Good Cop, Bad Cop: Who Can We Believe?

”For our ideas to win [out] we have to govern. And if we don’t win [elections], we don’t govern. I’m going to do everything I can to win.”  Wow, now that’s insight!

This is the not-much-new-here gospel according to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Mr. Christie confided to the Republican National Committee (RNC), in a private address in Boston recently, that GOP candidates should “hew to conservative economic themes and the promise of pragmatic government.” That’s a reasonable, if a bit blurry, position speaking before such an audience. Like much of Conservative rhetoric at the abstract level, it plays well, but says little. Admittedly, Conservatives aren’t the only ones guilty of this.

Only when you closely consider such Olympian rhetoric against the professed aims and historical evidence of their Party’s governance is the delusive or evasiveness of it apparent. Good politicians are masters of such rhetoric. It encourages those listening to interpret it according to their individual understanding; it’s a sophistic manner of speaking opaquely to appear to appeal to a broad (or narrow) ideological constituency; a polished tool of their trade to keep them from painting themselves into corners.

Just what does Christie really mean here in his comments to the RNC about “our ideas”? Well, we’ll really never know, other than he obviously wants to convince them of his Conservative purity.  But keep in mind he really has to address two Republican parties, or at least two very different Republican factions: social conservatives and economic libertarians. Their agendas only marginally overlap. So in front of a group like this he obviously doesn’t want to get more personally specific about those “ideas.”  His reference to both “economic themes” and “pragmatic governance” may reflect this touchy issue.

What are Republican ideas? In the abstract, they loudly proclaim them to all who will listen: low taxes, small government, strong defense and traditional families. That’s the core message. It has proven effective in positioning Republicans in the eyes of the public. Why? Because it’s simple and direct, i.e. easy to understand; it appears non-restrictive or doesn’t appear to be favoring any one group over another. It’s great marketing and P.R. So who isn’t for lower taxes, smaller government, a strong national defense or traditional family values, at least in the abstract way this message is crafted and presented?

Unfortunately, this simple sounding message is designed to influence peoples’ vote, not to communicate how—or more importantly for whom—they will govern. The rub for Republicans is translating these high sounding but vague and inexact abstract ideas into palatable political meaning for audiences beyond its core. It’s there the Conservative message reveals its austere ideological spartanism which serves primarily one segment of society at, unfortunately, the expense of others. There may be some “trickle-down” as the result of their ideas, but that’s a collateral benefit, not a clear policy or conservative political idea.

Conservative journalist Kevin Williamson has observed that “Conservatives (i.e. Republicans) spend a good deal of time thinking about how to please the middle-class, but there is an element of cynicism to that. What Conservatives want to do is to enact the Conservative agenda (their ideas) and political realities make it profitable to bring the middle-class along pretending to give them a ride when they were going that way anyway.” Confirming his point here, an early Republican entrant into the 2012 race for the presidency proposed an economic plan that included cutting the corporate tax rate from 35% to 12%, eliminating all capital gains taxes and giving people the choice between the current tax code and a flat tax rate of 15%. This would certainly be in accord with Conservative ideas, or agenda, and but a “sop” to the middle-class. Giving people the choice between the current tax code and opting for a flat tax rate of 15%, depending upon how one defines “the people,” this 15% flat tax rate is well within the ballpark of what most “middle-class” people currently endure. May look kind of good on the surface, but compared to the tax relief suggested for the rich & powerful, somewhat empty of significant meaning.

Republican have historically been the party representing the capital class; the better off among us; not those other 47% they mentioned among us. The lower taxes they champion are primarily aimed at benefitting this class. The smaller government they push is to reduce the imposition government places on capitalism with rules, regulations and oversight to keep it from running amuck. A strong defense means, to a large degree, continuing prosperity for a segment of American business dependent upon government largess. And a plank for traditional families is to placate social/religious conservatives who emerged as a political force in the Conservative movement. What they get, or have gotten, is more favorable rhetoric than tangible benefits.

