Political Hay

The Quisling Gambit

It works wherever there's a Republican eager to go along with Democrats.

By 5.27.05

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WASHINGTON -- Why does the world love a traitor so?

Well, the world does not, at least when he betrays his country for money or ideas. But when he betrays his party -- or specifically, the Republican Party -- the Great and the Good go into a swoon.

Take the case of the end of the end of the judicial filibuster. Five of the Republican Senators who traded the end of the filibuster for three judges and a promise have long had tenuous ties to the GOP: McCain, Graham, Snowe, Collins, and Chafee. In coming days, their service to the cause of "moderation" and "good sense" will earn impressive returns in the market for flattery. For the thousandth time, each turncoat will be deemed a "maverick" or an "independent mind" who puts the institution of the Senate above the narrow interests of party.

The Filibuster Five are the ultimate creations of what might be called the Quisling Gambit, a rhetorical ploy perpetuated by the Great and the Good that write and produce news reports and editorials for the mainstream media.

To deploy the Quisling Gambit, one must find a Republican who agrees with liberal Democrats on the issues. You then praise him to the sky as the very model of enlightened statesmanship, a politician who has somehow transcended politics in his devotion to the common good. The Gambit obviously appeals to the moral vanity of the politicians in question and can direct the national spotlight their way. But the real gains from the Gambit accrue to the Great and the Good.

To deploy the Quisling Gambit, you need, of course, Quislings.

There used to be a lot of them. Charles (Mac) Mathias served the cause of liberalism well in his three terms as a Republican Senator from Maryland. Liberals loved "Mac": he was "reasonable and bipartisan," which is to say he could always be counted on to damn his party in pursuit of the progressive fashions of the moment.

Not surprisingly, the 83-year-old Mathias popped up recently with an op-ed in the Washington Post advising Republicans to preserve the filibuster for reasons of partisan self-interest. The irony of his op-ed apparently escaped Mathias and his sponsors at the Post.

Here was a man who spent his professional life undermining his own political party now presuming to give it advice about its partisan self-interest! What advice? The same as it ever was: do what the liberals want.

A week later the Post again deployed the Quisling Gambit in the form of a love letter on the op-ed page to Russ Potts, a Virginia state senator running for the GOP nomination for governor. Praise for a Republican is a sure sign of the Gambit being played.

Potts, we were told, is striking "a clear, common-sense chord in a race that badly needs it" while "his message is the clearest-headed in the field." Personally, Potts is "plain-spoken, gracious and strikingly modest as politicians go" while maintaining "his grip on reality." And so on.

Not least, of course, "Potts understands that keeping Virginia vibrant means robust funding for public services."

But the newspaper obsessed with negative electoral ads decided to add some negativity to this version of the Quisling Gambit. Potts' Republican critics were compared to Soviet Communists, and the "maverick" himself expressed his contempt for "Grover Norquist and this anti-everything, anti-investment policy, and... these social conservatives obsessed with the abortion issue and mixing religion and politics." All in all, a classic statement of the Quisling Gambit and a rather bracing negative ad favoring Potts's candidacy for governor.

ABSURDITIES ASIDE, THE MATHIAS and Potts essays reveal the political calculations that inform the Quisling Gambit. The ploy aims to divide and weaken the opposition by sowing conflict in their ranks. It suggests that good Republicans can be good Republicans and disagree with the party's leadership and a majority of its members in Congress. It intimates that the "real" Republican Party is a moderate, slightly less liberal version of the Democratic Party. Those who deploy the Gambit apparently believe that American politics has no legitimate place for conservatives, libertarians, and Republicans.

The Gambit also encourages the Democrats. Headlines like "For GOP, Deeper Fissures and a Looming Power Struggle" start appearing, and the Great and the Good tug their chins and conclude that the long national nightmare of conservative ascendancy is at last at an end (just like the other 1,110 times it has been almost at an end).

However, the Quisling Gambit primarily aims at confusing independents, a group that in 2002 composed over one-third of the population. It suggests that a highly partisan position like, say, campaign finance restrictions or increased government spending, is actually bipartisan and thus "for the common good." By simple fiat the Gambit redefines leftist positions as moderate and independent.

The Quisling Gambit, like so much of politics, is a species of intellectual fraud, but the Great and the Good keep sending it our way so they believe it works. They may be right.

After all, that independent, reasonable, plain-spoken, straight-talking, clear-headed, moderate, sensible, pragmatic, thoughtful maverick John McCain could be the first U.S. president representing the party of the Great and the Good, the masters of the Quisling Gambit.

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