Why Republicans Get Away With It

Oddly, I will start this rather long and depressing critique of Sunday’s Meet the Press, hosted by Washington establishment journalist David Gregory, with something from another Sunday program, ABC’s This Week, which was hosted this morning by reporter Jonathan Karl.

At the every end of the program, Karl introduced the viewer-participation segment:

KARL: And finally, your voice this week. Today’s question comes from Christy Miller Johnson on Facebook, who says, “My 16-year-old has a Twitter account with 34,000-plus followers. Where do you see journalism heading in 15 years? What advice to the next generation of journalists would you give?”

Well, thank you for that question, Christy. I would say that regardless of what form Americans will get their news in 15 years or 20 years, my advice to the next generation of journalists is to remember the basics: Know your history, try to get your facts straight, always strive to be fair, and don’t be afraid to admit when you’ve made a mistake.

That’s pretty good advice for anyone, especially journalists. But let’s look a little closer at that “always strive to be fair” admonition, as it applies to reporters reporting the news.

Is it fair to report “both sides” of the flat-earth controversy? Of the moon-landing controversy? Of the age-of-the-earth controversy? Of the Barack Obama birth-certificate controversy?

How about of the fiscal-cliff controversy? Or the upcoming Round Two of the debt-ceiling controversy?

Keep that in mind as we plod through a few excerpts from Meet the Press. First up was an interview with President Obama, who, naturally, was asked about the fiscal cliff. Part of the President’s response included this:

OBAMA: …so far, at least, Congress has not been able to get this stuff done. Not because Democrats in Congress don’t want to go ahead and cooperate, but because I think it’s been very hard for Speaker Boehner and Republican Leader McConnell to accept the fact that taxes on the wealthiest Americans should go up a little bit, as part of an overall deficit reduction package.

Now, by all objective accounts, that is a fair assessment of the situation. The Democrats, much to the chagrin of folks like me, have been willing to give far too much at this stage just to get a “deal.” But David Gregory, because he subscribes to an embarrassingly false form of fairness, followed up with this unbelievably dumb question:

DAVID GREGORY: Well, you talk about dysfunction in Washington. You signed this legislation setting up the fiscal cliff 17 months ago. How accountable are you for the fact that Washington can’t get anything done and that we are at this deadline again?

That question is the equivalent of asking Mr. Obama how “accountable” he is for Donald Trump’s refusal to believe the President was born in Hawaii. It is an infuriating question because it ignores the reality that it was Republicans who held the country hostage in 2011, threatening to bring the whole economic house down over a phony debt ceiling “crisis,” if President Obama didn’t give them entitlement cuts.

At this point, because I’m afraid I’ll start using profane words, I’ll let the conversation continue with the President’s response:

OBAMA: Well, I have to tell you, David, if you look at my track record over the last two years, I cut spending by over a trillion dollars in 2011. I campaigned on the promise of being willing to reduce the deficit in a serious way, in a balanced approach of spending cuts and tax increases on the wealthy while keeping middle class taxes low.

I put forward a very specific proposal to do that. I negotiated with Speaker Boehner in good faith and moved more than halfway in order to achieve a grand bargain. I offered over a trillion dollars in additional spending cuts so that we would have $2 of spending cuts for every $1 of increased revenue. I think anybody objectively who’s looked at this would say that we have put forward not only a sensible deal but one that has the support of the majority of the American people, including close to half of Republicans.

GREGORY: But when they say–

OBAMA: And it’s–

GREGORY: –leadership falls on you, Mr. President, you don’t have a role here in–

OBAMA: Well–

GREGORY: –breaking this impasse? You’ve had a tough go with Congress.

OBAMA: David, at a certain point if folks can’t say yes to good offers, then I also have an obligation to the American people to make sure that the entire burden of deficit reduction doesn’t fall on seniors who are relying on Medicare. I also have an obligation to make sure that families who rely on Medicaid to take care of a disabled child aren’t carrying this burden entirely. I also have an obligation to middle class families to make sure that they’re not paying higher taxes when millionaires and billionaires are not having to pay higher taxes.

