In the accountability-free zone that passes for Sunday morning news shows, it takes a lot for a politician to generate any kind of pushback from their intellectually malleable hosts. So, it passes as noteworthy when Bob Schieffer, host of CBS News’ Face the Nation, recently followed up on a ridiculously false statement by one of his show’s guests, Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
BOB SCHIEFFER: All right, lemme—lemme go back to one thing and—the question I asked you was, “Would you ever conceive of threatening to shut down the government again?”
SEN. TED CRUZ: Well, as I said, I didn’t threaten to shut down the government the last time. I don’t think we should ever shut down the government. I repeatedly voted—
BOB SCHIEFFER: Well—
SEN. TED CRUZ: —to fund the federal government.
BOB SCHIEFFER: Senator—
BOB SCHIEFFER: —if you didn’t threaten to shut down the government, who was it that did? I mean, but we’ll go on—
Not exactly withering cross-examination, to be sure. But what even the transcript of the absurd exchange doesn’t fully capture, though this video clip does, is Schieffer’s astonishment—to the point of outright amusement—at Cruz’s brazen embrace of an obvious lie. The clubby world of DC punditry depends upon an unspoken agreement of plausible deniability between both pundits and politicians. So when one of the latter so clearly and consistently leaps off the cliff of reality, members of the former who try to stick with the equivocating, “both sides” script risk being taken down as well. That someone like Schieffer could be reduced to near giggles by Cruz’s duplicitousness symbolizes how timid and soft the Washington press corps has grown. And it reveals how ill-prepared the media is to deal with someone like Cruz, whose shtick is naked, intellectual dishonesty.
Put more simply, Cruz is little more than a Congressional troll. Since his election fifteen months ago, he has embarked upon a non-stop campaign of willful antagonism, privileged contrarianism, and unabashed self-aggrandizement. Trolls peddle phony outrage and crave undeserved attention and, not coincidentally, Cruz’s political toolkit contains just two elements: monkey wrenches and soapboxes.
As just one among 100 in the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” Cruz tends to get written off by the press as merely a colorful, mostly harmless crank. The Senate’s precarious legislative process and the House’s deep polarization, however, means Cruz’s disingenuous obstructionism makes an already dysfunctional Congress even more unpredictably combustible. All last summer, he ran a traveling political medicine show for the FEMA-camps-and-Benghazi-conspiracy crowd, touting the potential for repealing Obamacare as part of the impending government budget showdown. Though his trolling was an obvious fundraising and publicity stunt with zero chance of success, Republicans in Congress went along with his no-win scenario, taking the whole of the federal government down with his party in October.
In the past week, Cruz pulled two more variations on this same reckless behavior. While Senate Republican leaders had already accepted the necessity of passing a clean debt limit bill and were willing to let Democrats approve it with a simple majority, Cruz nearly blew up the process by threatening a filibuster at the last minute. Facing yet another publicity disaster, not to mention risking the full faith and credit of the nation’s financial system yet again, twelve GOP Senators reluctantly voted for passage. And while disaster was temporarily avoided in that case, Cruz likely killed off the House’s numerical advantage on immigration reform when he unexpectedly stuck the incendiary “amnesty” label on Speaker Boehner’s broad principles for reform last week.
Of course, no one should shed tears for folks like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell when they have to publicly confront the embarrassment of the GOP’s slouching towards Bethlehem. And if the Republicans’ refusal to address immigration before next fall’s midterm elections costs it seats in the House or its chance for the majority in the Senate, so much the better. But make no mistake, Republican self-immolation on this scale means millions of Americans are burned in the backdraft.
Sadly, the press rarely connects the dots on the long-term, real-world damage of Cruz’s legislative sabotage. In fact, his tactics have so mesmerized the media that what would otherwise be unprecedented intransigence by the rest of the GOP caucus gets normalized. For example, there was this New York Times story last week, which soft-peddled Cruz’s key role in sparking the potential debt ceiling disaster but that gave credit to Senate Republican leaders for having “rescued” the aforementioned debt ceiling vote. Politico, as only it can do, one-upped the Times with a long, behind-the-scenes process story that also glossed over Cruz as provocateur and instead featured this laugher of a quote from Senator John McCain about Mitch McConnell’s “yea” vote: “I must say it was a very courageous act.” Yes, inside the Beltway, it takes “courage” for the Senate Minority Leader to vote for a bill to pay for things that Congress has already spent money on.
