Opinion | Who Cares About Hypocrisy?

By Michelle Cottle

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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