There is a basic fairness that is at stake in this whole thing that the American people understand and they listened to an entire year’s debate about it. They made a clear decision about the approach they prefer, which is a balanced, responsible package.

They rejected the notion that the economy grows best from the top down. They believe that the economy grows best from the middle class out. And at a certain point it is very important for Republicans in Congress to be willing to say, “We understand we’re not going to get 100%. We are willing to compromise in a serious way in order to solve problems,” as opposed to be worrying about the next election.

GREGORY: You said that Republicans have a hard time saying yes. Particularly to you.

OBAMA: Yeah.

GREGORY: What is it about you, Mr. President, that you think is so hard to say yes to?

I will interject here and point out how such a question muddles reality—not to mention demeans Mr. Obama—by placing the blame for reckless Republican rigidity on the President and not on recklessly rigid Republicans, which is how the recklessly rigid Republicans are able to get away with their recklessness.

It’s as if, in the birther context, Gregory had asked, “What is it about you, Mr. President, that you think makes some of your critics believe you’re not an American?”  It’s the kind of question that helps us understand what is wrong with high-profile journalists like David Gregory.

Here’s how the President responded:

OBAMA: That’s something you’re probably going to have to ask them, because David, you follow this stuff pretty carefully. The offers that I’ve made to them have been so fair that a lot of Democrats get mad at me. I mean I offered to make some significant changes to our entitlement programs in order to reduce the deficit.

I offered not only a trillion dollars in — over a trillion dollars in spending cuts over the next 10 years, but these changes would result in even more savings in the next 10 years. And would solve our deficit problem for a decade. They say that their biggest priority is making sure that we deal with the deficit in a serious way, but the way they’re behaving is that their only priority is making sure that tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are protected. That seems to be their only overriding, unifying theme.

And at some point I think what’s going to be important is that they listen to the American people.

Next, Gregory moved on to cover for Republicans in Congress on the issue of entitlements. As we all know, the GOP is hell-bent on cutting Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid benefits, but they want Democrats to do it for them, in some kind of “deal” that will shield the Republican Party from the electoral fallout.  Our Meet the Press host bravely ran offense for Republicans:

GREGORY: If this fight comes back– and I want to ask you specifically about entitlements. Medicare and Social Security. Are you prepared in the first year of your second term to significantly reform those two programs? To go beyond the cuts you’ve suggested to benefits in Medicare, which your own debt commission suggested you’d have to do if you were really going to shore up Medicare at least. Are you prepared to do that in your first year of the second term?

OBAMA: What I’ve said is I am prepared to do everything I can to make sure that Medicare and Social Security are there, not just for this generation but for future generations.

DAVID GREGORY: You’ve got to talk tough to seniors–


GREGORY: –don’t you about this? And say, something’s got to give?

OBAMA: –but I already have, David, as you know, one of the proposals we made was something called chained CPI, which sounds real technical but basically makes an adjustment in terms of how inflation is calculated on Social Security. Highly unpopular among Democrats. Not something supported by AARP. But in pursuit of strengthening Social Security for the long-term I’m willing to make those decisions.

What I’m not willing to do is to have the entire burden of deficit reduction rest on the shoulders of seniors, making students pay higher student loan rates, ruining our capacity to invest in things like basic research that help our economy grow. Those are the things that I’m not willing to do. And so–

GREGORY: Would you commit to that first year of your second term getting significant reform done? Telling Congress, “We’ve got to do it in–“

OBAMA: No, no, no–

GREGORY: –“the first year?”

OBAMA: –but, David, I want to be very clear. You are not only going to cut your way to prosperity. One of the fallacies I think that has been promoted is this notion that deficit reduction is only a matter of cutting programs that are really important to seniors, students and so forth.

