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A Field of Memes

Living in a place without a real spring, I have to simulate the vernal equinox in my mind through an annual ritual of reading baseball books.

Right now I'm reading Paul Dickson's The Unwritten Rules of Baseball - an exploration of the game's "time-honored" unofficial code of conduct. Rules like: never say "no-hitter" out loud when a pitcher is in the middle of throwing one and if there's an altercation on the field, both dugouts must join the fray.

Maybe it's ADD or my petty obsession with metaphors but reading Dickson's book got me thinking about one of baseball's metaphorical cousins, sending me on a fruitless search for The Book on the unwritten rules of American politics.

I found a 1948 essay under that title published in Harper's Magazine. I came across academic papers with references to "unwritten" political rules and fished out a few oldie-but-goodies from the stacks of my library. If you have a weak candidate and weak platform, wrap yourself up in the American flag and talk about the Constitution (Republican "kingmaker" Matthew Quay), for example - clearly, still very much a part of the GOP playbook.

But I couldn't find the encyclopedic compendium that I figured just had to be out there. Call me impatient but I decided to take another well-known unwritten rule - if you want to get something done, do it yourself - and see if I can turn it on its head. If you want to get something done, get others involved.

So, how about a little teamwork? Let's co-write a book that not only commits the unwritten rules of politics to writing, but answers the questions: When rules come into conflict, which ones carry the most weight? And who or what do these rules ultimately serve? Maybe not a best-seller but it might put us in the game. Politics isn't supposed to be a spectator sport. Fortunately, you don't have to be Yogi Berra or Max Weber to intuit the unwritten rules. You just need a good eye.

The book's editors would have to debate which rule would be listed first, but if it was up to me Rule #1 would be: At least since Reagan, a "good" politician, according to The Establishment, must always govern from an amorphous "center."

Following the rule, Bush was marketed as a "uniter" and Obama was sold as "post partisan." And like many of the unwritten rules of baseball, this rule extends into the press box, reinforcing the longtime media love affair with "bipartisanship" and an either/or political analysis that misleadingly assumes there are only two sides to every issue. If you're not a conservative, you're a liberal. If you're not on the right or left, you're in the center (where the good politicians and media outlets reside). If you don't back Republicans, you must be a Democrat or a centrist Independent, and if not, you're one of the loonies.

If the "center" rule is Rule 1, Rule 1a) would have to say something about "fiscal conservatism," which, we're told, all centrists share in common, yielding: if you're not a "fiscal conservative," you're a typical "tax-and-spend liberal" and probably a closet "socialist."

Rule 1b) Under the banner of "fiscal conservatism," it's perfectly reasonable to angrily debate the cost of life-sustaining government-regulated health care. But never question the life-sapping Pentagon budget, no matter what the cost or how much of the U.S. economy is in the hands of "big government" defense programs.

The biggest defense budget in history - $200 billion more than will be doled out for Medicare and $500 billion more than what will be spent on Medicaid - and not one town hall meeting? Throw in defense-related expenditures not included in the official DoD account and we're talking close to a trillion dollar budget and not a single "deficit hawk" on the talk show circuit offering somber warnings about "out of control" spending?

Appropriately, it was Hall of Fame pitcher and now Republican Sen. Jim Bunning who gave us the most recent example of the centrist fiscal conservative rule coming into play. The distinguished gentlemen from Kentucky single-handedly held up paying federal employees to make a point about the official pay-as-you go Congressional budget rule.

Burning hot in the GOP and emanating throughout the Democratic Party, this resurgence of "fiscal conservatism" prompted Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist and former advisor to Reagan, father Bush, and Ron Paul to note the stunning hypocrisy.

"As far as I am concerned, any Republican who voted for the Medicare drug benefit has no right to criticize anything the Democrats have done in terms of adding to the national debt," Bartlett wrote in Forbes recently.

If you're wondering, don't: Bunning voted for the unfunded drug benefit even as he talks of being a fiscal watchdog of the majority party, especially as Democrats move on to jobs legislation.

"I'll be watching them closely," he told the Washington Independent, "and checking off the hypocrites one by one."

A hypocrite tracking hypocrisy? That's how they play ball on this field of memes.

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Sean Gonsalves

Sean Gonsalves is a columnist and editor with the Cape Cod Times. He can be reached at

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