The usual suspects, apathy and ignorance, are no doubt contributing factors in the political press’s unwillingness to call out Cruz’s spiteful grandstanding. I suspect subconscious bias is at work as well. The “Everybody hates him” reputation Cruz has now firmly and deservedly established sounds an awful a lot like the old newsroom shibboleth about objectivity—that when both parties are complaining about your reporting that’s a sure sign you’re doing it right. If you’ve ever wondered how far afield from honest governance a politician can wander before the “objective” media finally calls out his or her bullshit, Ted Cruz looks to be the ongoing case study.
This kind of journalistic negligence emboldens other extremist Republicans in Congress to sow even more dysfunction, though. In addition, the lack of public accountability only serves to discourage more rational members of the GOP who might otherwise be tempted to leverage intra-party pressure in stopping the needless obstruction. Indeed, it’s gotten so bad that the fear of facing a primary threat on the right from the next wannabe Ted Cruz—whom the press will lavish with uncritical attention—has reduced some feckless House Republicans to concern trolling with their Congressional votes, as part of what’s being called the “vote no, hope yes” caucus.
In the end, this is the most pernicious effect of Cruz’s trolling—the way his deceitful behavior disconnects political rhetoric and action from the good faith of those Americans he represents—and more importantly—how it impacts those Americans he doesn’t. Any press corps that proclaims to be a beacon of truth and accountability in a free society should feel compelled to call out these anti-democratic tactics for what they are. Failure to do so really is no laughing matter.
By: Reed Richardson, The Nation, February 18, 2014
“What Makes a Scandal Stick?”: Why Scott Walker’s Proponents Aren’t Paying Attention To His Misconduct
Scott Walker is one of the few GOP figures in a position to benefit from Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal. The Wisconsin governor is uniquely appealing as a potential presidential candidate to both the moderates in his party and its far-right members. Walker is also the first governor in United States history to win a recall election, so if he wins reelection this year, he will have won three times in five years.
But Walker’s prospects aren’t totally rosy. Charles P. Pierce at Esquire has a good rundown of the lurking scandals: Aides from Walker’s first campaign went to jail for using his Milwaukee County Executive office to campaign for him for governor, another former aide was convicted of stealing money from a fund for families of U.S. soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Walker’s administration gave raises that skirted state limits after a series of phantom job transfers took place. Another corruption probe is ongoing.
For now, however, the myriad of corruption charges against his administration are being largely ignored by both the right-wing sites that love the Wisconsin governor and the mainstream media. Why hasn’t Walker’s questionable past been addressed in much of the national coverage he has received?
I put the question to Dr. Amelia Arsenault, Assistant Professor of Communication at Georgia State University and author of the article “Scandal Politics in the New Media Environment.” Arsenault told me that in cases like these, there are multiple explanations that often interact. For one thing, there’s what she calls “impact journalism”—a kind of domino effect in media coverage. “If CNN is covering it, or if The New York Times is covering it, then they all pile on, and it becomes this cycle,” she said. “Some scandals are just sexier than others, and Christie is a huge personality. He has more charisma than Scott Walker in a lot of ways in terms of being a media personality.”
Apart from the personality factor, there’s also a more deliberate element at play. Lesser known right-wing news sites often serve as the springboard for determining which scandals will enter the mainstream, according to Arsenault. “Even though they don’t have high readership, sites like The Blaze and Breitbart.com really glom onto a particular scandal, and they’re very good at activating particular scandals and then pushing them forward, so they have to be covered by [outlets] like Fox News,” says Arsenault. “People on either side of the political spectrum are going after Christie, whereas Scott Walker has sort of been the darling of the online scandalmongers.”
Then there’s the matter of various incentives on either side of the political spectrum: Far-right conservatives don’t want a pro-gun control Northeasterner as their leading presidential hopeful; Democrats are similarly eager to discredit a compelling GOP candidate, and it may work in their favor for now to ignore Walker’s skeletons in order to keep the focus on Christie.
Should Walker decide to run, however, opposition researchers would have plenty to work with. What does it say about the GOP that their next-best potential contender has scandal aplenty of his own?
By: Lane Florsheim, The New Republic, February 12, 2014
“Fiscal Fever Breaks”: 2013 Was The Year Journalists And The Public Finally Grew Weary Of The Boys Who Cried Wolf
In 2012 President Obama, ever hopeful that reason would prevail, predicted that his re-election would finally break the G.O.P.’s “fever.” It didn’t.