That has to be part of the mix, but what I ran on and what the American people elected me to do was to put forward a balanced approach. To make sure that there’s shared sacrifice. That everybody is doing a little bit more. And it is very difficult for me to say to a senior citizen or a student or a mom with a disabled kid, “You are going to have to do with less but we’re not going to ask millionaires and billionaires to do more.” That’s not something that we’re–

GREGORY: Can I ask you about–

OBAMA: That’s not an approach that the American people think is right. And, by the way, historically that’s not how we grow an economy. We grow an economy when folks in the middle, folks who are striving to get in the middle class, when they do well.

Forget for a moment all that disappointing stuff the President said, like the reference to a chain-weighted CPI, a concession that sounds completely unwarranted to my ears, and notice Gregory’s aggressive questioning based on Republican talking points, especially this:

GREGORY: You’ve got to talk tough to seniors, don’t you, about this? And say, something’s got to give?

What? It should be the President who has to “talk tough to seniors“? The President should tell seniors that “something’s got to give“? It seems to be that since a majority of seniors voted for Republican candidates in the last election (Romney won those over 65 by a 56-44 margin), it ought to fall upon the Republicans to talk tough to them and tell them something’s got to give.

But, no. In the mind of a wealthy, corporate-sponsored journalist like David Gregory, it should be the President and the Democrats who have to tell seniors, and other folks benefiting from social insurance and government programs, that they will have to cough up more so that Republicans can keep tax rates low on the wealthy.

Before I end this depressing critique, I want to note that the panelists on Meet the Press charged with talking head duties on this Sunday included no outspoken liberals. None. No one on the show was there to speak on behalf of progressive solutions to these problems. Not a single one.

Thus, I will end with a few excerpts from the roundtable discussion among the panelists, which included conservative columnist David Brooks, NBC News’ Chuck Todd and Tom Brokaw, and presidential historians Jon Meacham and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

David Gregory, unbelievably, made yet another ridiculous suggestion to the panel, based on his Obama interview:

GREGORY: My big take away, the president is setting a tone here with Republicans, putting them on notice that yes, taxes are going to go up, and that he’s going to drive a pretty hard bargain on a lot of different issues rather than try to bring them into the fold. He doesn’t feel like compromise is going to work at this point.

The President is “going to drive a pretty hard bargain“? Huh? Did Gregory even listen to Mr. Obama’s answers? Did he hear the words, “chained CP” ? Or, “I offered to make some significant changes to our entitlement programs in order to reduce the deficit” ?

And Gregory said Obama “doesn’t feel like compromise is going to work at this point.” Can you see how the context of Gregory’s suggestion places Obama in the position of the obstinate one? Wow.

To his credit, and only to his partial credit because he went on to say something equally as ridiculous as Gregory’s suggestion, David Brooks included in his response the following:

BROOKS: Now I think most of the blame still has to go to the Republicans. They’ve had a brain freeze since the election. They have no strategy. They don’t know what they want. And they haven’t decided what they want.

We can applaud Brooks for at least speaking a partial truth here. But then he goes on to utter the following nonsense that plays off Gregory’s blame-Obama theme:

BROOKS: But if I had to fault President Obama, I would say that sometimes he’s– governs like a– a visitor from a morally superior civilization. He comes in here and he will not– he– he’ll talk with Boehner, he won’t talk with the other Republicans. He hasn’t built the trust. Boehner actually made a pretty serious concession, 800 billion dollars in tax revenues, probably willing to go up on rates. But the trust wasn’t there to get that done. And if the president wants to get stuff done over the next four years, it’s got to be a lot more than making the intellectual concessions. It’s got– got to get to the place where Republicans say, okay, we’ll take a risk. This guy won’t screw us.


