From the way the media have covered this week's stimulus package vote, you would think the goal of the legislation was to get Democrats and Republicans to sit together for lunch in the House cafeteria, rather than to turn around an economy in free fall.
After the House passed the stimulus package by a comfortable margin, much of the media reacted not by examining the bill's contents and the likelihood that it would provide a much-needed boost to the economy, but by focusing on the fact that it passed without a single Republican vote.
Why the GOP's unanimity in opposing the stimulus package should be surprising is anybody's guess; the last time we had a newly elected Democratic president, in 1993, congressional Republicans were unanimous in opposing his economic package, too. Then-Rep. John Kasich went so far as to promise that if Bill Clinton's plan worked, Kasich would switch parties. (It did; he didn't.) Point being: Congressional Republicans do not have a strong track record of working with Democratic presidents in recent memory. Perhaps because they were too busy trying to subpoena the White House cat.
Nonetheless, the Democrats' purported failure to get Republican support for the bill was, according to many reporters, the story.
Yesterday's edition of ABC's The Note, among the most reliable of indicators of conventional wisdom among Beltway journalists, began:
As President Obama said, there are a lot of numbers in the stimulus bill. But the number that may be remembered most of all from Wednesday's vote in the House is zero.
That's a goose egg in the first inning of bipartisanship -- at least as recorded on Obama's scorecard.
Got that? The most important thing is not what the bill will -- or won't -- do to fix the economy; it is that Obama failed to win the votes of Republican members of Congress.
Such thinking has driven media coverage of the stimulus debate for days. During White House press secretary Robert Gibbs' January 23 briefing, for example, not a single reporter asked Gibbs what modifications to the bill would render it unacceptable to President Obama. The content of the bill didn't seem to matter at all to the assembled reporters.
But Gibbs was asked this stunning question: "Would he veto a bill -- would he veto a bill if it didn't have Republican support?"
Reporters didn't want to know what policy provisions Obama believed the bill must contain -- but they did want to know if he would veto it if Republicans opposed it. They behaved as though bipartisanship is an end in and of itself, rather than a means to an end.
And there has been a lot of that lately -- stimulus coverage is but one example. Last week, Politico published "seven reasons to be skeptical of Obama's chances." Reason number five? "He rarely challenges the home team." Politico explained: "[T]here are few examples of him making decisions during the campaign or the transition that offended his own party's constituencies, or using rhetoric that challenged his [o]wn supporters to rethink assumptions or yield on a favored cause. ... This is not a good sign."
Now, Politico didn't bother to list a single example of a situation in which the merits suggested Obama should have "offended his own party's constituencies" or otherwise broken with the party. To the Politico, the merits are irrelevant -- Obama should buck his party for the sake of bucking his party. (And never mind that Obama has taken a variety of positions that have not sat well with portions of his progressive base.)
To many journalists, bucking your party -- like "centrism" and bipartisanship -- is a noble goal all by itself. But I suspect most people recognize that these things are means, not ends.
Sure, people want the politicians to stop bickering and get things done. But, more specifically, most people want the politicians to stop bickering and do things they want done. A single mother working two minimum-wage jobs to feed her kids might want politicians to come together in a spirit of bipartisanship -- but she doesn't want them to pass bipartisan legislation lowering the minimum wage; she wants a bipartisan bill raising the minimum wage. If she can't have that, I suspect she'd take a party-line minimum-wage increase, even if it means a decrease in the bonhomie at Washington cocktail parties she'll never attend.
For most people, bipartisan consensus is great -- but it is as a means of accomplishing tangible results, not a goal in and of itself. But many political reporters seem to have an ideological, if not religious, commitment to bipartisanship and centrism. But -- and here's where things get really problematic -- they don't really have any idea of where the "center" is.
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