“A Warped Prism”: Sequestration And How The “Liberal Media” Keeps Blaming Obama For Republican Behavior
Reading what has now become a cavalcade of Beltway pundits, led by New York Times writers, denouncing President Obama for failing to avoid the drastic budget sequestration, and berating him for not “leading” by getting Republicans to abandon their chronic intransigence, I keep thinking back to the earliest days of Obama’s presidency when the press concocted new rules regarding bipartisanship.
Specifically, I recall a question NBC’s Chuck Todd asked at a February 2009 press briefing as the president’s emergency stimulus bill was being crafted in Congress. With the country still reeling from the 2008 financial collapse, and the economy in desperate need of an immediate stimulus shot in the arm, Todd asked if Obama would consider vetoing his own party’s stimulus bill if it passed Congress without Republican support.
Todd wanted to know if Obama would hold off implementing urgent stimulus spending in order to a pass different piece of legislation, one that more Republicans liked and would vote for, because that way it would be considered more bipartisan.
I mention that curious Todd query because only when you understand the warped prism through which so much of the Washington, D.C. press corps now views the issue of bipartisanship does the current blame-Obama punditry regarding sequestration begins to make sense, even remotely.
Here’s what the prism looks like, and here’s what it’s looked like for the last four years: Blame Obama for Republican obstinacy. (Or, as a backup: Both sides are to blame!)
And remember, most of the pundits currently taking misguided aim at Obama on sequestration are part of the supposedly “liberal media” cabal, the one that conservatives insist protect Obama at any cost.
As key observers have noted in recent days, the facts on sequestration are not in dispute: Obama has made repeated offers to meet Republicans in the middle with a proposed deficit reduction plan built around a mix of spending cuts, reform to entitlement programs, and revenue increases. Republicans have countered by saying they will not agree to any deal that includes revenue increases. In terms of “leading,” Obama has done everything in his power to try to fashion a deal with Republicans. In response, the absolutist GOP has refused to move off its starting point; it’s refused to move at all. (Hint: They wanted sequestration to occur.)
So, because Obama, who just won an electoral landslide re-election, wasn’t willing to concede to Republicans everything they wanted, the sequester impasse was reached and $85 billion worth of across-the-board spending cuts went into effect. From those facts, too many pundits have rushed in to blame Obama. Why him? Because he hasn’t been able to change Republican behavior. He wasn’t able to get them to agree to a bipartisan solution.
Question: If you’re an obstructionist Republican and the press blames Obama for your actions, why would you ever change your obstructionist ways? Answer: You wouldn’t. And they haven’t.
Remember, the recently concluded confirmation battle over Chuck Hagel becoming Secretary of Defense wasn’t just about the Republicans’ unprecedented opposition to the cabinet choice. It was also about the press’ ongoing refusal to acknowledge the GOP’s radical obstructionism. A refusal that simply encourages more of the same destructive behavior.
Not surprisingly that theme now runs through the sequestration coverage, as pundits and commentators do their best to downplay those obstructionist tactics in order to clear a way at their real rhetorical target: Obama. (Notable exceptions are appreciated.)
My sense of déjà vu on the sequester media mess is especially intense. I noticed this same trend 49 months ago:
If Republicans simply do not want to cooperate in any meaningful way with Democrats, is there anything Obama can do to change that? No, not really. But according to the press, Obama — and Obama alone — is supposed to change that mindset.
For four years this nonsensical narrative about how it’s up to Obama to change the GOP’s conduct has been promoted and celebrated inside Beltway newsrooms. And now all the savvy pundits agree: Republicans’ obstinate ways created the sequestration showdown, so that means it’s Obama’s fault. By failing to lead, by failing to change Republican behavior, Obama must shoulder the blame.
