Political Animal


July 17, 2011 11:35 AM When only one house deserves the pox

By Steve Benen

Jeff Greenfield has taken a keen interest in speculative history recently, imagining what American trajectories would have been like had key events gone the other way. What if Gerald Ford hadn’t screwed up that ‘76 debate and won a full term? What if the assassination attempt on JFK in December 1960 had been successful?

Today, however, Greenfield considers a speculative future, imagining a third-party emerging — and thriving — in the event of American default in two weeks. It’s written in past tense, describing events Greenfield thinks could happen in the near future.

He envisions, for example, failure in the House to raise the debt ceiling, assuming both sides will be to blame.

Maybe the last-minute agreement would have worked if there had been more time, a week or two, to persuade, cajole, threaten and beg recalcitrant legislators into backing the jury-rigged deficit-debt-ceiling deal. Maybe if there hadn’t been so many lines drawn in the sand, such a long history of treating every political dispute as Armageddon.

But on Sunday night, July 31, 2011, decades of toxic politics exploded. In the House Republican Caucus, freshman members of the Tea Party Caucus, threatened with primary challenges over insufficient budget-cutting zeal, joined with Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota in opposition to the deal. Among Democrats, virtually all 80 members of the Progressive Caucus lined up solidly against it. Even as they gathered for the critical vote, with its outcome in doubt, Fox News and MSNBC were both airing one-hour specials titled “Sellout!”

And with the measure five votes short as the count neared the end, several lawmakers signaled their intentions to switch their votes to no (“I’ll be damned,” said one, “if I’ll commit political suicide for a vote that’s going to lose anyway”).

This leads, under Greenfield’s scenario, to the expected economic crash, and a political backlash in which the public blame, naturally, both sides. Americans, he imagines, then rise up to form a third party, which then sweeps the 2012 elections and wins the White House.

And we all lived happily ever after.

Greenfield no doubt means well, but his fantasy is the result of lazy analysis. The more media insiders accept this sort of thinking, the more it does a disservice to the public that relies on news organizations to help stay informed.

Let me put this as plainly as I know how: if you’re watching this debt-ceiling fiasco, and you think both parties are equally responsible for the mess, then you’re simply not paying close enough attention.

Forget subjective questions and consider the basics. GOP leaders are saying they want a deal that’s 100% in their favor. If they don’t get what they want, many Republicans are at least open to crashing the economy on purpose. As the process unfolds and the deadline draws closer, the GOP line is hardening and becoming more extreme.

In contrast, we have the Obama White House and congressional Democratic leaders, who are prepared to accept all kinds of concessions to make Republicans happy. This includes a series of compromise offers that lean heavily in the GOP’s favor.

There’s no question here which side of the political divide is open to compromise. There’s also no question which side has rejected any and all attempts at finding common ground.

And there’s also no question that tired media assumptions lead to coverage and analysis like this — blaming both sides equally because it’s easier than thinking about the facts.

Eugene Robinson had a column the other day that Jeff Greenfield should take the time to read. It laments “reflexive tendency to see equivalence where none exists,” and explains, “The truth is that Democrats have made clear they are open to a compromise deal on budget cuts and revenue increases. Republicans have made clear they are not.”

Partisanship and ideology are utterly irrelevant here. I’m not saying Republicans are in the wrong because they have an agenda I disapprove of; I’m saying Republicans are in the wrong because that’s reality.

In Greenfield’s imaginary 2013 inauguration, featuring our new independent president, he’d won “because voters had finally rendered a harsh but long-overdue verdict: A plague on both your houses.”

If only Greenfield would consider the fact that only one house deserves it.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • bleh on July 17, 2011 11:50 AM:

    If only Greenfield would consider the fact that only one house deserves it.

    Well, since we're engaging in speculative futures, let's follow that line out.

    Let's say Greenfield does that. He would immediately be attacked viciously by the Right and their multiple coordinated mouthpieces as a liberal activist extremist propagandist contravening the objective standards of journalism and compromising the respect of whatever media carry his column. Publishers of those media would come under pressure from advertisers, worried that, by appearing to take a side -- or by being made to appear by others as though he were taking a side -- he might alienate some reader-buyers. Editors would respond, as one expects, first by suggesting, and then by warning, and finally by spiking. And unlike, say, Krugman, who has some expertise to back up his opinions, Greenfield has nothing but his opinions. Greenfield would lose official respect, and the access that comes with it, and more importantly, income.

