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Saturday, July 20

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There is something to be said for "bipartisanship." There's an interesting debate going on in the country right now, particularly among the political class, about the value of "bipartisanship." Old media types and the descendents of Walter Lippmann in political punditry turn their nose up at "partisan rancor" which, they often argue, is the cause of our country's problems, rather than a symptom of them. Bipartisanship is not by definition bad — certainly, the more people working on a problem, at least in the ideas phase, the better — but it is not by definition good, particularly when you are talking about competing ideologies, not individuals.

The Chicago Tribune's endorsement of incumbent Congressman Daniel Lipinski in the 3rd District over his challenger, Mark Pera, is an eloquent distillation of this common fallacy. You see, they want someone who, like Lipinski, will "roll up his sleeves" to "get things done." This is the false dichotomy that those who favor incrementalism and the status quo present us with: if you engage the forces of the opposition, you are adding to rancor, as if arguing and debate has no place in politics; but if you accept that the status quo and vested interests can never really be brought to heel, but only asked to give little favors, then you are "getting things done."

I know what you're thinking: "Hey, didn't you just cleverly slip in your own false dichotomy there?" Kind of. Sorry. But see how stupid it is?

Now that we've demonstrated that the Tribune's reason for the endorsement is based on an on-its-face absurd argument (Pera must be not be willing to "roll up his sleeves" whatever the hell that means), maybe we can ask: well, then, why did the Trib endorse Lipinski, who got his seat in a brazen bit of undemocratic nepotism and votes to the right of his district? I think we know at least part of the answer: because he votes to the right of his district. The Trib will always classify the guy who wants to take on the status quo as being shrill or adding rancor to the process — or as they put it,

Barack Obama wins a lot of support around the country with a message that he will ease the shrill partisanship that has gripped Washington and work with those who disagree with him. Meanwhile, back home in the 3rd Congressional District, the best-financed opponent to Rep. Daniel Lipinski argues that the problem with Lipinski is ...he works too well with Republicans.

The problem with this statement is that it is of course meaningless. The use of nebulous terms — "work with those who disagree with him" are just code for "vibe with the status quo." Conflating Congressman Lipinski's Republican leanings with Senator Obama's calls for post-partisanship is also facile.

If you speak truth to power, which seems to be what Pera is trying to do, and what most Americans want — then vested interests that benefit from that power will fight back, as well they should and as is their right.

When Harry S. Truman took on a certain status quo — war profiteering — he was seen as being too shrill. He was viewed as some kind of self-righteous warrior making a lot of trouble for a lot of people — including people with close ties to the Democratic Party. He should have just "rolled up his sleeves" and "worked with those who disagree with him." I'm sure if he had just sat down with them in a closed-door, undemocratic meeting and asked them to stop some of their war profiteering, in return for some nice popcorn headlines for the Senate, they could have all gotten along and gone along.

Please. Let's be clear here: the Tribune editorial page is elitist hokum that abhors any impulse in any candidate towards populism, particularly if that populism is coming from a Democrat, whom they prefer to be of the "roll over and die" Lieberman variety. If a candidate is running on a platform of making fundamental changes to politics as usual, the Tribune editorial board will mewl and throw a tantrum. Portraying the eminently reasonable Pera as some kind of wild-eyed partisan spoiling for a "political brawl," as they put it, is disingenuous.

To back up their specious claim, they invoke the favorite bogeyman of conservatives, "liberal website" Daily Kos. Here's what they said:

But Pera persists in his claim that Lipinski isn't a real Democrat. And this has gained Pera a lot of attention from the net-roots, such as the liberal Web site Daily Kos, where Lipinski is regularly referred to as a "Bush Dog." Nice.

Nice bit of guilt-by-association (though they qualify it — in the next paragraph — by kindly pointing out that Mr. Pera does not in fact control the content of Daily Kos. Thanks, Tribune). Yet again, the Tribune's elitist bent is exposed. Pera has raised a lot of money for a challenger, and it has come in small donations. What does this mean? It means he has popular support from small-dollar donors. It does not mean that some mysterious billionaire named Edgar Dailykos wrote him a check. It means he has a message that resonates with Democrats; and this is a Democratic primary. That seems pretty straightforward, particularly for a Democratic district.

