Beware of Bad Faith

Good-faith opposition has goals of its own, and is willing to give something up to achieve them. Bad-faith opposition has pretexts for saying No.

Back in 2009 … Twelve years ago, Americans unhappy with the recent election would soon begin organizing themselves to oppose the new Obama administration.

One of those organizations was a loose coalition of groups that eventually would call itself the Tea Party. It described itself as principled and politically independent: Neither Republicans nor Democrats, Tea Partiers were as upset with the excesses of the Bush administration as with Obama’s proposals. They opposed government spending and debt, supported liberty, revered the vision of the Founding Fathers, and wanted government to observe more strictly the limits on its power inherent in the Constitution. They viewed social-conservative wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage as distractions from their core mission: Stop the deficit spending that economists of the left and right alike said was necessary to get out of the Great Recession. Prevent the government takeover of healthcare Obama was proposing.

Another opposition group was the Oath Keepers. Ex-military folks, particularly those in law enforcement, recalled their oath to protect America “from all enemies foreign and domestic”. The new president, they implied (or sometimes said openly), was such an enemy, and they encouraged each other to resist gun confiscation and other unconstitutional orders that they were sure he would soon issue.

The media took groups like these at face value, but we now know their self-descriptions were bullshit. Some of the rank-and-file might have believed the hype, but at the top the Tea Party was a Republican rebranding effort coordinated nationally through FreedomWorks and funded by the Koch brothers. Once in office, the Tea Party Republicans (Ted Cruz and Mark Meadows, for example) became staunch culture warriors.

Eventually the movement morphed into the Trump campaign, and all its so-called “principles” were forgotten. If Trump wanted to keep the Obama economic expansion going by running a massive deficit, that was just dandy. When his masked federal police started scooping people up off the streets in Portland, the self-proclaimed defenders of liberty cheered. None of them, it turned out, really cared about the Emoluments Clause, or what the Founders would think about a President channeling millions of taxpayer dollars into his own businesses. If Trump wanted to usurp Congress’ power of the purse to build his wall, so be it.

Oath Keepers followed a similar trajectory. They continued to oppose Obama, even though the unconstitutional orders never came. And when Trump began to disregard laws of all sorts, they shrugged. If his effort to stay in office in defiance of the voters comes to armed revolt against the constitutional order, we know which side they’ll be on. Fundamentally, they’re not freedom fighters, they’re brownshirts.

Meanwhile in Congress, Republican leaders were already plotting their scorched-earth resistance to Obama on the night of his inauguration. Recall the situation: The economy was losing 800,000 jobs a month. The banks were insolvent. The auto industry was one of many headed for bankruptcy. No one could be sure whether this economic freefall would eventually turn out better or worse than the Great Depression. And in the midst of this unfolding disaster, their top priority was to prevent the new president from accomplishing anything. Talk-radio giant Rush Limbaugh said in public what Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy were saying behind closed doors: “I want him to fail.

As his administration unfolded, no compromise Obama could offer would ever be good enough. He based his healthcare plan on the one Mitt Romney passed when he was governor of Massachusetts — and Romney denounced it. John McCain voted against the McCain-Liebermann climate change bill. Obama offended large chunks of his own party by offering Social Security and Medicare cuts as part of a “grand bargain” to control the deficit Republicans were so worried about: They not only rejected it, but got rid of John Boehner for considering it.

Did we learn anything? So now here we are, 12 years later, nearing the start of a new Democratic administration. What should Joe Biden learn from this history? Josh Marshall suggests this:

This to me is the greatest negative lesson of the Obama era: the willing engagement of good faith with bad faith in which bad faith is, by definition, always the winner.

He points to ObamaCare, where

the White House spent about a year in a vain effort to convince some bipartisan senate “gang” to agree on a bipartisan plan. It was all one laborious, pitiful game of Lucy and her yanked away football, only played out with 60 and 70 and 80-something men. The actual bill was significantly watered down and enough time was wasted that Ted Kennedy’s illness, death and the subsequent special election to replace him in the Senate almost derailed the whole thing.

Republicans pocketed the time wasted and the concessions granted, walked away without providing any votes in support and then ran against Democrats for passing legislation on party line votes.

