The consequences of misguided assumptions
by Steve Benen
I'm beginning to think an infectious disease is spreading in the nation's capital. Symptoms include memory loss (forgetting everything Republicans have done in recent years), blurred vision (an inability to see obvious GOP ploys), and an uncontrollable urge to blame "both sides" for everything, even when it doesn't make any sense.
The disease has already affected pundits like Bob Woodward, Ron Fournier, David Brooks, nearly everyone on the network Sunday shows, and today reaches the editorial board of the Washington Post. Indeed, the Post's editors seem to have come down with an especially acute case today, as evidenced this bang-your-head-against-your-desk editorial on the sequester, which cavalierly ignores the paper's own reporting, and demands that President Obama "lead" by somehow getting congressional Republicans to be more responsible.
You can almost feel James Fallows' frustration.
In short the facts before us are: an Administration that has gone some distance toward "the center"; a Republican opposition many of whose members still hold the absolutist position that taxes cannot go up at all; a hidden-from-no-one opposition strategy that embraces crises, shutdowns, and sequesters rather than wanting to avert them. [...]
That's the landscape. And what is the Post's editorial conclusion? You guessed it! The President is to blame, for not "leading" the way to a compromise.
The infectious disease -- I'll assume Fallows was inoculated and therefore immune to its effects -- is leading to some kind of bizarre madness in Washington, which is getting worse. It doesn't matter that President Obama is ready to compromise; it doesn't matter that Republicans refuse to compromise; and it doesn't matter that the deficit is already shrinking and that both sides have already approved $2.5 trillion in debt reduction.
What matters, victims of this disease keep telling the rest of us, is that President Obama is obligated to "lead." Lead where? They don't know. Lead to what? They don't know that, either. What would leadership look like, exactly? Apparently, Obama is supposed to use Jedi mind tricks that will make people in the other party -- the party that has nothing but contempt and disgust for his presidency -- do what he wants them to do.
And if the president doesn't do this, Obama is, by definition, responsible for Republicans' opposition to a bipartisan agreement.
This is more than crazy. The media establishment's incompetence is having a direct role in contributing to a broken and unconstructive process.
Greg Sargent gets this exactly right:
The argument now is basically that the president is the father who must make his problem children behave. Only this is worse than just a dodge. Lots and lots of people are going to get hurt by the sequester. Anyone who helps deflect blame from Republicans -- in the full knowledge that they are the primary obstacle to the compromise we need to prevent serious damage from being done to the country -- is unwittingly helping to enable their intransigence.
This will no doubt give headaches to those who've already contracted the infectious disease, but Greg is right -- by blaming Obama for Republicans' intransigence, the D.C. establishment is encouraging the gridlock they claim to find offensive.
As Jamison Foser recently asked, "When Party A is intransigent but Party B gets blamed for it, what is the likely effect on Party A's intransigence?" Or as Michael Grunwald added today, "If you were a GOP leader, and every time you were intransigent the Beltway blamed Obama's failure to lead, would you be less intransigent?"
Pundits obsessed with pushing false equivalencies and needlessly blaming "both sides" are convinced they're part of the solution. They're actually part of the problem.
Let's not forget this thesis from Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein -- who've helped offer a cure to this infectious disease -- published nearly a year ago, long before the current mess.
We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.
Our advice to the press: Don't seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?
The first step towards recovery from the disease has nothing to do with party or ideology; it has to do with reality and Civics 101. The media establishment is, as a consequence of this disease, forced to shout "Lead!" uncontrollably, they can at least direct it to those in a position of authority in the party that refuses to compromise, refuses to consider concessions, and refuses to consider governing outside a series of extortion strategies.