Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Putting the Cart before the Hearse

Last week we commented on HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson telling a meeting of the Texas small business forum that politics play a role in awarding or denying contracts in his shop.

Now, we have a fascinating post by Chad, at the always interesting Uncertain Principles. Chad's a physicist reporting on an address by Patricia Dehmer, the Associate Director of the Office of Basic Energy Sciences at the Department of Energy, that she gave to a meeting at last week's conference of the American Physics Society's Division of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics. Associate Director Dehmer's words seems eerily like those of Secretary Jackson.

The annoying thing was the peripheral message-- she took pains to state several times that both Democrats and Republicans in Congress support science, in a tone that basically came across as chiding us for thinking otherwise. That was annoying by itself, but at the very end of the talk, she specifically warned against taking partisan positions, citing the letter supporting John Kerry that was signed by a couple dozen Nobel laureates as something that made it harder to keep science funding. She said that after that, when she met with administration officials about budget matters, she could see them thinking "Damn scientists..."

There is no doubt that this tidbit was being given in the spirit of friendly advice and not as part of an organized crime protection racket. Surely, Associate director Dehmer thought of herself like a friend pulling you aside at a party and trying to be subtle about telling you that your fly is down. But what is fascinating is the insight into what is happening behind the closed office doors that we get from this warning and from Secretary Jackson's little admission/retraction/partial admission/partial retraction dance last week.

The "Republican War on Science" is a rallying cry from places on the left that I have been reading. The Bush administration is often portrayed as possessing a real antipathy to the reality-based community on the other side of the cultural divide.

But could the real meaning of Dehmer's discussion be that Republicans really don't hate science, they have no problem with science -- IF scientists help them maintain their political position. It is not a deep, intellectual, metaphysical battle with those in charge, it is shallow to the point of absurdity. They'd be happy to give us more recess if we stop saying that they really aren't the teacher and pretend along like everyone else. All they want is to be loved.

What we have is politics uber alles. Now, this seems trivial. You are dealing with political appointees, of course there is politics. Has science become politicized. No doubt. Is this a really, really, really bad thing. Yup.

But this is different. There seems to have been a bizarre sort of radical inversion. At this point what we see is that the job description of politicians has changed. No longer are they elected to govern, now they govern with the sole intent of getting re-elected. The job of the Associate Director of the Office of Basic Energy Research is not to serve the Director of the Office of Basic Energy research, but to serve his boss' boss' boss' boss, the guy in the house that is white...well, not to serve him, but to serve his political advisor -- at least until he is indicted.

You play to your base and do favors for political friends -- that's always been the game. The political agenda is shaped in part by principles and in part by payoff. You dance with the horse that brung ya. Politics is a nasty, ugly sausage-making game. All that is, was, and has always been true. But this change is different. It is radical in its nihilism. It's looking like what we've come to is complete political bankruptcy -- aside from holding seats, the agenda is no agenda.

It's not that Bush is mouthing empty platitudes to get support from his base and appease the soccer moms while hiding his real agenda. There really seems to be nothing up his sleeve. Bush is not pushing libertarian, fiscal, or social conservative positions. He's not really doing anything other than immigration which is really just an act of desperation to keep his party from completely imploding. There is no there there. Is it that there never was or that with zero political capital he's just biding his time? Is it a vacuum from the fall of neo-conservatism? Is it that Bush is so loyal to his people, now that his people's incompetence has left him paralyzed, he is simply happy to just float? It is perpetual August, looking at perpetual November. Politics is dead, long live politics. Could it be?