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Dangerous Convictions

Dangerous Convictions, written by former First District Congressman Tom Allen, has recently been released.  In it Allen, a Democrat, draws on his experience in ten years in the House of Representatives to explain why there is such a gulf between our two political parties.

Allen’s book illuminates the vast chasm that has come to separate red from blue.  Allen sees the difference as one that stems from different world views:  the Republicans tied to a sense of America where rugged individuals must be unconstrained while their counterparts in the Democratic Party value community.  While this may be at the heart of the divide, there is much more at work here.  It is revealing that Congressman Allen mentions on several occasions that he and others in the House Democratic Caucus frequently did not believe that the rhetoric of their Republican colleagues could reflect the Republicans’ real beliefs.  Such comments as “tax cuts pay for themselves” or “global warming simply is not occurring” seemed to so completely ignore facts that they must be rhetoric.  Yet, over time, Allen came to realize that many Republicans really did believe what they were saying- much to the Nation’s detriment.

To me one of the most egregious examples of misrepresentation as fact was former Vice President Dick Cheney’s repeated contention that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.  Cheney kept repeating this claim, even after our occupation of Iraq failed to turn up any weapons of mass destruction.

Unfortunately, we seem to live in an age when national figures can make such bold-faced statements, unsupported by facts, and not be called to account.  This is not a way to build consensus.

In fact, one of the aspects of Congressman Allen’s book that I most enjoyed was his recounting of the facts involving four critical national issues during George W. Bush’s Presidency: 1) the Federal Budget; 2) the war in Iraq; 3) health care and the difficulty of covering uninsured Americans; and 4) climate change.

Allen describes the situation in each of these areas with clarity, a personal perspective of events, and a well-documented sense of the real facts.  Allen shows how deceitful the President and Congressional Republicans were on each of these issues.  The second Bush tax cut, for example, had no justification in economics, and was not supported by most responsible economists and policy-makers, including David Stockman, Republican head of the Office of Management and Budget in the Reagan Administration.  The story on Iraq was, if anything, more disturbing.  Allen points to the testimony of Colin Powell, then Secretary of State, that at no time was the question of whether or not we should invade Iraq ever discussed at a session of the National Security Council, the group formed to allow a President to access the views of all senior advisors in Defense and National Security issues.

Many facts that Allen discusses have surfaced at one time or another.  This is the first time I have seen them together in such a concise narrative form.  Taken together the four chapters are as damning an indictment of George W. Bush and Congressional Republicans as I have read.

Our memories are short, Tom Allen has done a great service in reminding us that the roots of the current inability to gain bi-partisan agreement in Washington stem from the policies of the Bush era.  Allen’s narrative also makes clear that the fault in our current dialogue lies mainly with the Republican Party.  Allen acknowledges issues within his own party that contribute to the problem, but the lion’s share of the blame is squarely on Republicans.

Time and again in this narrative of the Bush years there is far too much disregard of evidence and facts, far too much of seeing every issue through a narrow ideologist prism, far too little regard for the common good.

Allen is honest in his concluding chapter about the difficulty of coming up with solutions to the current political paralysis in Washington.  However, he notes the need for constitutional redress on the growth of money in politics. He also suggests that the solution must lie in greater sensitivity to four essential virtues:  respect for evidence, tolerance of ambiguity, caring about consequences, and commitment to the common good.

These are important virtues that provide a lens with which to judge future dialogues.  Politicians from both parties could spend profitable time reflecting on these four virtues in the context of their coming debates on America’s deficit.

Allen closes with a wonderful quote from Reinhold Niebuhr about being saved by hope.  If we are to emerge from this fractious period in our history with renewed strength and vitality, we will need a measure of transcendent hope to accompany the four virtues Allen espouses.

Dangerous Convictions is an important book.  Tom Allen’s perspective provides insight into how we have rendered our government incapable of much more than limping from crisis to crisis.  He also suggests ways Republicans and Democrats might access their better selves.