On the politics of personal responsibility

One of the best rhetorical planks of the modern American right-wing movement has been insistence on individual responsibility.

The smartest liberals always knew they needed to co-opt the theme. That's why Bill Clinton ran for president saying he would reform welfare and require people to seek and take work in exchange for their handouts.

The rhetoric is not altogether fair, of course. As they explained in the racial sensitivity seminar, a person can't actually pick himself up by his bootstraps.

It's not enough to tell a poor child in a violent inner city to take responsibility for himself. First you put him in a pre-kindergarten program.

Then you cover his health care. Then you give him a good school. Then you tell him to be responsible for himself.

But it's good rhetoric, this demand for personal responsibility, and it is not without merit.

If only the politicians would live by it.

Democrats in Congress are not responsible for newspaper advertising run by the liberal anti-war group calling itself MoveOn.org. Republicans contradict themselves on the issue of individual responsibility when they demand that Democrats disavow a newspaper ad by this group that called Army Gen. David Petraeus "Betrayus."

Democratic office holders are responsible only for themselves. They are free to be supported generally by persons and groups for whom they are in no way responsible in terms of specific words and actions.

Conversely, Republicans in Congress are not responsible for nonsense uttered by that right-wing radio blowhard, Rush Limbaugh.

Democrats contradict themselves in their attempted co-opting of the issue of personal responsibility when they demand that Republicans disavow Limbaugh's bloviating that the media ought to talk to real soldiers in Iraq, not phony ones who oppose the invasion there.

Republican office holders also bear responsibility only for themselves. They are free to accept support via the general airwaves of a blustering radio character without bearing specific responsibility for every verbal outrage the radio voice commits.

This is what is so diseased about American politics. Most of the dialogue is driven by the philosophical and partisan extremes. Each of the political parties seeks to placate its own extreme while, at the same time, trying to polarize the other party for daring to seek to placate its extreme. So these marginal forces become all-powerful, both in positive and negative ways. There is big money in this, mainly by demonizing the other guy.

Meantime, most Americans go about their workday lives not giving a hoot what MoveOn.org or Rush Limbaugh says.

Most Americans should be asking instead that our elected and aspiring politicians speak only for themselves, but do so clearly. They want to know what Hillary Clinton intends to do to draw us down in Iraq.

They want to know what Rudy Giuliani intends to do about nuclear proliferation in Iran.

They might want Mitt Romney to talk a little about Mormonism.

They want to know what all the candidates think about the economy.

Bill Bradley's new book, "The New American Story," argues that there is an effective and responsible school of politics to be created from this prevailing center, from people paying no attention to the extremes and wanting the politicians to speak about real problems and solutions.

But, for that to happen, people would need to pay more attention to books like Bradley's, and other sane assertions like it, than to radio blowhards and Internet extremists.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.