Unfortunately for Conservatives, the veneer covering their ideas does not obscure them to most non-conservatives today. Since Ronald Reagan’s promise of “morning again in America” followed by two tax cuts which transferred the bulk of tax burden to the American worker through Social Security while reducing the top individual tax rate from 70% to 28% to the elder Bush’s “thousand points of light” and G.W.’s “Companionate Conservatism” and his tax cuts in 2001, too many American voters have seen Conservative ideas in practice. In experience, they probably find it hard to believe there is benefit of any significance in them for them. Add to this the perception that “smaller government” seems to mean eliminating economic and social support for the less than better off among us while increasing spending for “a strong defense”, and the GOP’s job of continuing to sell these ideas to the broader American public faces an up-hill battle.

Governor Christie apparently believes these ideas are worth going to the mat for: “I’m going to do everything I can to win. . . .” he told them. The issue is can the GOP win with the baggage of their only-benefit-some ideas? Now whoever the GOP’s pick might be for the next run for the White House is going to have to convince his base that he (or she) unconditionally supports this agenda. At the same time, such pick will have to appear to move away from the Republican base (but not necessarily far from more moderate conservatives, generally) and campaign to the broader electorate such as to seem to distance himself from such a highly ideological position. Is this Honest, Is this ethical? No, but it is political (“I’m going to do anything I need to do to win”). Governor Christie has already put us on notice what he will do to win: anything! Even lie to us? Now, that speaks to the issue of character. But here, the governor is seeming to be pragmatic. Pragmatic, you ask?

Yes. He’s on record as stating”GOP candidates should hew to the promise . . .  of pragmatic governance.” Doesn’t this mean that the GOP candidates should emphasize practicality? This would be good. Most of us would welcome—Hooray! — a pragmatic (one stressing practical consequences) as opposed to highly ideological political leadership. That might even involve reasonable compromise and accommodation in governing, or would it? Not necessarily. In ideological political-speak, what you hear is not necessarily what you get.

What Governor Christie clearly implied to this Conservative gallery is that they should consider a program of winning—“whatever it takes”—that contemplates no compromise of their ideas; ideology trumps. On hearing the term “pragmatic governance,” you may have understood him to mean practicality or realism. He on the other hand could have been meaning taking firm and uncompromising action towards the success of a particular objective for the term pragmatic. That’s one of its meanings, less commonly understood, but nonetheless correct. That’s no different from expressing, surreptitiously, the intentions of an ideologue.

As you can imagine, that latter usage would go down well with a highly conservative audience such as the RNC. Conveniently, pragmatic also appears, on the surface, to suggest to a more casual listener there is a “moderate streak in this politician.” Perhaps, but from his words and actions—the Governor refused to take questions following his speech, either from the audience or the press—could well indicate he is in no hurry to clarify his comments, their intent, or his “pragmatic inclinations.”  Sooner or later, if he decides to become a player in 2016, he will have to.

Here is a well thought of governor of New Jersey who’s remarks understandably provoked national comment. The art of political rhetoric is well developed, but too often misused for the purpose of winning—by any means. But winning for what purpose? To simply force enactment of your own ideas?  That’s winning solely for the purpose of power, not of governing. That’s obscene.

Both major political parties today represent but a minority of American political preference.  Neither seems inclined to acknowledge this truism. But they need to if only to face the fact that “their ideas”—on either side of the aisle—represent a one-size-fits-all approach that is not appropriate—or acceptable—for governing for most of the people, at least most of the time, in a pluralistic society such as ours.

We’re told to eat, to drink, to exercise, to conduct ourselves and do just about everything else in moderation for the good of our health. But in politics we are to believe that moderation is a weakness. That’s “kakái” (for those of you who know the joke). Why shouldn’t that health warning extend to our political culture? It absolutely should. Political extremism is dangerous to the health of government and to our economic, social and civic prospects, in the longer run.

This by implications begs the following question:

Can good representative government be expected from ideological politics? Think about it.  It’s only impossible if you stop to think about it!

Good cop; bad cop, or keystone cop. Who are we to believe in today’s political arena? Disappointment seems to originate from either option.

We need a change.


Thomas Richard Harry

August 2013


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