Michelle Cottle

Who Cares About Hypocrisy?

Credit...Point Images, via Getty Images

Ms. Cottle is a member of the editorial board.

President Biden is a tough man to vilify. Maybe it’s the grandfatherly vibe or the down-to-earth speaking style or all that talk of compassion and healing. Whatever the reason, Republicans have had little success thus far convincing Americans — beyond the alternative-reality MAGAverse, of course — that good old Uncle Joe is radical, corrupt or even a little bit scary.

In desperation, more and more Republicans are clambering onto their high horses to charge the president with that most elemental of political sins: hypocrisy. As the criticism goes, Mr. Biden’s talk of unity and healing is bunk — “empty platitudes,” as Senator Tim Scott, the South Carolina Republican, charged in his response to the president’s address to Congress last week.

Time and again, Mr. Biden has “promised to unite a nation, to lower the temperature, to govern for all Americans, no matter how we voted,” said Mr. Scott. “But three months in, the actions of the president and his party are pulling us further and further apart.”

Having failed to paint Mr. Biden as a possibly senile monster, Republicans are now aiming to smear him as a holier-than-thou hypocrite.

To which the White House’s response should be: Bring it.

If Mr. Biden wants to pursue bipartisan deals because he believes they make for better, more durable policy, then more power to him. And his efforts to lower the temperature of political discourse — by, for instance, not doling out insulting nicknames, peddling racist tropes, attacking members of his own government or pitching Twitter hissy fits — are a welcome step toward soothing America’s Trump-tortured soul.

But when it comes to accusations of hypocrisy regarding matters of cross-aisle comity, Mr. Biden should waste exactly as much time fretting as the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell did vetting Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court in 2016. Which is to say, not one hot second.

It’s not simply that Republicans have zero room to gripe about hypocrisy. (Or hyperpartisanship, for that matter.) It’s also that hypocrisy is a cheap, tiresome line of political attack — an empty way for critics to broadcast pious indignation without having to seriously engage with the specifics of the underlying behavior.

No doubt, voters love to rage against officials deemed hypocritical: the deceit, the arrogance, the self-righteousness! (Researchers at Yale found that it is a hypocrite’s implied assertion of moral superiority that really ticks people off.) No one likes to feel lectured and judged — especially by performatively pious politicians.

Hypocrisy also tends to fire up the media. After all, it is a kind of dishonesty, and there’s almost nothing journalists hate more than being deceived.

But even beyond that, hypocrisy provides a neat, clean, easy to grasp, nonpartisan rubric by which to pass judgment on public officials. With hypocrisy, you don’t need to get into the policy weeds or take a stand that could be considered ideologically slanted. It’s not the misbehavior being denounced; it’s the discrepancy between what someone professes to believe and his behavior. The existence of the gap is what offends.

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  • The Editorial Board argues the administration should return to the Iran nuclear deal, and that “at this point, the hard-line approach defies common sense.”
  • Jonathan Alter writes that Biden needs to do now what F.D.R. achieved during the depression: “restore faith that the long-distrusted federal government can deliver rapid, tangible achievements.”
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By these rules, the safest political course would seem to be to avoid championing any kind of standards and admit you’re an amoral shark driven solely by personal ambition. Some would argue that this is what Mr. McConnell has done with a fair degree of success.

In practice, politics runs on hypocrisy. Witness the Republican deficit hawks who learned to love the budget-busting tax cuts of 2017. Or all those “family values” voters who, confronted with the personal degeneracy of Donald Trump, suddenly stopped fretting about the character or morality of elected officials.

This inconstancy works in part because, for all their professed loathing of hypocrisy, most voters will forgive a boatload of it if they like what their elected officials are getting done. Republicans may not relish being called hypocrites, but they recognize that there are more pressing issues. Just ask Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

Making rationalization easier, hypocrisy is often in the eye of the beholder. People engaged in hypocritical behavior will indulge in elaborate mental gymnastics to convince themselves that they aren’t in fact guilty of such.

A similar dynamic holds true for the electorate. It is an enduring political truism that voters tend to overlook, excuse or even embrace serious sins committed by members of their own political tribe, even as minor infractions by the opposition provoke a supernova of self-righteous outrage. Plenty of Democrats who were furious with Mr. McConnell for blowing up the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees were considerably more tolerant when Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, did away with it for lower court and executive branch nominees in 2013.

So it is that hypocrisy risks making hypocrites of those who denounce hypocrisy.

As for Mr. Biden, he should absolutely continue his outreach to Republican officials — phoning them, inviting them over for White House chats, sending them home with chocolate chip cookies. But he should also keep moving forward with his agenda, with or without their support.

If Republicans want to whine about their sense of disappointment and betrayal and accuse the president of being a hypocritical meanie, that’s their prerogative. Much as it is Mr. Biden’s prerogative to ignore those complaints as the disingenuous partisan blather that they are.

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