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The era of post-truth politics

Given what we know about the Republican Party, and the way the House of Representatives conducts itself when run by Republicans and with a Democrat in the White House, it shouldn't really count as news when a House committee finds the Democratic attorney general in contempt of Congress.

After all, the last time we had a GOP house and a Democratic attorney general—during the Clinton administration— the House Oversight Committee voted on a party-line vote to find Janet Reno in contempt for failing to turn over two memos regarding whether an independent prosecutor was needed to investigate allegations regarding Democratic campaign-financing. 

So this week's news that the same committee voted on a party-line vote to hold Eric Holder in contempt for refusal to turn over a trove of documents shouldn't really count as news.

But, alas, conservatives and House Republicans are good at ginning up outrage and their target is the Fast and Furious program, an attempt begun under the Bush administration to track illegal guns as they made their way through the hands of Mexican drug traffickers. The tracking wasn't very well executed, and at least one of the guns that should have been monitored was used instead to shoot and kill Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.  (This horrible tragedy was one of about 30-thousand people killed every year by guns. Somehow we don't see much outrage and grief from Republicans about those). 

Most importantly in understanding the politics of this psuedo scandal, you have to know that the NRA scored the vote for contempt, meaning that it will consider that vote when it gives lawmakers their NRA grade for the election. And this reveals much of what the Fast and Furious fracas is really about, and it brings to mind a phrase I first heard from a Democratic operative when I was conducting interviews for my book. 

The operative told me we have to confront the fact that we are living in the era of what he called "post-truth politics." And he had a very specific definition for what this meant. In a media environment where conservative media has a monopoly on the information its audience receives, you can no longer create viable opportunities for political compromise by making substantive concessions. 'What does that mean?' I asked.

Well, at the time we were talking, the negotiations over the Affordable Care Act were heated, and the White House looked like it was pretty clearly going to sacrifice the public option in those negotiations. At least part of the thinking was, if you get rid of the public option—in other words a substantive policy concession to the right—you'll gain some political ground because people could no longer attack the Affordable Care Act as a government takeover of healthcare.


Except, as it turned out after passage... well, wrong.

Rep. Todd Akin: "We want to get rid of this tremendously expensive government takeover of the healthcare in America." 

Mitt Romney: "The President's attention - it was elsewhere. Like a government takeover of healthcare..."

It didn't matter, my source was telling me, what the actual policy details of the bill were, of course they were going to get attacked for a government takeover of healthcare.

The White House had yet to understand this dynamic. It still believed it could gain political traction by compromising on policy substance.

The same dynamic played out in immigration. After the President took office, the Department of Homeland Security ramped up enforcement, deporting more people each of the first 3 years Obama was in office than George W. Bush ever had. This was, quite explicitly, part of a political strategy on the part of the White House to prove it was serious about enforcement, so that it could have the credibility to make progress on comprehensive reform. The President even said as much at the State of the Union:

"I believe as strongly as ever that we should take on illegal immigration.  That's why my administration has put more boots on the border than ever before.  That's why there are fewer illegal crossings than when I took office.  The opponents of action are out of excuses.  We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now."

But of course none of it mattered to the Republicans, conservatives and immigration restrictionists who still pummeled the president as being soft and weak and bent on drowning America in an ocean of Mexicans.

Fox News Host Eric Bolling: "Mr. Obama talked to La Raza and then he went ahead and did go in fact usurp this document right here, the constitution, and provide a backdoor amnesty for 300,000 illegals."

Which brings us to gun control. This president has done basically nothing to restrict the use or sale of guns. He has pushed no major legislation, issued no major executive orders. And if anything he's been good for business. Heck, the Brady Campaign, the premiere gun control advocates, have given him a grade of F. But that hasn't earned him any credit with the right and the NRA. They are still talking like this:

NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre: "It's all part of a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the second amendment in our country."

Mitt Romney: "It's time to elect a President  who will defend the rights President Obama ignored or minimizes, and I will protect the second amendment rights of American people."

And so, that's why promoting this implausible conspiracy theory about a secret plot to make gun owners look bad by giving guns to Mexican traffickers is so important to the right and the NRA. It's why they've been flogging Fast and Furious and why the NRA scored the vote on contempt. Since there is no actual case that the President wants to crush gun-rights, they have to make one.Because this is post-truth politics. Because you cannot make political gains with substantive concessions. They're still going to call you a gun-hating Kenyan socialist.

I think as evidenced by the White House's announcement last week of protections for DREAM Act eligible youth, that they are finally starting to wake up to that fact.