Mm-Hm. Mm-bleeping-Hm. You get it? It’s not enough for this president to make “intellectual concessions.” Oh, no. That’s not enough. He’s got to somehow get this extremist group of Republicans to trust him! He’s got to have them over for lunch or, well, I’ll just let the wealthy journalist Tom Brokaw tell you:

BROKAW: To David’s point, I do really believe that the president doesn’t work hard enough at bringing everybody into the White House and rolling up his sleeves, having them in the living quarters, getting them around the table and saying how do we get this deal done. He didn’t talk downstream about tax reform, for example.

And I think it would have been helpful to him this morning to have said, look, we get this tax deal done, I’m here to help on Medicare and Social Security reforms. We’ve got to address those, instead of just saying I’m going to protect the seniors who are there and the Medicare and Medicaid recipients. Give a little something. Show good faith about what needs to be done on deficit reduction and the entitlement programs.

Can you believe this stuff? Tom Brokaw actually said that President Obama should tell Republicans he is “here to help” them cut Social Security and Medicare. “Give a little something,” the renowned establishment journalist insisted. “Show good faith about what needs to be done on deficit reduction and entitlement programs.” Are you kidding me? This is so outrageous it’s hard to write about it.

Again, the theme is that Obama is at fault. If he would only coddle this group of Republicans, give them the warm-and-fuzzy treatment, somehow a little Socratic deficit-reduction baby would be born, with most of the labor pains assigned to those who have born so much Bush-recession pain already.

This is what passes for “fairness” in much of the mainstream press. As I said, not an outspoken liberal in the bunch on Meet the Press this day. No one took the other side. The entire program, except for President Obama’s answers to Gregory’s questions, was designed around Republican themes and presented in Republican language.

It was an infuriating, and depressing, hour. Because on the horizon, as Senator Lindsey Graham said this morning on Fox, looms another fight over the debt ceiling, a fight Graham said will be where Republicans will have real leverage—meaning they will threaten the country again with default and economic ruin—and I fear that unless President Obama and the Democrats get extremely aggressive very soon, we will see the David Gregorys frame the issue as a failure of the President to stop them from wrecking the country.

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  1. Good analysis, as always. The fact that Obama managed to keep his cool and stay on message during that whole depressing exercise in false equivalency and phony fairness says a lot about his leadership ability. But I still think we are all waiting for him to really get mad.


    • Brad,

      Obama did keep his cool and stay on message for sure. I think we have all learned by now that Obama doesn’t get “mad” in the way most of us do. At least he doesn’t in public. What we have every right to expect him to do, though, is get more emphatic about what damage extremists in the Republican Party are doing to the country.

      Obama is a big fan of Lincoln. Well, Lincoln tried everything he could to keep the extremists in his day from trying to destroy the Union. He talked nice to them, tried to appease them in many ways. In the end, he couldn’t stop them from their recklessness. And when they did their dirty deed, he got tough. And while what we are going through today is not on the scale of a civil war, it is important for the future of our country. And Mr. Obama needs to recognize that what Republicans in Congress intend to do in a fight over the debt ceiling (now or sometime in the future)–that is, they are planning on threatening our well-being as a nation to get what they want–is divisive and outrageous. And he needs to clearly and continually communicate how divisive and outrageous it all is.



  2. Right on, Duane! Like the money changers and priests in the ancient Jerusalem temple, the House of Representatives is controlled by the Republican Chamber of Commerce Religion Right Party. And, no doubt, I too would like to see President Obama become more aggressive in countering the dishonest stuff Republicans are belching.


    • Gene,

      At this point, Mr. Obama simply has to become more aggressive in terms of calling out the reckless and irresponsibility of the other party. He doesn’t have to scream or shout, but he does have to articulate the outrage that many of us feel about what is going on, and about what will go on in February over the debt ceiling. So far, he has made an intellectual case, but not an emotional one. If he wants people to do something about what is happening, he has to get them emotionally engaged, and get their emotions aimed at the bad guys in this scenario.



  3. Duane, you are right about the general bias in the media, and particularly in this instance. It is an enduring meme. I thought you made the point very well when you said,

    “Is it fair to report “both sides” of the flat-earth controversy? Of the moon-landing controversy? Of the age-of-the-earth controversy? Of the Barack Obama birth-certificate controversy?”