But the intransigence of the right wasn’t the only disease troubling America’s body politic in 2012. We were also suffering from fiscal fever: the insistence by virtually the entire political and media establishment that budget deficits were our most important and urgent economic problem, even though the federal government could borrow at incredibly low interest rates. Instead of talking about mass unemployment and soaring inequality, Washington was almost exclusively focused on the alleged need to slash spending (which would worsen the jobs crisis) and hack away at the social safety net (which would worsen inequality).
So the good news is that this fever, unlike the fever of the Tea Party, has finally broken.
True, the fiscal scolds are still out there, and still getting worshipful treatment from some news organizations. As the Columbia Journalism Review recently noted, many reporters retain the habit of “treating deficit-cutting as a non-ideological objective while portraying other points of view as partisan or political.” But the scolds are no longer able to define the bounds of respectable opinion. For example, when the usual suspects recently piled on Senator Elizabeth Warren over her call for an expansion of Social Security, they clearly ended up enhancing her stature.
What changed? I’d suggest that at least four things happened to discredit deficit-cutting ideology.
First, the political premise behind “centrism” — that moderate Republicans would be willing to meet Democrats halfway in a Grand Bargain combining tax hikes and spending cuts — became untenable. There are no moderate Republicans. To the extent that there are debates between the Tea Party and non-Tea Party wings of the G.O.P., they’re about political strategy, not policy substance.
Second, a combination of rising tax receipts and falling spending has caused federal borrowing to plunge. This is actually a bad thing, because premature deficit-cutting damages our still-weak economy — in fact, we’d probably be close to full employment now but for the unprecedented fiscal austerity of the past three years. But a falling deficit has undermined the scare tactics so central to the “centrist” cause. Even longer-term projections of federal debt no longer look at all alarming.
Speaking of scare tactics, 2013 was the year journalists and the public finally grew weary of the boys who cried wolf. There was a time when audiences listened raptly to forecasts of fiscal doom — for example, when Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairmen of Mr. Obama’s debt commission, warned that a severe fiscal crisis was likely within two years. But that was almost three years ago.
Finally, over the course of 2013 the intellectual case for debt panic collapsed. Normally, technical debates among economists have relatively little impact on the political world, because politicians can almost always find experts — or, in many cases, “experts” — to tell them what they want to hear. But what happened in the year behind us may have been an exception.
For those who missed it or have forgotten, for several years fiscal scolds in both Europe and the United States leaned heavily on a paper by two highly-respected economists, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, suggesting that government debt has severe negative effects on growth when it exceeds 90 percent of G.D.P. From the beginning, many economists expressed skepticism about this claim. In particular, it seemed immediately obvious that slow growth often causes high debt, not the other way around — as has surely been the case, for example, in both Japan and Italy. But in political circles the 90 percent claim nonetheless became gospel.
Then Thomas Herndon, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, reworked the data, and found that the apparent cliff at 90 percent disappeared once you corrected a minor error and added a few more data points.
Now, it’s not as if fiscal scolds really arrived at their position based on statistical evidence. As the old saying goes, they used Reinhart-Rogoff the way a drunk uses a lamppost — for support, not illumination. Still, they suddenly lost that support, and with it the ability to pretend that economic necessity justified their ideological agenda.
Still, does any of this matter? You could argue that it doesn’t — that fiscal scolds may have lost control of the conversation, but that we’re still doing terrible things like cutting off benefits to the long-term unemployed. But while policy remains terrible, we’re finally starting to talk about real issues like inequality, not a fake fiscal crisis. And that has to be a move in the right direction.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 29, 2013
“Like It Or Not, Obamacare Is Moving Forward”: For Certain People, This Isn’t As Good A Story As The Website’s Implosion Was
So demand still appears to be there, despite weeks of deservedly awful press about the website and the law, and weeks of Republican claims that the law is so disastrously flawed that it cannot be rescued.
Along those lines, Kevin Drum captures what matters most about the news of the moment in one half a sentence:
if you need to buy health coverage via healthcare.gov, you can do it
This really is the rub. Sure, there will be continued problems. Charles Ornstein personally had a terrible experience. Sarah Kliff found the site is still not working for everybody. And the snafus at the back end may persist, too.
But the big picture is that far more people who need health insurance — whether they were bumped from plans or whether they were previously uninsured — will now be mostly able to go online, do some shopping, and buy health insurance. Before, they couldn’t.
This isn’t as good a story as the website’s implosion was, and if the site continues to function as expected, it will mostly stop getting media coverage. The press will move on to the next Obamacare disaster story, should it materialize: The “keep your doctor” saga, coming soon via Republican press release directly to reporters’ inboxes.
