NEW YORK—A weird new tactic is highlighting the troubling extent to which the news media fails to hold our elected officials accountable. First, a politician calls a press conference where he issues a strident declaration for or against a bill. Big headlines follow. Then, when the matter comes up for a vote, he votes exactly the opposite of what he had said he would. And no one pays attention.
Ten years ago, not even the most outrageous legislator would attempt such brazen perfidy. Back then, "flip-flopping"—changing one's mind about an issue, voting one way and then the other—was the worst sin a pol could commit. Now he can take to the Senate floor, shout about a proposed law being a threat to mom, God and apple pie—and the next day vote "yes," secure in the knowledge that no reporter will call him on it. Thus can a reputation for courage and integrity be built. It's just that easy.
John McCain pulls this neat trick all the time. He even did it on the same issue twice: torture.
In 2005, the Arizona senator grandstanded in favor of an anti-torture amendment to a defense bill. Bush signed it, but then took it back with one of his notorious "signing statements." NYU law professor David Golove, an expert on Congressional politics, explained that Bush would continue to order torture in U.S. prisons and concentration camps. "The signing statement is saying, 'I will only comply with this law when I want to,'" he said.
Sen. McCain earned media plaudits for trying to stop torture. But he didn't try hard enough. He was too afraid of losing the backing of Bush and the GOP establishment for his 2008 presidential big. Bush conned him, and he shut up.
Then, on Feb. 13 of this year, the Senate passed a bill that would ban waterboarding and other types of torture. This time, McCain came out and voted "no."
In its typically sloppy Orwellian style, The New York Times gave McCain credit for opposing torture—in his imagination—even as he voted in favor of it in the real world, on the Senate floor. "The leading Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a former prisoner of war who steadfastly opposes the use of torture, voted against the bill," scrode The Times. "Steadfast"? "Formerly opposed" is more like it. Better yet, "sort of formerly opposed."
Everyone knows that Sen. Barack Obama was against the Iraq War since the beginning. He's been blasting it in speeches since October 2002. He was still at it a few days ago, telling supporters: "John McCain and Hillary Clinton voted for a war in Iraq that should've never been authorized and never been waged. A war that is costing us thousands of precious lives and billions of dollars a week."
Nice talk. But less than a year ago, on March 27, Sen. Obama voted to fund the Iraq War to the tune of $122 billion. On April 26, he voted "yes" again, for a $124 billion version of the same bill. On Nov. 16, he voted for another $50 billion. Billions of dollars a week ...
Reporters don't ask Obama why he keeps voting for the war if he's against it. Former President Bill Clinton did: "... there was no difference between [Obama] and George Bush on the war and ... there's no difference in [Obama's] voting record and Hillary's ... This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." He was absolutely right.
The media pressured Clinton—not Obama—to apologize.
Obama built his career on headlines that portray him as a hopeful proponent of personal liberty and opportunity. Then, when no one is paying attention, he votes like a fascist.
Passed without debate in the grim months following 9/11, the USA-Patriot Act violates our basic privacy rights by allowing the government to spy on us. "Obama's Stand Against Patriot Act Cheered," declared a June 26, 2005 Associated Press story that appeared in hundreds of newspapers. Finally! Civil libertarians were happy. Many would go on to support Obama's presidential campaign. Indeed, any reasonable reader would infer that he was, as the story said, against the Patriot Act. Did he try to repeal it? No. He voted to renew it.
At a Jan. 5 Democratic debate, Sen. Hillary Clinton confronted Obama: "You said you would vote against the Patriot Act—you came to the Senate and voted for it." It takes a hypocrite to know one. Hillary voted for it twice.
One of the most accomplished big talkers/vote wimps in the Senate is Clinton's fellow New Yorker Charles Schumer. On issue after issue, Schumer, a notorious publicity hound, loudly lambastes the Republicans and their works. "The most dangerous place in Washington," Bob Dole once quipped, "is between Charles Schumer and a television camera." When push comes to a roll call vote, however, the Democrats' attack dog turns into a teacup poodle.
In January 2006, the Senate held confirmation hearings for Samuel Alito. "70 percent of all Americans," Schumer told CNN, "say they do not want a Supreme Court justice who will vote to overturn Roe [v. Wade]." If confirmed, he said, Alito "would vote to overturn." Since the right to an abortion is a key Democratic platform plank, everyone read his statement as a declaration of jihad against Alito's nomination.
On the first day of the hearing, Schumer called Alito a right-wing extremist: "In case after case after case, you give the impression of applying careful legal reasoning, but too many times you happen to reach most conservative result. You give the impression of being a meticulous legal navigator, but, in the end, you always seem to chart a rightward course ... Under your view, the president would ... have inherent authority to wiretap American citizens without a warrant, to ignore Congressional acts at will or to take any other action he saw fit under his inherent powers."
Schumer voted against Alito's confirmation. But, as a powerful member of the senate leadership, his support for a liberal-led filibuster could have kept Alito off the high court. He did nothing.
Eighteen months later, he issued an apology. "Every day," he said, "I am pained that I didn't do more to try to block Justice Alito ... Alito shouldn't have been confirmed."
National news organizations chose not to cover Schumer's apology. You see, the news media doesn't merely refuse to call out say-one-thing-vote-the-opposite politicians. It won't even let them call themselves out.
Ted Rall is the author of the book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.