Only a few weeks into Barack Obama’s presidency, a threatening political and media dynamic has rushed to the fore cutting short a very brief honeymoon.
The Republicans and their right-wing media allies are doing whatever they can to strangle the Obama phenomenon in its cradle; the mainstream media pundits are stressing the negative so they don’t get called “in the tank for Obama”; and the Democrats are shying away from holding the Bush-Cheney administration accountable for its crimes.
None of these developments is particularly surprising. Indeed, they track closely to the political-media pattern that took shape the last time a young Democrat won the White House, when Bill Clinton became President in 1993.
Then, the dispirited Republicans got a lift from the loud voice of a younger Rush Limbaugh who used his popular three-hour radio show to pillory Bill and Hillary Clinton. That, in turn, encouraged the congressional Republicans to vote as a bloc against President Clinton’s budget and economic plan.
Mainstream journalists also used the early Clinton years to disprove the Right’s old canard about the “liberal press.” As one senior news executive told me, “we’re going to show that we can be tougher on a Democrat than any Republican.”
And the Democrats of 1993 also didn’t want to investigate abuses by the Republicans who had just lost power. Despite evidence that the Reagan-Bush-41 administrations had obstructed investigations into Iran-Contra, Iraqgate and other national security scandals, Clinton and Democratic congressional leaders feared partisan warfare if those cases were pursued.
Everyone in that 1993 mix seemed to be operating out of a logical self-interest – the Republicans viewed Clinton as an interloper at their White House; the right-wing media desired larger market share and greater political influence; the mainstream media wanted to shake off the “liberal” tag; and the Democrats hoped to focus on the nation’s deepening economic and social needs rather than on complex historical disputes.
However, the result for the country from that intersection of self-interests proved disastrous.
The Republican determination to destroy Clinton infected the political system with an ugly virus of hyper-partisanship; the right-wing media ramped up its hate talk; mainstream journalism lost its way, wandering into a strange landscape of garish sensationalism and shallow news reporting; and the Democrats failed to counteract the threat posed by the neoconservatives who surfaced during the national security scandals of the Reagan-Bush-41 years.
In short, the dynamic that took shape in 1993-94 carried the United States into the catastrophic presidency of George W. Bush just eight years later. [For details on how this happened, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Now, at the other end of the Bush-43 experience, what may be most unsettling is that so little has changed, so few lessons have been learned.
Even some of the key players are the same, with Rush Limbaugh hoping to reprise his role as the bombastic voice that lifts the Republicans out of their post-election funk. And the new GOP players in Congress seem to be following the hand-me-down playbook from that earlier era.
So, House Republicans hailed their unanimous bloc vote against President Obama’s $819 billion stimulus package as their first substantive step back. That was followed by key Republicans – Mitch McConnell, John McCain and Lindsey Graham – refusing to join in any serious negotiations with Democrats in the Senate.
With the Republican Senate leaders vowing to filibuster the stimulus bill – thus forcing the Democrats to round up 60 votes – the Republicans were almost gleeful in their insurrection. The Washington Post quoted key Republicans expressing this exhilaration in a front-page story entitled “GOP Sees Positives in Negative Stand.”