million unwanted pregnancies, 7,140 maternal deaths and, ironically, 1,215,000 abortions.

Nicholas Kristof suggested what some of the consequences of Bush’s funding freeze could be in an April 26 New York Times column about Aisha Idris, a young Sudanese woman with fistula, a condition in which a woman’s rectum, urethra and vagina are torn during childbirth, “leaving her incontinent and causing bodily wastes to seep through her vaginal canal and down her legs.” The UNFPA, he wrote, “supports precisely the kind of third-world maternal health care programs that can save women’s lives in childbirth and avoid medical complications like fistula. Yet the White House for now is crippling the fund by withholding the 13 percent of its budget that the United States provides.”

Now, let’s set aside whether all that is true or not, to be argued another day. The point is, I genuinely believe all of that is true.

I do think it’s wrong for Weiner to have had online sexting relationships behind his wife’s back (assuming they didn’t have an arrangement). I think it was wrong of him to lie to the press. I think it was wrong of him to take a chance on a scandal that would radically curtail his ability to do his job – a job that is important to many people other than Mr. Weiner — effectively.

But I don’t think any of that stuff is nearly as wrong as wanting to defund UNFTA. Which is to say, Weiner — flawed as he is — is, in my view, still enormously better than an honest Republican2 who’d push to defund UNFPA.

And it’s not just UNFPA. It’s UNFPA, plus health care, plus reproductive rights, plus gay rights, plus global climate change, plus a thousand other issues in which the standard Democratic policy position is, in my view, better than the standard Republican position in ways that have important consequences.3

The two major parties aren’t just teams. They each represent a bundle of policy positions, which in turn can represent huge differences in ordinary people’s lives. Sometimes they’re life and death differences.

Jack Marshall suggests it’s wrong to vote for a liar of your own party over an honest politician of the other party. But would it really be ethical for me to vote for an honest Republican, if I genuinely believe that by doing so, I’m voting for a policy that could kill thousands for no decent reason?

I don’t think it’s unethical to think that, in the voting booth, policy should outweigh a sexting-and-lying scandal.

* * *

UPDATE: After I wrote this post, Jack acknowledged in his comments that his claim about Jack Davis was mistaken, and edited his post to remove the claim.

On another topic, in that same Ethics Alarm post:

In New York, Democrats are patting themselves on the back for successfully using a fake Tea Party candidate to siphon off 9% of the vote (the idiot vote…lower than expected) and throw the reliably Republican 26th Congressional District in NY into the blue column, while the media ignored the ploy and pronounced the result a rejection of Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan.

I hadn’t known about this issue, but reading that comment made me curious, and I read up on it a bit.

From what I read, I don’t think it’s accurate to say the Democratic Party “used” Jack Davis’ run; that implies that Davis was a tool deliberately used by Democrats. It’s more accurate to say the Democrats benefited from Jack Davis’ run.

It seems there was a split within the NY Tea Party, over the issue of how loyal to the Republican party the Tea Party should be.4 The people who recruited Davis to run appear to be genuine Tea Partiers, and some conservatives really do like Davis.

Although Davis being in the race obviously helped the Democrats, it appears plausible, and even likely, that the Democrats would have won without Davis. And although the race was obviously about far more than just Medicare, it’s also obvious that Medicare was an extremely important issue in the race, and one that benefited the Democrat. Nate Silver wrote a persuasive overview of the issues.

  1. I’m oversimplifying what the UNFPA does for the sake of this blog post; they do much more than what I just described. Suffice to say, they provide critical and sometimes lifesaving health services in more of the world’s poorest countries than any other organization. []
  2. If the accusations against UNFPA are lies, then how could an honest Republican want UNFPA defunded, you may ask. Well, the Republican could be honest but mistaken, I would answer. []
  3. There are many issues in which I disagree with the standard Democratic party position. However, on most of these issues, the two parties basically agree with each other. The drug war, for example. []
  4. This question has caused bitter divisions among some Tea Partiers outside of NY, as well. []
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7 Responses to In Defense of Partianship

  1. 1
    lauren says:

    While I agree with your overall point that questionable private behaviour like cheating (and also puplic lying about that cheating) should not disqualify a good politician, Weiner did not just have an online affair. According to one woman who was send explicit pictures, she received these without any previous relationship. Weiner apparently didn’t dispute this and simply stated to have send the pictures “as a joke”. Sending explicit pictures to somebody who has not indicated to be interested in such pictures is sexual harrassment. It is not funny. And that is more than just a private missbehaviour.

  2. 2
    Katie says:

    Yeah, he’s an active harasser, not just a garden-variety adulterer. I think that’s an offense that should lose anyone’s vote.

  3. 3
    Jake Squid says:

    I agree w/ lauren about the harassment angle. It sure seems like that’s what Weiner was doing.

  4. 4
    Myca says:

    I guess my only objection to calling it harassment is that the women involved don’t seem to be calling it that or reacting in that way.

    This isn’t really a defense of Weiner, mind you … I think that the same actions could have easily constituted harassment in other circumstances and it’s his mere luck that they didn’t.

    I just think that harassment is a case where it’s especially important to pay attention to the subjective experience of the victim.


  5. 5
    Ampersand says:

    No one has linked to a news account of exactly what Weiner did, and I admit, I did not follow the story closely at all. If someone could provide a link to what folks are talking about, that would be helpful to me.

    That said, even knowing that what Weiner did was a fuck-load worse than online flirting, I don’t know that I’d vote for a Republican over him. If I was convinced that it would make no difference, I’d vote for the Republican (or the Green Party); but if I thought that the fate of UNFPA or the ACA might hang on the election (which isn’t likely, but it could happen, if control of the House was in play), then I’d probably vote for Weiner. Voting for Weiner may be an awful thing, but is it as bad as thousands of preventable deaths?

    Of course, in the real world, if I lived in Weiner’s district, I’d have another, much more attractive alternative — I could support someone other than Weiner in the primary.

  6. 6
    chingona says:

    I, also, have not followed it that closely, but I thought most of the cases were consensual/mutual exchanges, and the one case was unsolicited, abrupt switch from non-sexual conversation to here’s a shot of my junk. Which probably would be harassment or something if the victim is interested in pressing charges.

    The whole incident does not give me a particularly high opinion of Weiner personally, but given what other politicians have done and not resigned, I’m pretty neutral on whether Weiner should resign. I wouldn’t automatically not vote for him, but given the district he represents, you could get another strong liberal in that seat. Though, I heard on the radio the other day that New York has to lose a congressional district, and if Weiner doesn’t resign, they’ll probably just take him off the map, so to speak. Problem solved.

  7. 7
    Jake Squid says:

    I’m pretty neutral on whether Weiner should resign.

    I don’t care about whether or not he resigns. His acts, for me, don’t rise to the level of resignable offense. The unsolicited crotch shot, though, certainly makes him a creep. I don’t know that, if I lived in his district, I’d vote for him but I do know that I wouldn’t vote for the GOP candidate.