As noted though, the agreed-upon sequester facts are not in dispute. So in order to blame Obama for Republican obstructionism, pundits have been inserting boulder-sized caveats to their illogical writing that ultimately points the finger at the president [emphasis added]:
“And, of course, it is true that much of the responsibility for our perpetual crisis can be laid at the feet of a pigheaded Republican Party, cowed by its angry, antispending, antitaxing, anti-Obama base.” (Bill Keller, New York Times)
“We have a political system that is the equivalent of a drunk driver. The primary culprits are the House Republicans.” (David Ignatius, Washington Post)
“The great debt-ceiling crisis of 2011 was initiated entirely by the Republicans refusing to do anything.” (Howard Kurtz, The Daily Beast)
“Most Republicans in Congress have been utterly irresponsible in this debate.” (Washington Post editorial).
But never mind all that. It’s Obama’s fault that Republicans are the “pigheaded” “culprits” who “initiated entirely” the “utterly irresponsible” debate over sequestration.
By: Eric Boehlert, Media Matters for America, May 5, 2013
When the Maine State House voted 111-33 this week to call for a constitutional amendment to overturn the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the support for this bold gesture was notably bipartisan. Twenty-five Republicans joined four independents and all eighty-two Democrats to back the call.
Similarly, when the Maine State Senate voted 25-9 for the resolution, five Republicans joined with nineteen Democrats and independent Senator Richard Woodbury to “call upon each Member of the Maine Congressional Delegation to actively support and promote in Congress an amendment to the United States Constitution on campaign finance.”
What happened in Maine this week was a big deal for several reasons:
1. Maine became the thirteenth state to urge Congress to develop an amendment to address the money-in-politics crisis that is unfolding as a result of Supreme Court rulings that that have effectively struck down campaign-finance regulations and ushered in a new era of unlimited spending by wealthy individuals and corporate interests. Maine joins West Virginia, Colorado, Montana, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, Rhode Island, Maryland, Vermont, New Mexico and Hawaii in calling for an amendment. Washington, DC, has also backed the drive.
2. The swift action by both houses of the Maine legislature, coming less than a month after West Virginia urged Congress to act, confirms the momentum that is building for the movement, which has been backed by almost 500 communities nationwide. Though media coverage has been scant, it is rare in recent history for a grassroots movement to amend the constitution to have attracted so much official support at the municipal, county and state levels nationwide.
3. As in a number of other states, the significant level of bipartisan support in Maine provides a reminder that this movement is attracting support from across the partisan and ideological spectrum.
That final point merits particular attention.
Because of the often narrow and simplistic way in which political debates are covered in the United States—if they are covered at all—there is a tendency to think that all Democrats are reformers, while all Republicans are backers of big money in politics. That’s not the case. Polling has consistently shown that Republicans support for restrictions on corporate spending in elections very nearly parallels that of Democrats. And, while there are too many national Democrats who buy into big-money equations, there are Republicans who have begun to raise the right objections—and point to the right answers. Notably, Congressman Walter Jones Jr., a very conservative Republican congressman from North Carolina, is a cosponsor—along with Kentucky Democrat John Yarmuth—of a constitutional amendment proposal that would overturn key provisions of the Citizens United decision and establish that campaign contributions can be regulated by Congress and state legislatures.
Bipartisan support for reform is more evident in the states. State legislators are active at the grassroots, knocking on doors and meeting constituents face to face. They recognize the deep frustration with a political process that seems to have spun out of control, and they reject the premise that corporations and wealthy individuals have a constitutional right to buy elections.
“There has to be a way to secure First Amendment rights to speech and still control the amount of dollars spent on campaigns,” says Maine state Senator Edward Youngblood, a Republican who went so far as to appear at rallies calling for a constitutional amendment. “It should be plain to everyone after the election we’ve just had, which broke records for spending, that the system isn’t getting better.”
Youngblood is right, and the group that organized support for reform in his state, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, wisely reached out to Democrats, Republicans, independents and third-party backers in pursuit of a “multi-partisan” coalition.
The approach has excited national groups such as Public Citizen’s Democracy Is for People Campaign, Move to Amend and Free Speech for People. Indeed, Free Speech for People’s Peter Schurman declared, “This terrific bi-partisan vote is a huge win, not only for Maine, but for all Americans. Republicans, independents, and Democrats alike are clamoring for a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United and bring back real democracy. We’re thrilled that Maine is now helping lead the way forward.”
