The Republican establishment fights back

Finally, mercifully, they’re beginning to see the light. As always in politics, it’s the money men who are making things happen:

The biggest donors in the Republican Party are financing a new group to recruit seasoned candidates and protect Senate incumbents from challenges by far-right conservatives and Tea Party enthusiasts who Republican leaders worry could complicate the party’s efforts to win control of the Senate.

The group, the Conservative Victory Project, is intended to counter other organizations that have helped defeat establishment Republican candidates over the last two election cycles. It is the most robust attempt yet by Republicans to impose a new sense of discipline on the party, particularly in primary races.

“There is a broad concern about having blown a significant number of races because the wrong candidates were selected,” said Steven J. Law, the president of American Crossroads, the “super PAC” creating the new project. “We don’t view ourselves as being in the incumbent protection business, but we want to pick the most conservative candidate who can win.”

The effort would put a new twist on the Republican-vs.-Republican warfare that has consumed the party’s primary races in recent years. In effect, the establishment is taking steps to fight back against Tea Party groups and other conservative organizations that have wielded significant influence in backing candidates who ultimately lost seats to Democrats in the general election.

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David Brooks wakes up, smells the coffee

From yesterday’s column:

On the surface, Republicans are already doing a good job of beginning to change their party. Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana gave a speech to the Republican National Committee calling on Republicans to stop being the stupid party, to stop insulting the intelligence of the American people.

Representative Paul Ryan gave a fine speech to the National Review Institute calling for prudence instead of spasmodic protest. The new senator for Texas, Ted Cruz, gave a speech to the same gathering saying the Republicans should be focusing on the least fortunate 47 percent of Americans.

But, so far, there have been more calls for change than actual evidence of change. In his speech, for example, Jindal spanked his party for its stale clichés but then repeated the same Republican themes that have earned his party its 33 percent approval ratings: Government bad. Entrepreneurs good.

In this reinvention process, Republicans seem to have spent no time talking to people who didn’t already vote for them.

One wonders where this suddenly reasonable columnist has been since last November 6th.

False equivalency and the White House: Obama becomes a media critic

From the newly released New Republic interview with the president, Obama had some thoughts on the prevailing practices of today’s political media:

One of the biggest factors is going to be how the media shapes debates. If a Republican member of Congress is not punished on Fox News or by Rush Limbaugh for working with a Democrat on a bill of common interest, then you’ll see more of them doing it…

The same dynamic happens on the Democratic side. I think the difference is just that the more left-leaning media outlets recognize that compromise is not a dirty word. And I think at least leaders like myself—and I include Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi in this—are willing to buck the more absolutist-wing elements in our party to try to get stuff done…

In fact, that’s one of the biggest problems we’ve got in how folks report about Washington right now, because I think journalists rightly value the appearance of impartiality and objectivity. And so the default position for reporting is to say, “A plague on both their houses.” On almost every issue, it’s, “Well, Democrats and Republicans can’t agree”—as opposed to looking at why is it that they can’t agree. Who exactly is preventing us from agreeing?

The usefulness of the wacky fringe

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtyKofFih8Y]

As Barack Obama enters his second term, speculation is predictably high about every aspect of what’s coming up: new policy proposals, the specter of continued gridlock on Capitol Hill, a heavy docket of significant rulings pending at the Supreme Court, and so on.

Central to this debate is the question of whether Obama will be able to leverage his electoral triumph into real momentum for his policy agenda. Will the Republicans continue to draw from their playbook of the last four years, or will they be inclined to compromise more in the wake of their poor showing at the polls in November?

Despite the partial fragmentation of the national GOP between moderates — in the most relative, unanchored sense of the term — such as John Boehner and party hardliners like Michele Bachmann, early indications are that Republicans are unlikely to shift much until at least the 2014 midterms, depending on how they do.

Which brings me to the above video, of radio host Alex Jones displaying an alarming mental instability on a nationally televised show inexplicably hosted by Piers Morgan. Say what you want about Morgan, but at least he had the good sense to shut up, for the most part, during this “interview” and allow the world to see just how unhinged the gun nut really was.

