Battling Over Policy Instead of Character

Adults returning to DC?

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Well, President Obama has brought change to Washington -- but perhaps not of the sort that he had in mind.

With A.I.G. transmuting from being just one of many symbols of multiple government bailouts, to becoming the poster child of corporate excess, Obama's media honeymoon ended abruptly this week. But the pulse of this controversy has very different beats from those of the Clinton and Bush administrations.

This is partly because of the basic fact that Democrats are running everything; the usual Washington, DC, scandal tropes works like this: reporter identifies juicy political story; works on it -- then gets members of the opposition party to provide contrast. If the White House and Congress are run by different parties, this creates no end of fun. Alas, if the general atmosphere is toxic -- as it usually was during the Clinton years, the whole situation can deteriorate rapidly -- and one ends up with an impeached president.

Things work differently when one party runs everything.

Still, A.I.G. is the first serious policy-connected scandal of the 21st century. The Iraq War was controversial, but the rhetorical overkill was lifted almost directly from the Clinton saga a decade before. Everything was related to alleged "lies" told by the president -- Monica with Bill, Dubya with "WMD."

While there has been a little bit of "What did X know and when did he know it?" in the current situation, this is, generally speaking, a controversy that surrounds policy rather than issues of character, decision-making rather than charges of deceit. In short, rather than trying to politically embarrass their opponents -- or individuals in other branches -- politicians are demanding immediate changes in policy. It also helps that the million-dollar bonus-babies of A.I.G. conveniently fill the roles of big bad villains in this saga: That provides a concentrated nexus of bipartisan anger. 

While members of Congress may be frustrated with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner ( a couple of Republicans have called for his resignation), most of the heat right now is on A.I.G. The questions surround whether that money can be retrieved and how to prevent other bailout recipients from spreading bonus love all around.

In terms of gossip columns, this sort of scandal is a bit dull. In terms of politicians almost acting like adults, it's actually a bit refreshing.

Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.

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