Sunday, August 16, 2009

Penance - NOT!


Following up on this item from yesterday, I had an interesting conversation via email yesterday with Bruce Bartlett, a veteran of the Reagan and H.W. Bush administrations. Bruce made a point that really resonated with me, and he was gracious enough to allow me to republish it here.

I believe that political parties should do penance for their mistakes and just losing power is not enough. Part of that involves understanding why those mistakes were made and how to prevent them from happening again. Republicans, however, have done no penance. They just pretend that they did nothing wrong. But until they do penance they don't deserve any credibility and should be ignored until they do. That's what my attacks on Bush are all about. I want Republicans to admit they were wrong about him, accept blame for his mistakes, and take some meaningful action to keep them from happening again. Bush should be treated as a pariah, as Richard Nixon was for many years until he rebuilt his credibility by more or less coming clean about Watergate with David Frost and writing a number of thoughtful books.

One reason this isn't happening is because the media don't treat Republicans as if they are discredited. On the contrary, they often seem to be treated as if they have more credibility than the administration. Just look at the silly issue of death panels. The media should have laughed it out the window, ridiculed it or at least ignored it once it was determined that there was no basis to the charge. Instead, those making the most outlandish charges are treated with deference and respect, while those that actually have credibility on the subject are treated as equals at best and often with deep skepticism, as if they are the ones with an ax to grind.

I am truly baffled by this situation, as I'm sure you are.

As regular readers may imagine, I find this overwhelmingly persuasive. Bush/Cheney policies failed so spectacularly, Republican candidates and officeholders are generally reluctant to associate themselves with the tarnished name of the previous administration. But Bush/Cheney policies are still those of the contemporary Republican Party. Nothing has changed. Failure and defeat haven't chastened the GOP at all, and if given a chance to govern again, Republican leaders are quite anxious to return to the exact same agenda they embraced when they were in the majority.

And the political mainstream seems to think this is sane.

The same Republicans -- literally, the self-same individual people -- who were astonishingly wrong about pretty much every area of public policy in recent years, are the same Republicans who feel confident that they're still credible, knowledgeable, and correct. Not because they've changed their larger agenda or worldview, but because a brief period of time has elapsed.

They feel justified proposing a five-year spending freeze in response to the economic crisis. They feel comfortable pretending to care about the "death panels" policy they already endorsed, promoted, and voted for. They have no qualms making bitter complaints about deficits and debts after having spent most of the decade increasing the size of government, increasing federal spending, and creating of some of the largest deficits in American history.

We're not supposed to point and laugh at their humiliating ideas and attacks -- we're supposed to negotiate with them.

What's more, rejected in large numbers by voters nine months ago, and after spending the last seven months acting like confused children, these same Republicans now insist what they really deserve is to be back in the majority again. Seriously.

I suppose the word that keeps coming to mind is "consequences." The Republican Party of the Bush era failed in ways few have even tried, burdening the nation with challenges and crises that are difficult to address and painful to even think about. They believe, however, there should be no consequences for this. There's no need, they say, to alter their political beliefs at all. Indeed, they see their main goal as the loyal opposition to undermine efforts to clean up the mess they left. They're the arsonists hoping to convince the public not to have confidence in the fire department.

No penance, no consequences, no self-reflection -- only the expectation that they be treated as a serious group with a credible agenda.

It's probably one of the most frustrating aspects of the larger political discourse. Individual issues aside, there's a temptation to turn to Boehner, Cantor, McConnell, et al, and say, "We're still waiting for that apology."


Yesterday, I published an email from Bruce Bartlett, a veteran of the Reagan and H.W. Bush administrations, about the Republican Party, to this day, to pretend it did nothing wrong over the last eight years. The media doesn't treat the GOP as if it's been discredited, Republicans don't take steps to correct their mistakes, and "those making the most outlandish charges are treated with deference and respect, while those that actually have credibility on the subject are treated as equals at best and often with deep skepticism."

The item generated some interesting discussion, here and elsewhere. Most notably, Atrios asked, "I'd be curious to hear what someone like Bartlett thinks about why the situation is as he describes."

Bruce responded to the question, and gave me permission to republish his thoughts on this:

"Like I said, I don't know why the media is so unwilling to exercise editorial judgment any more, but here are some thoughts.

"The expansion of television news from the traditional 30 minutes per night on just three networks to 24 hours a day on several cable channels. The talking head format fit nicely into segments between advertising breaks and it just caught on. But as time went by I think that knowledgeable, responsible commentators got tired of the format, decided it was a very poor way of getting their points across, and mostly stopped doing it. Also, scholars will tend to agree with each other too often to make good television. So they were replaced by political hacks who know that their only job is to get the talking points of the day across and do everything possible to discredit their opponent. This has led to a deterioration in discourse that benefits those most willing to be outrageous. At present this benefits the right because they are out of power and need not take responsibility for actions by the administration. But I don't think it inherently benefits the right. It's a cyclical thing.