But it also made me think about the nature of political conversation in the U.S. these days. For years now, the right has not only allowed, but often actively encouraged, radical and unreasonable rhetoric, for the simple reason that it helps rile up the base and inspire them to increase public pressure on Democrats, vote for Republicans, donate money, and so on. That’s an understandable short-term goal (it helps in the next election), but it’s produced impressive long-term benefits as well: each time a foaming-at-the-mouth conservative espouses an armed takeover of Washington or impeachment of the president for allegedly not being a naturally-born American or whatever else, the right-wing boundary of acceptable conversation shifts further right.

The problem is, there’s no counteroffensive from the left, which generally polices its commentary to an astounding degree (especially surprising given the increasingly partisan nature of American politics). Insane leftists don’t fare well in the United States. But crazies are the mainstream across the aisle.

There are several reasons for this. For one, there’s really no American far left to speak of these days. Even in Europe, which has moved steadily right in recent years to the jaunty tune of “austerity measures” and “shutting borders to Islamic fundamentalists,” lefties retain much of their glamour. (See Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, for example.) But in the U.S., we’re confined largely to the likes of Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, and a smattering of others, all of whom have their devoted followings but none of whom enjoy the warm embrace of large swaths of the population at large or have any real political power.

Another reason for the prominence of right-wing insanity is, ironically enough, liberal media establishments. (No, I do not mean that the media establishment at large is liberal; I’m referring specifically to the media institutions that are liberal, such as MSNBC and a host of online blogs and news sites such as the Huffington Post.) The first one to trumpet something stupid said by a lowly or irrelevant Republican is usually a member of a Democratic-leaning media organization. This makes sense when the said troublemaker is reasonably significant, but in recent years the left has played an outsized role in promoting people such as Orly Taitz, ineffective and mostly impotent members of Congress like Allen West and Michele Bachmann, and even a thoroughly discredited post-2008 Sarah Palin — the last of whose every sideways glance the press breathlessly reports as if it signaled the Second Coming, even as she and her family have drifted into tawdry, broadsheet-worthy behavior (see Palin, Bristol).

Without a huge assist from left-wing media promoters, all such tragic humans would have faded slowly from the spotlight (to varying degrees, of course: Sarah Palin will always be more interesting than Orly Taitz). Instead, they’re kept front and center in our public consciousness by “media watchdogs” like Mediaite — which, by the way, uploaded the above video. It’s time to start ignoring people whose most recent credentials include, for example, stints on reality TV (a growing subset of Americans, to be sure, but not one I’m ever interested in hearing about).

But whatever the causes, one consequence consistently remains: right-wing brashness dominates the news cycle while liberals mostly cower in fear. And this state of affairs has started to make me wonder whether the American progressive sector would do well to unleash its own attack dogs a little more often.

Take the Newtown massacre, for example, and try to imagine the GOP and Democrats on opposite sides of the gun control debate from where they are now: in other word, Democrats against gun control, and Republicans in favor of it. Would the right have waited several days, as did Obama, and then given a speech in favor of some very vague “changes,” then waited even longer before finally announcing the conclusions of a study group led by the vice president that would result in a myriad of mostly ineffective and insignificant executive orders and a thoroughly unambitious legislative agenda?

Of course not. We know this because guys like Rep. Louie Gohmert were appearing on TV shows within a day or two of the shooting and saying they only wished there’d been more guns at the school. Then the NRA held its notorious press conference and made things even worse. I’m using the words “notorious” and “worse,” however, in a very relative sense, since in reality the event was quite successful from a far right perspective: it once again slammed the door in the face of timid liberal attempts to ever so slightly nudge public policy.

So what I’m saying is, the next time something like Newtown happens — and there will be a next time, as we all know by now — I don’t want to hear Democrats and liberals clamoring all over each other to be the first to demand an assault weapons ban. That is a quintessential Democratic tactic, and one that Barack Obama has practically made his trademark: beginning the negotiation by asking for exactly what he hopes to get by the end. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that this is a horrendous strategy in any situation, but it’s even worse when the counterpart is an increasingly unpredictable and radical political party.

Instead, we should hear people calling for a repeal of the Second Amendment. I’d love to have that conversation play out on the national stage. Of course, there are several issues with this approach. For one, the media has a funny way of discounting staunch leftist rhetoric in a way it doesn’t on the right. But again, I think this has become a chicken-or-the-egg scenario: the media doesn’t necessarily have any ingrown bias against leftism, but they’ve developed artificially skewed boundaries of acceptable discourse anyway because that’s what they’ve been exposed to for so long. Destroying that stasis won’t happen overnight, but it has to start somewhere.