    And of course, all this would --as intended, and indeed as has occurred already -- be seen as an object lesson by his colleagues. The rabid attack-dog policies of the right would have worked again, and the rabbits would stay in their little gilded cages, safely churning out "even-handed, nonpartisan" copy. So even if he did it, it would result in nothing more than his own ruin, for the sake of a column.

    Think he's gonna risk that? Think any of them are?

  • emmie on July 17, 2011 11:54 AM:

    Yes, a pox on both their houses for not addressing the elephant in the room: our ridiculous foreign adventures and the defense budget.

  • cwolf on July 17, 2011 12:07 PM:

    Pox on the Rs because they are a bunch of scumbags
    Pox on the Ds & Obama, because they're a bunch of pussies.

  • dalloway on July 17, 2011 12:12 PM:

    You think Rupert Murdoch is the only media baron telling his minions what to write or broadcast? Grow up. With the monetization of journalism, the free press in this country, as in the UK, has disappeared. It's now controlled by the wealthy, only a tiny fraction of whom might be described as "moderate," let alone "liberal."

  • zandru on July 17, 2011 12:13 PM:

    I'm So Old

    ...that I actually remember when Jeff Greenfield was good, and had something worthwhile to say. I think he was the movie critic at CBS back then...

  • Bat of Moon on July 17, 2011 12:22 PM:

    Third party nonsense again? There must be something in the water -- a couple days ago on MSNBC, I heard Chuck Todd bring up that possibility during an interview with, I think, Charlie Cook and some other political types.

  • larry birnbaum on July 17, 2011 12:31 PM:

    I'd add to that the question of why he can't even remember the previous two administrations and get a grip on how we got here. End of Clinton administration: years of the strongest economic growth in decades; low unemployment; low inflation; surpluses leading to a pay-down of the total debt. End of the GW Bush administration: years of the worst economic growth in decades; worse than mediocre job growth; surpluses turned into staggering deficits that are once again raising the debt; all culminating in the worst financial melt-down since the Great Depression, a deep and long recession, horrific unemployment, and -- and this is the least of our problems -- high short-term deficits that add to the debt.

  • FRP on July 17, 2011 12:36 PM:

    There are two ways to bail a foundering ship and as any helpful person generally will pleasantly admit , only one of the two ways prevent most drownings .
    The now accepted manner in the proud undefeated American fashion of establishing a more American fact , than the former non American facts (which were , sigh , unmistakably Francophile) , is finally taking hold in the oft dreary world reality . The style appears to involve drowning the sailors before they get set to bail away . This even handed display of stoic , disciplined , and heroic albeit emotionless applications of logic and pragmaticism could not be more welcome in a world still recovering from FDR's Social Security , and of course JFK's Medicare which is when we last distantly remember being free . A heartwarming and uniquely American gift of American social conservatism to population control , and of course a more pleasant reality .

    Have a nice day !

  • CaseyL on July 17, 2011 12:36 PM:

    I used to admire Greenfield. Loved his novel "The People's Choice," and wrote him a fanmail to tell him so.

    Then during the 2000 election, he was one of the newscasters calling on Gore to give it up in the name of "stability." He was one of the newscasters who said that the fact we didn't have tanks in the streets was a testament to how great we were.

    Maybe he'd always been a hack and I didn't realize it. But he was certainly unmasked as one in 2000, and I have not respected him since.

  • Anonymous on July 17, 2011 12:38 PM:

    then you’re simply not paying close enough attention.

    or you're delusionally republican with bias so thick you have no chance of ever knowing what truth or facts are.

  • c u n d gulag on July 17, 2011 12:45 PM:

    But the meme is "both parties, both parties, both parties..."

    This morning, on Meet the Republicans, that's all you heard. An e-mail or text message was read blaming - wait for it - BOTH sides!