"The rise of Fox News is very important. I do believe that from the 1950s through the 1990s there was a liberal bias in the media. Rupert Murdoch, to his credit, recognized that this created an opportunity for a network catering to conservatives. He was very clever about introducing it with the whole 'fair and balanced' thing, but now there is no balance at all. The Fox News channel is a pure conservative/Republican network that does not pretend to be anything else. Personally, I have no problem with that. The problem is that the rest of the media is no longer liberal. It has moved to the center across the board. This has created an imbalance that requires a Fox-like network that is as liberal as Fox is conservative. MSNBC seems to be trying to fill this role, but very half-heartedly for reasons I am unclear about.

"The rise of talk radio was the foundation. Rush Limbaugh deserves his millions and millions of dollars for figuring out that the abolition of the fairness doctrine created an opportunity for opinionated radio. And he was fortunate that at the moment he figured this out AM radio was dying. Its sound quality was poor and it couldn't compete with FM in broadcasting music. But it was perfect for talking. It also filled an important gap in terms of catering to conservatives who had long been ignored by the mainstream media. The problem is that people like Rush live in a cocoon where the only people they hear from are those who think they are gods. As time has gone by, these guys have gone from just representing their own opinions to representing the conservative movement to representing the Republican Party to thinking they actually speak for the American people as a whole. Power and vanity have led them to lose touch with reality

"The Internet completed the circle and provided for complete detachment of conservatives from the mainstream media. They could now get 100% of their news filtered through a conservative lens. They no longer had to confront any facts they deemed inconvenient or without a ready-made response that either refuted them or interpreted them in a way conservatives could rationalize. The result is that many conservatives live in a cocoon as well, completely insulated from any facts or opinions that are counter to their worldview. The left doesn't really have this. The reason I think gets back to liberal bias. Liberals have long been content with the mainstream media because it did largely reflect their values. It doesn't any more but liberals still treat the mainstream media as if it does. Thus as the mainstream media has declined, liberals have lost their primary sources of news and commentary and have not replaced them with those that are explicitly liberal in the same way that the right has created a fully-formed alternative media.

"Finally, the decline of the mainstream media because of the Internet and other economic forces has been critical to its loss of influence and standing. It no longer has the resources to pay reporters to look into things deeply and write about issues authoritatively. Reporters even at the best newspapers often seem like glorified bloggers who get their basic facts from the Internet instead of their own research, substitute speed for thoroughness and accuracy, and have no time to become experts on the subjects they cover because they are covering the waterfront. And since television news has always depended upon newspapers as their basic sources of material, the decline of newspaper reporting led inevitably to a decline in television reporting. All this has created a death spiral for the mainstream media that, as I said, liberals still largely depend on to represent their viewpoint.

"I don't think the genie can be put back in the bottle. The mainstream media will continue to decline and insofar as liberals depend upon it they will more and more lose out in competition with conservatives. I think they need to abandon the mainstream media and create their own alternative media just as conservatives have done. That will help redress the imbalance that now exists in the media which benefits conservatives."

I found most of this persuasive, though I disagree with the notion that there was a de facto liberal bias among major mainstream news outlets from the 1950s through the 1990s. The media's often ridiculous savaging of the Clinton presidency, I believe, proves otherwise.

But much of this is very compelling, most notably the rise of Fox News with no progressive counterpart. We talked earlier today about Rick Perlstein's "tree of crazy." Far-right conservatives of recent eras have been every bit as hysterical, irresponsible, and ridiculous as the one we see today, and as Rick noted, in recent generations, they were dismissed as "extremists" outside the American mainstream, and unworthy of serious thought.

Fox News, however, changes the game. If you're crazy, Fox News will have you on as a guest to spew nonsense. If you're really crazy, Fox News will give you a show of your own to spew nonsense all the time.

Nixon, after becoming Ike's vice president, said Republicans "found in the files a blueprint for socializing America" in the White House. Civil rights leaders were accused of being a Soviet plot. The Civil Rights Act was believed to be intended to "enslave" whites. A prominent right-wing radio host insisted that JFK was building a political prison in Alaska to detain critics of the administration. When FDR proposed Social Security, the conservatives of the era not only screamed about "socialism," but told the public Roosevelt would force Americans to wear dog tags.

These were all fringe, radical arguments at the time, and were ignored as insane by responsible journalists. No one in America would turn on the evening news or pick up the morning paper and read about pathetic right-wing conspiracy theories. If Fox News existed at the time, Sean Hannity would be doing special reports on each of these unhinged ideas, and Americans would be told that they were worthy of discussion.

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