    Really, when you think about it, it is both less risky and less work to always take the position that “both sides are at fault”. Maybe these journalists have trouble distinguishing between their reporting rules and their editorial rules. And it was a serious omission on Gregory’s part not to have an aggressive liberal among the discussion group – unforgivable.

    All that said, however, I was immensely impressed with and proud of the President’s performance in the interview. He laid out his position perfectly, matter-of-factly, in simple language that any voter could understand. Thinking back over the presidents I have observed over the years I can only recall one who, arguably, could have pulled off such an interview so well and articulately, and that would be Clinton.

    As for Gregory’s presumptuous question about why the president thinks he seems to be so hard to “say yes to”, I’m rather glad he asked it, simply because the president answered it so well. It is the case after all, and I think we all know why it is the case. It is the measure of the man that he had a calm and thoughtful answer to it at the ready.


    • Jim,

      I too was impressed by the President’s responses, even though I didn’t like a couple of things he said. I am always impressed with his demeanor during these kinds of interviews, and this one was no different. He essentially blamed the Republicans for what is going on. Here’s the problem, though. While you and I got the message, while you and I appreciate the way he goes about his business, I’m afraid, given the circumstances surrounding this crop of extremist Republicans, that he isn’t making a strong enough impression on the larger public, nor is he challenging the premise of the absolutely lazy journalists that “both sides are guilty” of recklessness.

      For instance, what would have been wrong with him saying,

      Look, David, your question is part of the problem. What some extremists in the Republican Party have done and are continuing to do to the country is outrageous, absolutely outrageous. And you act as if there is some kind of moral equivalence between what they are doing and what we Democrats are doing. There is no equivalence. We are trying to keep the economic recovery going; we are trying to keep the safety net safe; we are trying to responsibly cut spending over time without doing harm to the economy; we are not holding the country hostage in order to keep taxes low for people who have done very well even through the bad times. And for you to somehow suggest that Democrats and Republicans are equally responsible for the mess we see is, as I said, part of the problem.

      Now, that kind of response would start a conversation about the relative responsibility of each party for the dysfunction, as well as how the mainstream press frames the issue. And I can’t think of anything we need more right now.



  4. LisaF

     /  January 1, 2013

    I listened to the the David Gregory interview on Cspan radio and had the exact reaction, another false equivalency. I think one of the biggest lies is the fact that there is a left wing media bias instead of corporate media bias. And corporate America wants to privatize social security and medicare.

    I find it nauseating to hear Gregory talk about getting tough on entitlements when the average SS benefit is $1,230 a month and his twin children go to Sidwell Friends which costs almost $70,000 a year. Who are the people that feel entitled in this country?


    • Lisa,

      I didn’t know that about Gregory’s kids, but that helps to explain why he is so tone-deaf to the concerns of ordinary folks. I guess we have to face something terrible: many of the folks who bring us the news on television, far from being the left-leaning socialists that conservatives portray them to be, are often defenders of the ruling class of moneyed people who in so many ways dictate what goes on in Washington.

      The Social Security issue you mention is a perfect example. Social Security has exactly nothing to do with our deficit. Hasn’t contributed a penny to it and the long-term viability of SS can be fixed in five minutes (as, I think, John McCain once said). But so often you hear the word “entitlements” tossed around by TV journalists, as if SS is just as much a problem as any of the other programs. But it isn’t. The long-term problem has to do with health care costs. And you never, I mean, never, hear a journalist (other than the few liberal commentators on MSNBC once in a while) talk about the only real way we can solve the long-term problem with health care: going to a single-payer system in which the government has the power to control costs and streamline the otherwise inefficient, disparate system. Other advanced economies do it and there is absolutely no reason we couldn’t do it, but that’s not part of the Beltway bitch-speech, and thus it never gets talked about on TV by Beltway journalists.



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