But the current fix has mostly tamped down concerns among Democratic lawmakers, and barring some truly catastrophic change, they just aren’t going to abandon the law in any meaningful sense. Meanwhile, demand looks likely to continue, even as insurance companies redouble their efforts to entice people on to the exchanges, which means enrollment will continue piling up, too.
Will it be enough? It’s too soon to say. Republican lawmakers and their voters have been 100 percent certain for some time now that Obamacare has already collapsed, but for everyone else, the law’s long term prospects will turn mostly on what that enrollment looks like over time. And for that, we’ll just have to wait.
By: Greg Sargent, The Washington Post, December 2, 2013
“Turning The Health Care Corner”: The Health Care Talking Points That “Everyone Knows” To Be True Are Due For An Update
Political journalism is sometimes criticized, fairly, for its “pack” mentality. Major news organizations wait for the conventional wisdom to organically take shape, and then the players stick to their scripts, reinforcing an agreed upon consensus. In practically no time at all, there are certain political facts that “everyone knows” to be true.
But soon after, that gets dull, the conventional wisdom invites skeptics, and contrarian instincts kick in. Maybe, the political world starts to wonder, those truths that “everyone knows” aren’t so true after all.
For the last several weeks, the consensus in establishment circles was that the Affordable Care Act’s open-enrollment period was not only a disaster, but a catastrophe that would destroy Obama’s presidency, the Democratic Party, the American health care system, and the very idea of progressive governance. Pundits could hardly contain their analogies – this was Obama’s Katrina, Obama’s Iraq, Obama’s Watergate, Obama’s Iran-Contra, and even Obama’s Bay of Pigs.
But the funny thing about narratives is that they’re sometimes fleeting. Ezra Klein suggests today that “Obamacare” may finally be “turning the corner.”
There are increasing reports that HealthCare.Gov is working better – perhaps much better – for consumers than it was a few short weeks ago. “Consumer advocates say it is becoming easier for people to sign up for coverage,” report Sandhya Somashekhar and Amy Goldstein in the Washington Post. “The truth is, the system is getting stronger as it recovers from its disastrous launch,” writes Sam Baker in the National Journal. Applying “was no problem at all, with no delays,” says Paul Krugman.
Reports from inside the health care bureaucracy are also turning towards optimism. People who knew the Web site was going to be a mess on Oct. 1st are, for the first time, beginning to think HealthCare.Gov might work. Data backs them up: By mid-November, the pace of enrollment in the federal exchanges had doubled from what it was in October.
The Obama administration is certainly acting like they believe the site has turned the corner. Somashekhar and Goldstein report that they’re “moving on to the outreach phase, which had taken a back seat as they grappled with the faulty Web site. Next week, the White House will host an insurance-oriented ‘youth summit’ aimed at people ages 18 to 35, an age group whose participation in the health-care law will be critical to its success.”
Why didn’t the White House do this sooner? Because officials didn’t much see the point in directing people to a website that didn’t work. If they’re increasing the website, it’s the result of greater optimism.
Perusing the news this morning, there are more than a few compelling pieces along these lines. The L.A. Times has a terrific article, for example, on “the Obamacare success stories you haven’t been hearing about.” NPR today highlighted some Californians who received cancelation notices – and are thrilled with the results. National Journal made the case yesterday that Obama not only can recover from the troubled rollout; he already has.
Moreover, Greg Sargent has a great piece noting that for all the talk about health care crushing Democrats, there’s a credible argument that the Republican position “is actually a political liability of its own.”
Yes, some of these pieces were written by center-left observers who may be predisposed to hope “Obamacare” succeeds, but note that we weren’t seeing any of these kinds of reports a few weeks ago when the feeding frenzy got underway. On the contrary, Ezra, Greg, and others were openly critical of the administration’s obvious mistakes and missteps as they unfolded.
The conventional wisdom won’t change quickly or easily, but you can almost see the consensus shifting in real time. There are some important issues the administration still needs to address, and failure very much remains an option. For that matter, if it’s a mistake to exaggerate the importance of every piece of bad ACA news, the law’s defenders must be equally cautious about exaggerating the importance of every positive development, too.
But for those stuck in the “Obamacare is and will remain a disaster” story, it’s time for a reality check. The system is improving, enrollment is increasing, more consumers are smiling, horror stories are failing, and health costs are shrinking.
The health care talking points that “everyone knows” to be true are due for an update.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, November 26, 2013