Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Down On Government

Appearing on yesterday evening's edition of "Hardball" (transcript here), Mark Halperin generously provided a superb example of what Paul Krugman has referred to as

the cult of 'balance,' the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue,never mind the facts. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read "Views Differ on Shape of Planet."

The relevant part of the exchange between Halperin and Chris Matthews focused on the President's upcoming job speech and begins

Let me go to Mark first. Mark, I guess the simple question is, should the president go down the middle and offer up something that the Republicans will at least nibble at, or should he offer something so broad and New Deal that they`ll obviously reject it, but the American people on the Democrats` side will love it? What should he do?

MARK HALPERIN, "TIME," MSNBC SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Chris, I think he should do whatever he thinks is most likely to create jobs. And my sense is, which it`s been through all year, is the thing that`s most likely to create jobs is finding common ground between John Boehner and Barack Obama.

I think the way the speech has been led up to, the things that are likely to be in the speech, the Republicans pre-reaction to what`s going to be in the speech, all suggest that this speech, even if it`s brilliantly delivered, is not going to produce the kind of bipartisanship that is required to get something approved by John Boehner, Harry Reid and Barack Obama.

MATTHEWS: But there`s a conflict. I know you know this, but there`s a conflict in what you just said. You said he should offer up a bipartisan offering, knowing it will be rejected.

HALPERIN: No, I think he should -- I think they should have been consulting with the Republicans all along. I don`t think it`s too late. But to go in and give the speech that it seems like he`s going to give, offering up new spending -- massive spending proposals with nothing on the other side that Republicans could say would be a trade-off that they -- they -- would be worth taking for them, I think is, again, going to lead again to the kind of gridlock and partisanship and bickering that isn`t going to solve the problem.

Krugman diagnosed the symptoms of the problem in which "nebulous calls for centrism" are made by people "who recognize the dysfunctional nature of modern American politics but refuse, for whatever reason, to acknowledge the one-sided role of Republican extremists in making our system dysfunctional. "

But this is a tactic in which the media merely bolsters and enhances a larger strategy of the Republican Party- one which is fundamental to the operation of American politics. Mike Lofgren in "Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult" explained

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters' confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that "they are all crooks," and that "government is no good," further leading them to think, "a plague on both your houses" and "the parties are like two kids in a school yard." This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s - a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn ("Government is the problem," declared Ronald Reagan in 1980).

Certainly, Republican presidents consistently expand the size of the federal government just as GOP governors, when their states are flush with revenues, expand the size of the governments they preside over. But for reasons both good and bad, the Democratic Party is seen by the American public and the media as the party of government and the Republican Party as the party against government. The GOP has motive to sabotage the reputation of government and works to make government fail, all the more to demonstrate to the electorate that government cannot, will not, succeed.

Into that environment steps the man heralding "we are the change we've been waiting for." In August, heslammed "partisan brinkmanship" and "dysfunctional government." Later in the month, the Presidentmaintained "what we've seen in Washington the last few months has been the worst kind of partisanship, the worst kind of gridlock. And that gridlock has undermined public confidence and impeded our efforts to take the steps we need for our economy."

On Labor Day, the President declared "the time for Washington games is over." Oh, he did add "we're going to see if congressional Republicans will put country before party," as if unaware of the answer to his own question and could shame the GOP into responsibility. In 2009, Senator Jim DeMint said that the Obama health care proposal would be Barack Obama's Waterloo. The Senate Majority Leader saidthat his primary goal- not political goal, but goal- is to defeat President Obama. But for President Obama, the target (at least rhetorically) has been government, or partisanship, or Washington, not unlike the GOP's main target of the past 31 years.

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