Commentary Magazine


Topic: social norms

The Media’s Apocalyptic Vision of Richard Mourdock

Conservatives often complain that when the mainstream media is forced by events to pay attention to conservative views they have long ignored, the tone of the reporting often is that of an anthropological grant application. The reporters brave the native habitat of conservatives and find that they’re practically human. But that’s actually better than what we witnessed after Richard Mourdock defeated Richard Lugar in the Indiana GOP Senate primary this week.

Lugar, you may have heard, has been in the Senate a very long time, and he is a statesman and throwback to the gilded era of Republican acquiescence–sorry, bipartisanship, and statesmanship. A true mensch, a centrist Republican, Dick Lugar was, above all, a statesman, we are now told. But what about Mourdock, the man vying to replace Lugar in the Senate? Is he a statesman? Let’s find out, by reading some of the liberal write-ups of the election. The results may surprise you.

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Conservatives often complain that when the mainstream media is forced by events to pay attention to conservative views they have long ignored, the tone of the reporting often is that of an anthropological grant application. The reporters brave the native habitat of conservatives and find that they’re practically human. But that’s actually better than what we witnessed after Richard Mourdock defeated Richard Lugar in the Indiana GOP Senate primary this week.

Lugar, you may have heard, has been in the Senate a very long time, and he is a statesman and throwback to the gilded era of Republican acquiescence–sorry, bipartisanship, and statesmanship. A true mensch, a centrist Republican, Dick Lugar was, above all, a statesman, we are now told. But what about Mourdock, the man vying to replace Lugar in the Senate? Is he a statesman? Let’s find out, by reading some of the liberal write-ups of the election. The results may surprise you.

Salon, for example, carries a story titled “Republican Party: Hawks-only club.” The article details how Mourdock’s victory makes the GOP uniformly hawkish on foreign policy. Most of the article is an explanation of why liberals liked Lugar so much, but finally the author gives us the damage: “In practical terms, Lugar’s loss means that U.S. foreign policy will be less civilized, less responsible and less effective.”

I noticed something was missing from this article, however: it omits any mention whatsoever of Richard Mourdock’s views on foreign policy. This is a rather glaring omission, but maybe the reporter’s instincts are right.

To find out, let’s head on over to an expert on foreign policy, Tom Ricks. Ricks maintains a blog on Foreign Policy’s website, and sure enough he weighed in on Mourdock’s victory. He, too, was horrified by the erosion of the foreign policy center. But he has a somewhat different take on what it means. Mourdock’s victory, Ricks admits, “makes me wonder if the great Midwest is turning away from internationalism and back to its pre-World War II isolationism.”

So Salon was wrong? Mourdock is the opposite of a hawkish hawk? He’s actually an isolationist? I wondered what led Ricks to this conclusion, but his post didn’t help me answer that question, because Ricks doesn’t even mention Mourdock’s name, let alone Mourdock’s views on foreign policy.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Reporters sometimes trick politicians into revealing what they think by employing an age-old tactic commonly referred to as “asking them questions.” It turns out that some reporters did. Richard Mourdock, as a supporter of cutting the Pentagon’s budget and skeptical of the mission in Afghanistan, is not a superhawk, as Salon would have it. But he also believes America plays an important role in the world, and that it must not retreat from its responsibilities around the globe. So he isn’t an isolationist either.

But if he’s starting to sound like a mainstream candidate, he’s got you fooled. Richard Mourdock is, according to the sandwich board Jonathan Chait has been wearing around town, the harbinger of doom. This is an interesting point of view coming from Chait, who is the author of the magnum opus of leftist anti-intellectualism and anthem of paranoid incivility, “Mad About You: The Case for Bush Hatred.” Some things have changed since Chait published his plea for incivility–namely, we have a Democratic president. So now it’s time to protect “social norms”–specifically, he says, court-related social norms permitting the confirmation of a president’s court picks. Mourdock cited Lugar’s support for President Obama’s Supreme Court picks in his case against the incumbent senator, mirroring a Republican approach to politics that is, in Chait’s view, bringing upon us a “crisis of American government.”

Some have pointed out that the collapse of the nomination process was brought about by Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden when they took a sledgehammer to “social norms” during the confirmation process of Robert Bork. That’s true. But I’d like to defend Chait somewhat. I, too, have been concerned about the collapse of social norms.

For example, it was once a social norm never to use the filibuster against a circuit court nominee. But then George W. Bush nominated Miguel Estrada, an undeniably qualified candidate, to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The Democrats were playing the long game, however, and were willing to buck social norms in order to prevent the Republicans from starting a process that would end with a conservative Hispanic judge on the Supreme Court. So they blocked Estrada.

In October 2003, the Associated Press reported that Democrats were preparing to expand their use of the filibuster to everything the GOP put forward. “Perhaps we ought to prepare some bumper stickers that say ‘Obstruction: It’s not just for judges anymore’,” remarked Republican John Cornyn.

More recently, Harry Reid has perfected a tactic called “filling the tree” to prevent Republicans from even being able to offer amendments on bills. Reid and the Democrats are, it turns out, innovators in the means to tear down social norms and prevent the government from functioning as it was intended. In fact, it’s now been more than three years since Reid’s Senate passed a budget.

But hey, at least he didn’t criticize a Democratic nominee who was confirmed anyway. Now that would just be uncivil.

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