Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives, by Juliet Eilperin [New York: Rowman and Littlefield in cooperation with Hoover Institution) 168 pages, $19.95
Despite its promise to hammer Washington, D.C.'s appallingly nasty politics, Juliet Eilperin's Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives turns out to be a badly-overrated featherweight relying on a sneaky right hook.
From Eilperin's appearance on Terry Gross's Fresh Air program, many NPR listeners may have mistakenly concluded that Fight Club Politics exposes the under-handed House Republicans' tactics and both parties' overly-partisan rhetoric. The state of democracy has become so weak, Eilperin warns, that "the current rates of House turnover may equal historic rates of turnover in the [old Soviet] Politburo," thanks to redistricting designed to protect existing House members. These "bullet-proof" incumbents are unwilling to cooperate across party lines and have caused a near-total loss of "civility."
But apart from that over-valued point about civility, Fight Club Politics actually amounts to a flimsy whitewash of the Republicansí strong-arm tactics in devastating democracy in the House. Where Eilperin, a Washington Post reporter, could easily be revealing how the GOP's dictatorial reign has served big donors like the drug industry and firms like Accenture that charter themselves in Bermuda to avoid US taxes, she offers up only safe conventional wisdom about the supposedly equivalent nastiness of each "extremist"-dominated political party.
While Fight Club Politics is attuned to the harshly partisan styles of combat prevalent in the House, Eilperin is remarkably tone-deaf to the momentous stakes involved. Notably absent from Eilperin's book is any account of the Republicans' infamous "K Street Project," spawned by now-disgraced former Whip Tom DeLay, strategist Grover Norquist and now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The K Street Project involved harnessing corporate interest groups and their lobbyists ever more tightly to the GOP. In this way, the Republicans could more efficiently convert larger and (mostly) legal payoffs by big campaign contributors into rapid policy paybacks from DeLay and Co.
The Republicans' dictatorial regime in the House has included numerous spectacular episodes: the pharmaceutical-friendly Medicare drug bill that required shameful violations of House rules; the harsh centralization of leadership under Tom DeLay and Co.; the corporate-funded gerrymandering of Texas that produced seven additional Republican House seats (Eilperin reduces the matter to the Democrats merely being "out-maneuvered"); the near-total exclusion of Democrats from important discussions; and the fact that 85% of House bills in 2004 prohibited any amendments that might embarrass the Republicans.
The Republican strategy has been explicitly to neuter the Democratic minority, cutting off any meaningful role for the minority party. In fact, Grover Norquist once smirked, "Once the minority of the House and Senate are comfortable in their minority status, they will have no problem socializing with the Republicans. Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant. But when they've been 'fixed,' then they are happy and sedate. They are contented and cheerful."
Despite the enormity of fundamental Republican infringements on democracy within the House, Eilperin baselessly concludes, "Democrats have been waging a daily war in Washington, against the GOP as unrelenting and nearly as virulent as that of their counterparts on the other side of the aisle." In contrast, reality-based observers often wonder if the House Democrats have a pulse, much less any punch.
As documented in superb work like the 2004 Boston Globe series by Susan Milligan and Robert Kuttner's "America As a One-Party State" [The American Prospect (2/1/04)], the Republicans have engaged in a take-no-prisoners holy war in the interests of major corporations and the wealthy. The GOP jihad has been fueled by unprecedented amounts of strategic campaign contributions from America's richest 1%, an issue neglected entirely by Eilperin.
Eilperin continually appears oblivious to the clear linkage between the Republicans' undemocratic tactics and their dedication to provide government favors to the narrow corporate interests funding their campaigns. Eilperin even lionizes Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), whose main claim to fame was crafting the Medicare drug bill to the specifications of the drug industry (e.g., explicitly prohibiting the federal government from negotiating prices for Medicare beneficiaries) before taking a $2 million job as president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association.
When Tauzin's appointment was announced, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., precisely dissected the maneuver: "A chief architect of the Medicare prescription drug legislation is now going to represent the chief beneficiary of the bill."
But in Eilperin's eyes, Democrats like Waxman were unfairly harsh to the courtly Tauzin. Bizarrely ignoring the intrinsic corruption of Tauzin's shift to PhRMA, Eilperin instead details Tauzin's plan to restore "civility" to the House.
Ulitmately, Fight Club Politics is punch-drunk after absorbing too many hits of conventional wisdom. In the memorable words of Marlon Brando's character in On the Waterfront, it deserves "a one-way ticket to Palookaville."
Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer and activist. Email firstname.lastname@example.org