Perhaps the larger problem is that almost no Americans would support such a proposition (repeal). But why does that matter? A wide array of social movements — from women’s to civil to gay rights and more — took their first steps in a landscape of profound public hostility to their objectives. And anyway, my point isn’t actually to repeal the Second Amendment. The point is to make a big enough deal about it so that the proposals from the opposite side — say, arming teachers in every school — get taken right off the proverbial table.

Indeed, such was the promise of Occupy Wall Street. Unfortunately, the movement failed to crystallize into something truly permanent. But despite Occupy’s short, limited role, the entire national conversation shifted rather dramatically for a time. Today, it is commonplace to hear politicians and public figures speak of the 99%, the 1%, and so on, but these were concepts only just recently introduced into the broader lexicon. And at least as importantly, it served as a heavy counterweight to the classist “takers” rhetoric coming from the right. Would Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” comment have exploded nearly as loudly as it did if Occupy Wall Street hadn’t raised the issue of middle-class exploitation just months before?

I think not. Although the movement ultimately fizzled out, the ragtag group consisting largely of students, social misfits, hipsters, and the unemployed briefly jolted the boundaries of discourse in the opposite direction from their long-term trajectory. The question is whether that shift represented an insignificant and temporary diversion from the mean, or a useful lesson on how to conduct political warfare in the future. Yes, the Democrats have managed to win the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. But just imagine what the left could accomplish if it actually started fighting.

The permanent Republican victory

Frank Rich cautions against premature liberal gloating of coming triumphs, demographic or otherwise:

What’s more, the right thinks long-term, and if you look at the long-term, the whole ugly “fiscal cliff” standoff was a win-win for conservatives, no matter what their passing defeats in this week’s deal. The more Washington looks dysfunctional, the more it sows dissatisfaction with the very idea of a Federal government. Yes, Democrats and the White House can argue that polls show that the Republicans would be getting most of the blameif Congress couldn’t reach agreement on the “fiscal cliff.” But that’s short-term liberal wishful thinking. Long-term, this intractable dispute has undermined Americans’ faith in government, period, and the voters’ plague-on-all-your-houses view of Washington is overall a resounding ideological win for a party that wants to dismantle government, the GOP. The conservative movement is no more dead after its 2012 defeat than it was after the Goldwater debacle of 1964.

Silver lining? Social issues, at least, seem to be a winning hand for the Dems:

John Roberts is as political a Chief Justice as I’ve seen — political in the sense of wanting to be well-regarded by mainstream public opinion and posterity. He’s no Scalia-Thomas-Bork right-wing bull in the china shop. Much as I welcomed his upholding of Obamacare, his logic was so tortured that I shared the view of conservative critics that he was holding a finger to the wind and cynically trying to be on the right side of history. His remarks about  the nation’s fiscal impasse are content-free and gratuitous — and irrelevant to his constitutional role — but they do reflect his own desire to maintain a noble public image. It was, one might say, a Howard Schulz PR move. If nothing else, this Chief Justice’s continued obsession with his own profile may bode well for the future of same-sex marriage: Hard to imagine that Roberts will thwart a civil rights breakthrough now enthusiastically supported by an overwhelming majority of the young and even not-so-young Americans who will write the history of the Roberts Court.

Steering clear of the cliff

Joshua Green wonders what might have been, had President Obama been willing to maximize his leverage from the fiscal cliff:

Even before the deal was settled, many liberals were outraged at how much he was willing to concede to avoid going over the cliff — an event for which every poll showed Republicans would be blamed. Most Republicans were terrified at the prospect.

Nonetheless, Obama agreed to raise income tax rates only on households making $450,000 or more; establish a generous inheritance tax exemption; and lightly tax dividends and capital gains. The income-tax threshold alone sacrifices $200 billion compared with what he had once insisted on. But the revenue sacrificed isn’t terribly important.

What is important is that Obama yielded on resolving the budget deadlines, the most consequential being the need to raise the debt limit. Already, Republicans are threatening default without deep cuts in return. Had Obama been willing to go over the cliff, they probably wouldn’t be, since the public would be furiously blaming them. By pulling back, Obama passed up a chance to “break the fever” (as he likes to put it) that afflicts the Republican Party and led it to oppose nearly all that he has done during his presidency.

