Lanny Davis, Michael Steele Remain Misunderstood

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Lanny Davis, a supporter of U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT), speaks during a taping of "Meet the Press" at the NBC studios August 6, 2006 in Washington, DC. Davis discussed the upcoming Connecticut Democratic Senate primary and the future of the Democratic Party.
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The other day I ungenerously suggested that Lanny Davis and Michael Steele have joined to form a consulting firm as a way of distracting from the reasons everybody hates them. Steele is an incompetent clown, and Davis an amoral influence-peddler, but now they can present their cause as “bipartisanship,” and thus cast critics of their incompetence or sleaze (or, sometimes, incompetent sleaze!) as partisans.

Now Davis and Steele, speaking to U.S. News, have deigned to offer a “response” to the criticisms. And by “response,” I mean “confirmation”:

"I think we confuse people," Davis argued. "Just like Clinton's 'Third Way' did. Because we're out of the box."

Both said they thought the criticism only made the whole point of Purple Nation Solutions stronger, which is that they think politics has become too hyper-partisan.

In other words, yes, they are using the mantle of bipartisanship to cast critics of their incompetence or sleaze as partisan.

Davis also takes the opportunity to scrub his most notorious – but certainly not his only notorious – episode, his work on behalf of Ivory Coast dictator Laurent Gbagbo:

"I had a bad experience trying to convert non-democracy to a democracy for the State Department," he told me. "And I learned that no good deed goes unpunished."

Humanitarian missions like that are just the kind of thing we haters of bipartisanship deplore!

Alas, Davis's generous crusade to spread democracy throughout the globe takes on a somewhat less heroic hue if you understand a few crucial facts. When Davis says he tried “to convert a non-democracy to a democracy,” he means that when Gbagbo stole an election, Davis announced, “there is substantial documentary evidence that President Laurent Gbagbo is the duly elected president as a result of the Nov. 28 elections”; when Davis says he represented Gbagbo “for the State Department,” he means he did it over the express opposition of the State Department; and when he describes this as a “good deed,” he means he charged a mere $100,000 a month fee for the work.

There is a long and glorious history of Washington sleazeballs recasting themselves as beloved bipartisan deal-makers. It’s a perfectly natural gambit. A pure mercenary follows only money, whereas strong partisanship implies at least some kind of ideological grounding. John Breaux is the patron saint of the tribe. Breaux initially burst onto the scene in 1981, when, as a Democrat from Louisiana, he offered to support Ronald Reagan’s domestic program in return for preserving wasteful subsidies for local sugar barons. (Breaux became famous not for the deal itself but for his candid admission that his vote is not for sale “but it can be rented.”) Over time, Breaux remade himself as a Beltway wise man beloved for his willingness to strike bargains with both parties, retired in a flood of laudatory coverage of the sort retiring centrists habitually receive, and promptly settled into the influence-peddling trade.

Davis and Steele are merely the most nakedly cynical of those who have followed the path to reputational salvation via bipartisanship. It could yet work! If it fails, perhaps they ought to hire a respected Washington wise man to offer them career advice.