It’s already clear that Republicans are gearing up to run the same play again, this time against a smaller Democratic House majority and with either a Republican Senate majority or a 50/50 Senate. Suddenly, after a four-year bout of amnesia, Republicans have remembered that the national debt will bring down the Republic. After years of claiming that they hadn’t read the latest racist or fascist Trump tweet, they proclaim that Neera Tanden’s tweets disqualify her from being OMB director. Unmoved by video of Trump bragging about grabbing women by the pussy — and testimony from two dozen women that this was more than just talk — they are horrified that Biden’s Deputy Chief of Staff would say this:

The president-elect was able to connect with people over this sense of unity. In the primary, people would mock him, like, “You think you can work with Republicans?” I’m not saying they’re not a bunch of fuckers. Mitch McConnell is terrible. But this sense that you couldn’t wish for that, you couldn’t wish for this bipartisan ideal? He rejected that. From start to finish, he set out with this idea that unity was possible, that together we are stronger, that we, as a country, need healing, and our politics needs that too.

Jen O’Malley Dillon’s realistic assessment of what Biden faces met with this response:

“Biden Campaign Manager called us “Fers” !!!” wrote White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Twitter. “She can try to walk back, but this says volumes about her boss who calls for “unity” while shouting that we are “assaulting democracy:” They think we are deplorable, irredeemable “Fers”. SICK!!”

Meanwhile, they’ve already started going after Biden’s family. Not just his son Hunter — that was predictable — but also his wife Jill, who has the audacity to be proud of the doctorate she earned. Not only did The Wall Street Journal attack her, but National Review followed up by calling her dissertation “garbage” — undoubtedly the first time NR has assessed an education dissertation. [1]

What passes as a “concession” from Republicans these days is when they choose to recognize reality. Mitch McConnell, for example, has finally conceded — after five weeks — that Joe Biden is the president-elect. Much of the GOP congressional delegation — including both senators facing runoffs in Georgia — isn’t willing to go that far yet. They are continuing to coddle Trump’s delusions of victory, even as he talks about holding onto power by declaring martial law and his supporters turn violent.

To sum up: Biden violates the “unity” he calls for if any of his people point out that Republicans have consistently operated in bad faith, or that Trump’s attempted coup is indeed an attack on democracy. The GOP’s side of the bargain seems to be that Republican congressional leaders have not personally committed any acts of violence yet. If sufficiently placated, they may eventually recognize that Biden is indeed president. It’s questionable whether they will provide the slightest help in digging the country out of the hole Trump has left it in.

Responses. How should Biden respond to this situation? On the one hand he is right when he says that the country needs to heal its partisan division and move forward together. On the other, if he accepts responsibility for Republicans’ refusal to play any part in that vision, they will keep moving the goalposts away as he approaches them.

As I wrote last week, Democrats should continue trying to understand the legitimate grievances and goals of Trump voters. There are 74 million of them, and many of them are having a tough time these days. In spite of what we’ve seen these last four years, Biden’s pledge to be the president of all the people is the minimum Americans should expect from their leader.

At the same time, he should not wait for GOP leaders to get on board, because they will keep him waiting merely for the sake of delay. David Roberts is right: Biden should do everything he can as fast as he can do it.

Biden’s best chance is to try to overwhelm the system the way Trump did, by doing so much that it’s impossible to make any one thing into a lasting story. He should launch so many simultaneous reforms that there’s no time for right-wing media to make up lies about all of them or for the Supreme Court to hear them all. He should ignore bad-faith attacks and stay relentlessly on message about what’s gotten done and what’s getting done next. He should, at every juncture, get caught trying to make government work better for ordinary people.

As Josh Marshall sums up:

Should Biden be open to bipartisan compromise? Absolutely. The door should be open. But it would be a grave mistake to spend any time coaxing anyone to come through it. We’ve played that game enough. Biden should always be willing to talk but not to delay. … The answer is for Democrats to use the political power they gain to make as much positive change as possible, using every legitimate lever at their disposal. Getting sucked into Republican mind games is time wasting and destructive.

Marshall asks the rest of us to “take the pledge” not to engage Republicans in bad-faith discussions or “treat them as meaningful or serious”. If John Cornyn wants to claim “transparency” as a non-negotiable ideal — after four years of backing Trump’s total obfuscation — let him. But in no way should anyone else treat this as a serious statement of principle.

What is good faith? This raises a significant question: How can we tell the difference between good-faith opposition and bad-faith opposition?

There’s a simple answer to that question: Good-faith opposition has policy goals of its own and makes credible counter-proposals. Bad-faith opposition tells you what it can’t support, but not what it can. When you drop something they can’t support, they shift their opposition to something else.

We should have seen that in the ObamaCare debate back in 2009-2010. Republicans frequently objected to something-or-other in the then-current version of the bill: They couldn’t support a public option, for example, or they wanted reform of malpractice torts to be part of the package. But through it all, no major Republican, not even the supposedly “moderate” senators like Susan Collins, ever said, “If you add this and take out that, I’ll vote for it.”