    On This Morning with the Republicans, Cokie Roberts was the lone representative of the left.
    Why, because she's on NPR?
    She's one of the f*cking reasons I hardly listen to NPR anymore. Add Bobo Brooks, and you know the rest of the story.

    Granted, I didn't have the stomach to watch either in their entirety - I'd rather stick my private parts in a blender and put it on 'frappe,' but all I heard was 'both, both, both...'

    If that's all people hear, we should count ourselves lucky. The Rightie Wurlitzer has been trying to pin this on Obama and the Democrats forever.

    Still, that's all you hear is that it's 'both parties, both parties, both parties..."

    Jesus, just fire all the f*cking pundits and hire different color parrots!
    Oh, wait, they'll all have to be various shades between pink to red, if we stick to today's standards.


  • Patrick Star on July 17, 2011 12:47 PM:

    We wouldn't be in this mess if the media just did its job and objectively reported the truth, at the expense of pissing off the Radicalized Right. It would also help if we had an informed citizenry who actually cared about this stuff, but in their defense, they're getting most of their information from the greedy, lazy-ass Mainstream Media. I honestly don't know how the David Gregorys and Gloria Borgers of the world can look themselves in the mirror and not see what they really are - sellouts.

  • jdog on July 17, 2011 12:48 PM:

    I have typically liked Greenfield's work. He wrote a book, "The People's Choice" concerning a Constitutional crisis that occurred when a President-elect was killed (falling off a horse during a photo-opp), prior to the counting of the electoral college votes. The Vice President-elect was, in this fictional story, a fool by all accounts (but not Dan Quayle). Greenfield highlighted the very real problem that the electoral college voters were not bound to choose the Vice President elect, which is a real structural feature (problem) with out electoral system. He then plots a scenario where shallow reporters, self appointed "experts", constitutional law scholars, and electoral college voters seek to impact the presidential choice. It is a fun narrative.

    But I agree with Benen here: Greenfield provides a lazy attempt that does not reflect current politics accurately. Further there are other problems with his "lived happily ever after scenario": the Constitution structures politics into a two-party system (otherwise known as Duverger's Law: single member districts leads to two parties). Thus the next problem he does not address: which party goes away, or, alternatively, how to govern when you do not have partisan allies in Congress (even in the minority).

  • pj in jesusland on July 17, 2011 1:03 PM:

    Republicans led by George Bush thought we would grow our way out of the Great Recession with less regulation and more tax cuts. They were wrong, there is no other way to call it. They were utterly and completely wrong. Their economic, anti-tax and anti-regulatory program had the opposite effect of what they said it would have.

    Now they want to do it again. What evidence have they presented that their program will work this time? How will shrinking the economy grow the economy? How can down be up? All they have is anger and fear over growing deficits. THAT'S IT! That's what they are trying to leverage -- tea partiers' anger over increasing deficits, the impact of which they misunderstand and misrepresent.

    The economic models Wall Street relies on predict the opposite of what Republicans say if we go into default. If we go into default one thing we can count on -- Republicans called it wrong, as they have for the last 12 years. They are failures at predicting economic trends and behavior. They lost all credibility in 2007-2008, all they have now is voters' residual fear.

  • lou on July 17, 2011 1:08 PM:

    Gerrymandering of congressional districts plus an extremely weak democratic party in Republican strongholds slimed the path for the current crop of congressmen. In my district the only democrat who has announced a run against our now two term republican is a felon. Dems here can't raise money, can't raise good candidates who can raise money ... We used to have decent republican representatives who were not 100% on the right, but no more.

    Sins of omission count or discount too.

  • jjm on July 17, 2011 1:10 PM:

    Greenfield's ideas smell bad.

    This dream of a 'third way' -- isn't that what brought us neoliberal triangulating politicians like Blair and Clinton; and isn't it what also brought us, in a much earlier era, the politics of fascism, which claimed to be a joyous third way between communism and democracy (or as they framed it, mob rule)?

    Where are journalistic ethics???? If journalist claim 1st Amendment rights but they permit lies by politicians to go uncontested they really should not be allowed to be credentialed as "the Press" for whom freedom is constitutionally guaranteed. Down with this nonsense, and soon!