He’s right, especially when it comes to the emphasis on drawing support from all parties for a reform that seeks to restore genuine competition based on ideas—as opposed to a shouting match between billionaires.
By: John Nichols, The Nation, May 1, 2013
“Reaching Out, Finding Nothing”: Remind Me Again Of How All The President Has To Do Is “Lead” & Offer Good-Faith Compromises
It’s hard to blame President Obama for at least making an effort. For four years, he took a variety of steps — some social, some formal, some professional — to establish relationships with congressional Republicans. The outreach didn’t amount to much.
But it appears the president, either out of necessity or stubbornness, will continue his newly revamped charm offensive, including a trip to Capitol Hill for another round of budget talks. It’s clearly intended as a major gesture on Obama’s part — presidents usually summon lawmakers to the White House, not head to Capitol Hill for meetings on lawmakers’ turf.
Time will tell, obviously, whether the efforts pay dividends, but the New York Times has an interesting report today on the ineffectiveness of recent outreach, including a great anecdote I hadn’t heard before.
For all the attention to President Obama’s new campaign of outreach to Republicans, it was four months ago — on the eve of bipartisan budget talks — that he secretly invited five of them to the White House for a movie screening with the stars of “Lincoln,” the film about that president’s courtship of Congress to pass a significant measure.
For all the pundits who complain bitterly that Obama hasn’t done enough to schmooze with lawmakers, doesn’t an anecdote like this suggest the problem is not entirely the president’s fault? Are we to believe that all five — invited in secret so they wouldn’t have to take heat from Fox or the GOP base — were all washing their hair that night?
On a more substantive note, the piece also included this key piece of information:
What spurred Mr. Obama to reach out to rank-and-file Republicans with a flurry of phone calls, meals and now Capitol visits were the recent announcements by their leaders — Speaker John A. Boehner and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — that they will no longer negotiate with Mr. Obama on budget policy as long as he keeps demanding more tax revenues as the condition for Democrats’ support of reduced spending on Medicare and other entitlement programs.
This is important. Congressional Republican leaders are now saying they won’t even talk to the president unless Obama agrees — before any meetings even take place — to give them what they want. In other words, when the White House announces that all efforts at deficit reduction in the coming years will include literally nothing but 100% spending cuts, then GOP leaders will be prepared to negotiate with the president.
Please, Beltway pundits, remind me again how all the president has to do to resolve political paralysis is “lead” and offer good-faith compromises.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 12, 2013
“Giving Your Opponents A Choice”: Underscoring The Fact That Sequester Impasse Caused Primarily By House Republicans
There’s a lot of confusion (and in certain Republican and Democratic quarters, consternation) over the president’s dinner with Republican senators last night, touted by all involved as focused on reviving prospects for a “grand bargain” on the budget. But the more fundamental purpose, which couldn’t have been clearer had the participants put up a big marquee sign outside the Jefferson Hotel advertising the theme, was to exclude House Republicans from such convivial discussions as the irresponsible wreckers they undoubtedly are.
So for the president, the strategic value of such gestures is pretty clear, whether or not they materially improve the prospects of an acceptable budget deal. E.J. Dionne lays it out:
From Obama’s point of view, engaging with Senate Republicans now to reach a broad settlement makes both practical sense, because there is a plausible chance for a deal, and political sense, because he will demonstrate how far he has been willing to go in offering cuts that Republicans say they support. In the process, he would underscore that the current impasse has been caused primarily by the refusal of House Republicans to accept new revenues.
While it’s the GOP that has been using serial, self-created crises to gain political leverage, many in the party are no less worn out by them than the Democrats. “Even we are tired of lurching from one cliff to another,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)told the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. “I think that’s lending some pressure towards trying to come up with some kind of a grand bargain.”