What's more, if the Tribune editorial board is so enamored of criticisms based on where support comes from, why don't we turn an eye to Mr. Lipinski — a decent Congressman and likable guy, by the way, who is done a disservice by this remarkably stupid endorsement — and his support.

Congressman Lipinski, in the last two quarters of 2007, had nine (9) donations from inside his district. Nine. Mark Pera, by contrast, has garnered about five hundred (500). Pera, as stated, has raised quite a bit of money in donations — that averaged $70; Congressman Lipinski's average donation in quarter four was over $1,000. I wonder: could this disparity have more to do with the Tribune's endorsement than what they actually feel is best for the district — or, in a primary, for what they feel is best for Democrats in the district, considering that is what a primary endorsement is supposed to indicate?

I find it wonderful that the Tribune ran an article, by some great metro reporters — Dan Mihalopolous, Robert Becker and Darnell Little — with these condemnations: "DEVELOPERS: Many give to aldermanic campaigns in quest to build bigger, pricier projects. ALDERMEN: They decide who can build what. Money, not planning, often drives process." Yet they can't tear themselves away from the status quo candidates who raise money not from the little guys putting up what cash they have to support someone who thinks like them, but from the big money players with something to gain from the political process.

My point here is that the Tribune did not make an endorsement on issues, policies or even popularity: they made an endorsement based on... apparently nothing at all except their preference for a candidate who is part of the ruling establishment. The frosting they used to make this cow pie palatable is that of "bipartisanship" of being willing to "roll up your sleeves." It is an impulse among pundits and commentators that is increasingly strong, and increasingly stupid. It is stupid because any politician appreciates comity across the aisle, because it universally makes them look more effective; however, comity for its own sake, particularly when it really means compromising your governing ideology, is just a process for entrenching power. Of course, the people of the Tribune editorial board are much smarter than I am, and so already know that.

Revenge of the Second City is no longer endorsing candidates for federal office, and in point of fact I do have some differences of my own with Mark Pera — in particular, his stated support for the 2016 Olympics, as an impetus to bring federal dollars into the district — but it is important to highlight the frivolity of the Tribune for making their endorsement the way they did. Their sole reason for the endorsement is a meaningless one, and their more likely rationale is potentially sinister.

I asked Mark Pera a bunch of questions in writing this column, but there was only one that really mattered to me and, I think, it will be the most important to the Democratic voters (that's an important distinction) of the 3rd District. The Third Congressional District is a blue-collar district. It takes up huge swaths of the Southwest Side bungalow belt, as well as working-class suburbs like Bridgeview, Bedford Park, Country Club Hills, Oak Lawn, Cicero and Chicago Ridge. As a result, the Third District is often stereotyped as being "socially conservative, economically liberal."

The Third District votes reliably Democratic precisely because the voters all work for a paycheck, are often the first impacted by rising consumer costs and hurting industries, and are very likely to be from union households, or the children of union households. So I asked Mark Pera one question that the Tribune may have bothered to ask a Democratic candidate trying to represent a working class district:

Do you believe the conservative movement has hurt working Americans?

Notice this has nothing to do with Republicans. It has to do with an ideology, and a movement. A movement that has supported policies that have material impact on fleeting human lives.

His response?

"Yes. The more conservative members of Congress who have consistently voted on the side of big business and industry have hurt working Americans. In 2005, as petroleum and energy companies were poised to rake in record profits at the expense of consumers, the Republican Congress and Congressman Dan Lipinski voted to give these companies more than $22 billion in tax breaks. Over the last two years, middle class Americans were forced to dig deep into their pockets as they faced rising gas prices at the pumps. We're now in the midst of a sub-prime lending crisis... and there are some out there who would rather move to bail out the lenders and mortgage companies than the borrowers."

This does not read to me like the rantings of a partisan who is obsessed with (D)s and (R)s; it reads to me like somebody who understands, as most voting Democrats will, that decades of political dominance by the conservative movement has hurt working Americans. If the only way to end that dominance is to fight, what's better? To fight and risk being unpleasant to the fine suits in the Tribune editorial board? Or to "roll up your sleeves" and stick your hand out for whatever crumbs you can get?

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proofreader / January 30, 2008 1:30 PM

Fix the headline. Democrats and Republicans can both agree that the correct spelling is "sleeves."

Andrew / January 30, 2008 2:21 PM

Yes, even the Green Party agrees on that one. Fixed.


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at

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