For years afterwards, pundits would claim that a deal was available if Obama had been willing to budge on tort reform or death panels or something else. But no one has ever been able to point to an actual Republican who made such an offer. The Republican “alternative” bill simply did not take the problem of the uninsured seriously: A CBO analysis of their plan predicted the number of uninsured Americans would continue to rise, to 52 million by 2019.

When Republicans did finally control all the levers of power, they never assembled a healthcare plan. Or a climate plan or an infrastructure plan or an immigration plan or much of anything else.

Something similar happened with Covid relief: The Democratic House passed the HEROES Act in May. Mitch McConnell not only didn’t bring that bill to the Senate floor, he didn’t bring any other bill either. If he had passed something, the differences might have been worked out months ago in a House/Senate conference committee, the way Congresses had dealt with disagreements for generations (until recent years). Instead, we have another last-minute deal that has to pass on an emergency basis.

As Steve Benen noted in his book The Imposters, Republicans are in a post-policy era. They want to hold power, and they want to do things that will help them hold power. But beyond that, there really is nothing they want. Biden can’t compromise with them on policy, because Republican policy positions are just placeholders that allow them to fight battles against liberal goals.

Republican voters, on the other hand, are living actual lives. They want to find jobs that pay a decent wage, survive temporary periods of joblessness, educate their children, retire when they get old, be cared for when they get sick, drive on roads, eat safe food, be protected from violence, and so on. Biden should absolutely reach out to them, because they’re Americans and he’ll be the American president.

As for Republican leaders, though, he should tell them what he wants to do, and see if they have a counter-proposal. If they don’t, to hell with them.

[1] As a Ph.D. myself, I have an opinion about this: The issue shouldn’t be whether or not you call yourself “doctor”, but when you do it. As a pure honorific title, as Dr. Jill Biden uses it, I have no objection. And in the context of the community college where she teaches, she has every right to distinguish herself from instructors who don’t have doctorates.

A far more important issue arises when people use their doctorates to claim expertise they don’t have, which I have never heard Dr. Biden do. I don’t call myself “Dr. Muder” on this blog, for example, because my doctorate in mathematics should not lend authority to my political views. I also don’t use my title when I speak in churches, because my religious opinions are not rooted in mathematics. (This practice annoyed my Dad, who was proud to have a doctor in the family and wanted everybody to know it.)

You know who has violated this principle most egregiously in recent months? Scott Atlas, when he abused his M.D. to claim authority for his crazy notions about the pandemic. His specialty is radiology, which has nothing to do with viruses or public health. So if you saw “Dr. Scott Atlas” and imagined that his opinions about the pandemic deserved more respect than any other interested citizen’s — he fooled you.

As far as I know, the WSJ and National Review have not objected to that example of credential abuse.

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  • Donna Victor  On December 21, 2020 at 10:31 am

    Love the playbook of Mr Roberts and Marshall. Bad faith is BAD for the People…so very evident in the lack of a health Care Plan the Republican’s were supposed to have and did the current President promise one in 2 weeks sometime this past year?

  • Mike Akillian  On December 21, 2020 at 11:14 am

    I think there’s also a risk that President Biden will eschew holding Trump and other law breakers accountable in order to garner cooperation that likely won’t be forthcoming. Doing so will perpetuate the notion that the powerful can do as they wish, unencumbered. And that will continue to corrode faith in America as a nation of laws and equal justice under them.

  • Anonymous  On December 21, 2020 at 11:36 am

    the government is deadlocked, and as the matter looks today, the Biden Administration is not going to do anything to change that. It is totally impotent to limit what can be achieved to business-as-usual parliamentary practice.

  • John Schoonover  On December 21, 2020 at 11:41 am

    When asked what he would do if faced by a recalcitrant Congress, Bernie Sanders said that he would call on the American people to engage in direct action to force through legislation to their benefit. Biden is incapable of that kind of leadership.

    This remark is a continuation of ” Anonymous On December 21, 2020 at 11:36 am”, which I submitted through a finger error.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On December 21, 2020 at 12:38 pm

      And that is why Bernie would have lost if he’d been the nominee. Trump would have spun “direct action” to mean “BLM and antifa will burn down your suburb, and there won’t be any police to help you.” It almost worked, even with Biden as the nominee.

      • John Schoonover  On December 21, 2020 at 4:47 pm

        I think you give Trump too much credit for being able to sway public opinion. His faithful are a minority, perhaps 25% of the population. Those with their heads squarely attached far out number the Trump Rump of the GOP. Many people voted for Trump out of well-founded discussed with business-as-usual politics even though he offered no substantial alternative to it.