Such gambits drive some Democrats crazy, partly because they don’t see their utility and partly because they fear Obama will triangulate them and make a deal involving “entitlement reforms” they oppose. But if Obama is simply giving Senate Republicans and the public at large a chance to think about what life would be like if one of our two major parties had not been conquered by ideologues, the price he’s paying may be no higher than the dinner tab.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, March 7, 2013
After President Obama treated 12 Republican senators to dinner, and had a nice lunch with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the Beltway’s reaction can be summarized in one word: Finally.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who attended Wednesday’s dinner, said, “This is the first step that the president has made to really reach out and do like other presidents in the past — develop relationships and build trust.” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) added, “After being in office four years, he’s actually going to sit down and talk to members.”
And while plenty of pundits are echoing the sentiments, John Dickerson notes that those who insist this is a first for Obama are mistaken.
The aloof president is reaching out. That was the media’s first gloss on the president’s new robust effort at networking. He had finally embraced a Truth of Washington: You must engage your opponents and work with them. Finally he’s showing leadership. Hooray! [...]
But this isn’t the first time the president has tried…. Early in his first term, during negotiations over the stimulus package, he reached out to Sens. Grassley, Snowe, Collins, and Specter…. Obama may not be very good at trying to work Congress; he may only have done it in fits and starts, but you can’t say he hasn’t tried.
On the Recovery Act, Obama reached out to Republican lawmakers. On health care, the president not only reached out, he spent about as much time talking to Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins as he did talking to his own staff. In May 2011, Obama invited a bipartisan group to the White House, not for a meeting or policy negotiations, but as part of “a get-to-know-you effort in the spirit of bipartisanship and collegiality.” In one of my very favorite moments of Obama’s presidency to date, he even attended a House Republican retreat, engaging in a spirited Q&A.
But, my DC pundit friends will tell me, these outreach efforts don’t count because they were in professional settings. What Obama needs to do is try personal outreach in informal ways and friendly settings. Except, the president has tried this, too, inviting members to the White House for Super Bowl and March Madness parties, and even golfing with Boehner.
Those who keep asking why Obama hasn’t reached out before this week don’t seem to be paying close enough attention.
So, why haven’t the efforts paid dividends? Dickerson has some worthwhile ideas on the subject, but for what it’s worth, I’ll add some speculation of my own.
For one thing, the parties sharply disagree with one another — there is no modern precedent for partisan polarization as intense as today’s status quo — and presidential outreach won’t change that. Congressional Republicans tend to fundamentally reject just about everything the White House wants, believes, and perceives as true. Presidential face-time changes nothing.
For another, outreach may help set the stage for constructive negotiations, but compromise has been rendered all but impossible, not just because Republicans reflexively oppose everything Obama supports — including, at times, their own ideas — but also because the parties can’t horse-trade when one side doesn’t have much of a wish list.
Jonathan Bernstein had a very smart post on this yesterday.
In a world of divided government with two sensible parties, the logical compromise is that Republicans would trade the minimum wage hike — a popular policy Democrats care more about than Republicans anyway — for something which Republicans care about more than Democrats. That’s what happened last time, when Republicans were able to extract tax cuts for business in exchange for supporting the increase, with the whole thing going into a larger bill that had plenty of things for both parties.
And this gets at a larger problem that explains a lot about dysfunction in Washington right now: Republicans have largely given up on developing specific policy goals while becoming more and more dedicated to opposing compromise on everything as some sort of fundamental principle.
Think about it: what is the Republican agenda item the party could trade for a minimum wage increase? What’s the GOP policy request on health care, other than the dream of repealing the Affordable Care Act? What’s their policy request on climate? Energy? Education? I mostly have no idea.
And neither do I. Sure, it’s obvious Republicans have some vague policy preferences — energy = drilling; education = vouchers — and certainly stick to broad principles on tax cuts, but the traditional give-and-take process falls apart when transactional policymaking isn’t a possibility.
Obama could host luncheons and dinners every day, but this larger dynamic won’t budge.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 8, 2013