Extremism, rejected

The latest CNN/ORC poll highlights American disillusionment with the Republican Party:

Fifty-three percent of people, including 22 percent of Republicans, said the GOP’s views and policies have pushed them beyond the mainstream. The number is up dramatically from previous years. In 2010, fewer than 40 percent thought the party was too extreme.

Democrats were considered to be a “generally mainstream” party by 57 percent in the new poll.

“That’s due in part to the fact that the Republican brand is not doing all that well,” said Keating Holland, CNN’s polling director.

Bernie Sanders on Barack Obama: “He has learned something” about negotiating

The independent senator from Vermont understands something that President Obama did not when he first took office:

“I think maybe he has learned something,” Mr. Sanders, 71, said of the president, who is 20 years his junior. “After four years he has gotten the clue that you can’t negotiate with yourself, you can’t come up with a modest agreement and hope the Republicans say, ‘That’s fair, you’re O.K., we’ll accept that.’ He’s reached out his hand, and they’ve cut him off at the wrist.”

The rest of the article is worth a read.

Closing ranks in the House

Robert Costa notes Paul Ryan’s smooth transition back into “team player” mode, especially in regards to House Speaker John Boehner:

As Ryan has mulled his future, Boehner has welcomed him back into the fold. They’re not buddies, but they’re working together behind the scenes as Boehner negotiates with the White House.

The benefits for both men are clear: Ryan keeps his head down during a negotiation that may end badly, and focuses on the big policy picture as he looks, perhaps, toward the 2016 presidential campaign. Boehner gets more leeway, because if Ryan is happy, the speaker’s critics (who are close with Ryan) tend to be more reserved. Though a handful of conservative members can’t stand Boehner, they implicitly take their cues from Ryan.

The media’s free pass to the Republican Party

On Friday, the Huffington Post‘s Dan Froomkin posted an article on how the media whiffed on “the single biggest story of the 2012 campaign:”

But according to longtime political observers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, campaign coverage in 2012 was a particularly calamitous failure, almost entirely missing the single biggest story of the race: Namely, the radical right-wing, off-the-rails lurch of the Republican Party, both in terms of its agenda and its relationship to the truth.

Mann and Ornstein are two longtime centrist Washington fixtures who earlier this year dramatically rejected the strictures of false equivalency that bind so much of the capital’s media elite and publicly concluded that GOP leaders have become “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

The 2012 campaign further proved their point, they both said in recent interviews. It also exposed how fabulists and liars can exploit the elite media’s fear of being seen as taking sides.

“The mainstream press really has such a difficult time trying to cope with asymmetry between the two parties’ agendas and connections to facts and truth,” said Mann, who has spent nearly three decades as a congressional scholar at the centrist Brookings Institution.

“I saw some journalists struggling to avoid the trap of balance and I knew they were struggling with it — and with their editors,” said Mann. “But in general, I think overall it was a pretty disappointing performance.”

“I can’t recall a campaign where I’ve seen more lying going on — and it wasn’t symmetric,” said Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who’s been tracking Congress with Mann since 1978. Democrats were hardly innocent, he said, “but it seemed pretty clear to me that the Republican campaign was just far more over the top.”

Lies from Republicans generally and standardbearer Mitt Romney in particular weren’t limited to the occasional TV ads, either; the party’s most central campaign principles — that federal spending doesn’t create jobs, that reducing taxes on the rich could create jobs and lower the deficit — willfully disregarded the truth.

“It’s the great unreported big story of American politics,” Ornstein said.

After banging around on the blogosphere over the weekend, Froomkin’s piece received renewed attention today, when the New York Times‘ public editor, Margaret Sullivan (most recently seen taking her own employer to task — twice — for its lack of coverage of the Bradley Manning trial), highlighted it:

I find Mr. Ornstein and Mr. Mann’s observations smart, provocative and on target in many, though not all, places.

I disagree, for example, that the move toward fact-checking has made the press’s performance worse. On that subject, I agree with The Times’s political editor, Richard Stevenson, who told me last September in a column I wrote on this subject that he saw the move toward “truth-squading” as “one of the most positive trends in journalism that I can remember.” But to take it one step further, I believe that fact-checking should be more integrated into every story and not treated as a separate entity off to the side.

And I think the two commentators fail to see the progress that The Times and other newspapers are making – away from false equivalence and toward stating established truths and challenging falsehoods whenever possible.

That progress, granted, isn’t happening fast enough or – more important — sweepingly enough. And their point of view ought to provoke some journalistic soul-searching.