        If the media are smart (doubtful, I know) they will quit offering Trump a platform starting January 21. They routinely do this to minority parties and political ideas, so it would be no stretch for them to black out Trump.

  • The Serapion Brotherhood  On December 21, 2020 at 12:37 pm

    The problem is that Biden intends to act in equally bad faith. He has publicly and unequivocally stated that if Congress passed single-health payer health insurance he would veto it (he did not add its because he is more loyal to rich Insurance company executives than the American people, but what other reason could there be?). He has already said he will not pursue the Green New Deal, and I seriously doubt he would take the most obvious first step, which is to stop every penny the fossil fuel industry makes in government subsidies and tax breaks (want to guess why)? He is the one who put millions of young black men in jail for having committed the exact same crimes young white men are not arrested for when they commit them at the same rate, so we know where he stands there (remember when he built his career on opposition to school integration?). If anyone want to make some money, I will give you 10:1 odds on bets up to a thousand dollars that Biden will not only not stop subsidies to Israel but will not impose sanctions on Israel until everyone in the country is given equal voting rights.

    • alandesmet  On December 21, 2020 at 12:56 pm

      Bad faith is pretending that Biden doing exactly as he claimed is bad faith. Bad faith is misinterpreting 45 year old statements. Bad faith is dragging up 25 year old views and ignoring how his views have changed.

    • Guest  On December 21, 2020 at 1:11 pm

      Sorry, Serapion, but alan has you there. As Biden has not offered support for progressive solutions, you can’t claim he’s acting in bad faith if he follows though on that, by definition. From a left perspective, Biden would rather embody good faith opposition. How that is any better for the working poor and struggling middle class I’ll leave to alan, but in the meantime I’ll take silver linings where I can find them. One argument could be that bad faith support, like, say, the kind Obama gave for the public option, gives cover to the centrist Dem constituency to not push for change. In contrast, with good faith opposition, at least the cards are on the table.

  • Creigh Gordon  On December 21, 2020 at 12:50 pm

    What the “small government” Republican Party wants from Government is, fundamentally, nothing. Obstruction gets them what they want, compromise does not. Their motivation and strategy are not hard to discern.

  • Guest  On December 21, 2020 at 12:58 pm

    Quick clarification on the ACA frame presented here: bad faith Republican opposition is only part of the story. Bad faith *support* from the Obama administration itself is a key part of the story, per Sen. Russ Feingold and other public options supporters in the know. The lack of support from the White House on this issue was even confirmed by Joe Leiberman himself. This was when Anthony Weiner suggested the president’s position was due to being “half-pregnant” with the health insurance and drug industry lobbyists that Obama included in his inner circle to the exclusion of progressive voices.

    That said, this clarification only underlines what I’m pleased to find is the favored response presented here, Doug, which is the “Roberts and Marshall plan” of doing as much as possible as quickly as possible on behalf of ordinary Americans. I agree wholeheartedly, but share John’s skepticism above given Biden’s track record. Unlike Obama, Biden campaigned on nothing fundamentally changing. A couple bright spots aside (Rahm Emanuel apparently being dropped from consideration; Deb Haaland for Sec of Interior) Biden seems to be positioning himself to keep his promise. Unless we can pull him significantly to the left, we’re likely to get more of the same, ie, wars and exploitation abroad; tax breaks, bailouts, and legislation written by and for capital at home; and crumbs in lieu of a loaf for the rest of us. Is that too cynical? Can centrist dems be rallied around progressive bread and butter policy solutions?

  • Alan  On December 21, 2020 at 8:56 pm

    We should respect a medical doctor’s COVID opinions more than a random person, even if they’re not infectious disease specialists. A solid medical education should equip a doctor to reasonably understand and interpret the science in other medical specialties. We’re shouldn’t dismiss Dr. Atlas because he’s a radiologist, we should dismisses Dr. Atlas’s opinion because it’s clear he refuses to use those skills.

    • weeklysift  On December 28, 2020 at 8:09 am

      Yes and no. Let me compare my own credentials in mathematics. As a Ph.D. mathematician, I have a proven ability to read and understand mathematical papers in areas well beyond the ones where I personally have published research.

      However, if I appeared on TV in the middle of a mathematical controversy — say about whether the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem was valid — I would implicitly be claiming that I had expertise in that field, which I don’t. It would be dishonest for me to flash my credentials without acknowledging their limitations.

  • Dwight  On December 28, 2020 at 5:52 am

    All that’s missing –and it’s a major omission– from your brilliant and necessary “bad faith” essay is a mention of the economic interests behind the power-hungry GOP. Remember the US is a plutocracy wearing the trappings of the democracy it replaced.


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