Monday, March 1, 2010

Charlie Rangel’s War

Charlie Rangel has been drawing a lot of pundit attention lately, but not in a good way. Here’s Peter Beinart underscoring the seriousness of the Democrats’ Rangel-problem by drawing a parallel between it and the way that corruption charges against Dan Rostenkowski presaged the Democrat’s loss of Congress in 1994.

Walter Russell Mead puts the Democrat’s Rangel-predicament in a broader historical context, by tying it to the survival of the frayed New Deal coalition. In his view, if Democrats throw Rangel under the bus to avoid suffering the kind of electoral damage that Rostenkowski visited upon them, they’ll further weaken the already decaying political solidarity among good-government progressives (“goo-goos”), urban machine pols and African-Americans:

“On one side you have the old time pols of the urban machines (like House Ways and Means Committee chair Charles Rangel); on the other you have the grim and determined brigades of morally uplifting upper middle class reform. It is a coalition of The New York Times and the contemporary version of Tammany Hall. . . .

“But the grimly moral goo-goos are the hardest people in America to get along with. Charlie Rangel and Cotton Mather would not have been good friends; at a time when the Democratic resurgence is threatened by widespread populist revolt, the goo-goos have unleashed the dogs of war against their less-than-perfect allies. In recent weeks we’ve seen a high profile and scathing New York Times investigation of fundraising abuses at the Congressional Black Caucus; Times reporting has also forced New York’s first African-American governor to end his quest for a full term. In the House, the goo-goos are calling for Rangel to step down from his powerful committee chair. . . .

“Democrats will now be playing a painful lose-lose game. They can circle the wagons around African-American urban politicians tainted by increasingly embarrassing and indefensible scandal, or the last two major components of the Democratic coalition can rip each other to pieces in a brutal cage fight. Both alternatives stink; they will have to choose one.”
There’s a lot to be said for both Beinart’s and Mead’s analyses. When you view them in tandem they raise an interesting question. Mead treats goo-goos, machine pols and African-Americans as separate elements of a political alliance. It was still easy to tell the progressive goo-goos from the machine pols when Rostenkowski ran into ethics trouble. Nobody would have confused him with a figure like Chris Dodd, who'd entered Congress in the 1970s determined to rid his family name of the taint of corruption left by his father’s political downfall by pursuing high-minded McGovernite aspirations in foreign policy and trying his best to redeem the egalitarian promises of the Great Society in domestic policy.

Fifteen years later, it’s getting a little harder to tell doctrinaire progressives of Dodd’s generation and old machine pols like Rostenkowski apart. It’s no accident that, before his recent death, John Murtha was one of Nancy Pelosi’s closest congressional allies. If you squint a little, you can begin to see Charlie Rangel and David Paterson as personifications of all three categories of the New Deal coalition; they’re African-Americans and pretty doctrinaire progressives and creatures of the Harlem political machine associated with Paterson’s father Basil, Percy Sutton and David Dinkins. You don’t have to squint at all to see Barack Obama that way; the first African-American president is also the country's foremost progressive goo-goo and a creature of the Daley machine in Chicago.

This suggests that the mentalities of once-distinct elements of the New Deal coalition are merging into something like a single liberal mentality. If so, it’s worth asking whether the socio-political disintegration that concerns Mead is paralleled by some measure of ideological incoherence in liberal circles.

1 comment:

Koz said...

I don't necessarily dispute anything you've written here but the Rangel problem is not the big worry for the D's.

The D's problem are their various health care bills and they way they've tried to get it through Congress, ie all inside game and no outside game.

Charlie Rangel is an order of magnitude smaller problem.