Many mysteries plague us regarding the press coverage of the Obama era, but one strikes me as central to our political predicament. Why, after everyone else has given it up, do members of the mainstream media persist in helping to hide—and therefore empower—the radicalization of the Republican Party?
The GOP strategy was clear from the start. Republicans, circa 2009, were no longer interested in bipartisan solutions to America’s problems. As then–Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told National Journal, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Senator Jim DeMint famously promised healthcare reform could be used to “break” Obama from day one. And that was before the Tea Party even existed.
Part of the problem, for far too long, was that President Obama collaborated in the charade. He was so invested in the notion that both sides could just get along and legislate together that he couldn’t part with the illusion he had helped to create. His communitarian rhetoric, together with his compromise-in-advance legislative strategy, was always oriented toward inclusiveness, consensus-building and, ultimately, political passivity. As a result, Obama allowed the Republicans to stymie his ability to act on behalf of most of his agenda, beginning with the underfunded stimulus and carrying through with virtually every single initiative he undertook throughout the first two years of his term.
The net effect of this legislatively was that, rather than reversing the right-wing policies of the Bush administration, Obama has, despite his significant accomplishments, largely continued them. He has issued fewer new regulations than Bush did at the same point in his term. He has lowered taxes, both on the rich and the rest of us, and his healthcare, economic and environmental initiatives were largely based on Republican proposals. And his foreign policy is, in many respects, unchanged from Bush’s. So when it came time to defend his record in 2010, he found only demoralized troops, and the Democrats suffered a historic rout as a result.
Voices from within the system finally began to do the president’s work for him. In the autumn of 2011, Mike Lofgren, who had recently retired after twenty-eight years as a Congressional staffer, sixteen on the Republican side, compared his former bosses to an “apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe.” The subtitle of his new book, tellingly, is “How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted.”
Similarly, in April of this year, the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Mann and the American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein, who have been collaborating on Congressional studies for forty years, decided to cash in the credibility they’d earned as nonpartisan establishment voices and publish an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem.” They wrote that the GOP “has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” The article spent many days at the top of the Post’s most-read list, resulted in more than 5,000 comments and was tweeted more than 3,000 times, as Michael Massing noted in Columbia Journalism Review. They also published a book. The title, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, fails to identify the primary culprit, but the text certainly does (and, I feel compelled to note, also echoes many of the arguments I made in a 2010 Nation article and subsequent book, Kabuki Democracy).
Obama began to change his tune after last year’s debt-crisis fiasco, yet the MSM still fails to notice. We’ve just experienced a GOP primary process in which a number of candidates repeatedly made statements that would lead one to question their sanity. In most cases, however, the reporters covering them repeated these assertions without even trying to judge their veracity—much as if, say, regarding climate change, the views of 97 percent of the world’s climatologists were no more compelling than those of a few Koch-funded quacks.
No wonder the public remains so confused and misinformed about the realities of American politics, as bigfoot pundits—committed to the mindlessness of what I call “on-the-one-handism”—not only whitewash Republican extremism, but paint Obama’s soggy centrism in false hues as its ideological equivalent. This exercise demands that these same pundits ignore the president’s actual words, and it is a task they meet with relish. The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman suffers from the worse case of this malady, but as Talking Points Memo’s Benjy Sarlin notes in a post called “Pundits Urge President Obama to Back President Obama’s Proposals,” it’s become an epidemic. It not only appears in nearly every other Friedman column (Obama needs to “go big” by pushing to raise taxes on the rich and endorsing a balanced long-term debt reduction plan, which, um, he’s done), but also those of David Brooks (Obamacare ought to limit the tax exclusion for employer-provided healthcare plans and offer subsidies for individuals to buy into regulated health insurance markets, which, um, it does). Columns by Jonathan Rauch evince the same problem (Obama should adopt a plan of short-term stimulus, long-term debt reduction and an extension on the debt limit, which, um, he has), as do those of Michael Gerson (Obama should stop denying the economic crisis and propose a plan to address it, but not a plan that raises the deficit, which, come to think of it, he has).
If you want the truth about today’s Republican Party, I suggest you watch HBO’s The Newsroom. You won’t find it on the news.