  • DAY on July 17, 2011 1:32 PM:

    I missed "The Shows" this morning; went to the "Reading Pride Celebration" instead. I guess in this conservative (PA) area 'gay' STILL cannot say its name!

    Anyway, for 3 bucks I got a flag, a bottle of water, and some beads. And a chance to sign a petition to Senator Toomey, telling him to support gay marriage. Sweeeet!

  • ohhenergy on July 17, 2011 1:47 PM:

    What if Jeff Greenfield traded in his I'm a little teapot schtick for an old jeep? Whoa nellie! Swirly fog. More swirly fog.

  • bjobotts on July 17, 2011 1:59 PM:

    Agreed. I find it hard to believe that anyone could justify blaming "both" sides when it is so very obvious that republicans are totally to blame. None of these so called issues should even be tied to raising the debt ceiling as they are all separate issues and should be treated separately.

    But to be willing to throw the nation into economic turmoil unless their demands are meant is exactly how terrorists act.

    We stand in shock & awe as we watch republicans prepare to shoot the hostage...which is our nation's economy. What shame they bring to our nation.

  • -syzygy- on July 17, 2011 6:44 PM:

    We already have a "third" party, the Blue Dog Democrats. if the Repugs are ever relegated to a true minority party, the discord within the Democratic Party will ensure that our poor suffering elites are well represented.

  • Sparko on July 17, 2011 6:56 PM:

    I am uncomfortable with the name "Republican" for these folks. Since they are shameless, vapid, greedy, evil and mendacious. They are the treason party rekindled from the the racist South of 150-years ago.

  • Doug on July 17, 2011 7:53 PM:

    Apparently Mr. Greenfield's fears for the future of a Teabagger-controlled Republican Party. Good, that's a FIRST step. I worry he may not have the time, or courage, to make the second step and actually do something about it. At best his blaming both sides may be merely an attempt to vaccinate himself from the outrage, threats and harassment that come his way for even suggesting that Teabaggers aren't rational. Doesn't excuse it, though.
    His fear for the fate of GOP has made him delusional, however, in thinking a third-party candidate could win in 2012. It takes at least one election cycle to build up the political infrastructure and voter support necessary for a winning national campaign.
    Sorry, Jeff, the GOP is toast. The only question is how badly burned it's going to get.

  • HappyEverAfter on July 17, 2011 9:04 PM:

    What Greenfield misses is that the Republicans and Democrats left in the House and Senate would unite to make this new Independent wonder a one term president by thwarting every initiative he or she might propose.

    Twas ever thus.

  • RepubAnon on July 17, 2011 11:32 PM:

    If the phone hacking scandal hadn't hit just now, it wouldn't at all have surprised me to see Rupert Murdock start a "Centrist Party" based on an unholy alliance between the Blue Dog Democrats, the Tea Party, and Ron Paul's Libertarians

    The Fox News organization would recast the election as between the "old politics" and the "new, cooperative path forward."

    If either side won the presidency, some anti-terror laws and a few well-planned scares could result in the end of the Democratic Party at the national level. Earth First would be named as a terrorist organization, and the Sierra Club would be investigated for providing them with "material support" and have all its assets seized.

  • Anonymous on July 18, 2011 2:57 AM:

    I have said it before, and I will say it again, this manufactured crisis, about the normally routine raising of the debt ceiling, has absolutely nothing to do with Republican ideology v. Democratic ideology. This is a crisis precipitated by those who object to the presidency of Barak Obama. These people are prepared to do whatever it takes to bring him down; even if that means bringing down the country.

    People like Jeff Greenfield know what is going on, but they would rather distract people with these false memes about both sides are at fault. Congress has routinely raised the debt ceiling to pay for the bills they made. Why all of a sudden are Republicans refusing to pay their debt obligations knowing that that would plunge the country in utter economic chaos? At this point, It really doesn't matter what concessions the President and the Democrats make. So far as right wingers are concerned, any thing that has the possibility of ensuring the re-election of the President is an absolute NO, NO! The country be damned!

    Amazingly, the self anointed "holier than though progressives" appear to have joined the right wing teabaggers in saying No, No, to everything President Obama proposes to try to save the country from an economic catastrophe!