False Equivalence And The Immigration Issue

I have heard a lot of talk about President Obama’s interview with The New Republic, but little of it has focused on his answer to a question about the “nastiness” that has  characterized politics in Washington:

I think the issue is that we have these institutional barriers that prevent what the American people want from happening. Some of them are internal to Congress, like the filibuster in the Senate. Some of them have to do with our media and what gets attention. Nobody gets on TV saying, “I agree with my colleague from the other party.” People get on TV for calling each other names and saying the most outlandish things.

Even on issues like the response to Hurricane Sandy, Chris Christie was getting hammered by certain members of his own party and media outlets for cooperating with me to respond to his constituents. That gives you an indication of how difficult I think the political environment has become for a lot of these folks. And I think what will change that is politicians seeing more upside to cooperation than downside, and right now that isn’t the case. Public opinion is going to be what changes that.

In the follow up, TNR’s Franklin Foer rightly stated:

FF: When you talk about Washington, oftentimes you use it as a way to describe this type of dysfunction. But it’s a very broad brush. It can seem as if you’re apportioning blame not just to one party, but to both parties—

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, no, let me be clear. There’s not a—there’s no equivalence there. In fact, that’s one of the biggest problems we’ve got in how folks report about Washington right now, because I think journalists rightly value the appearance of impartiality and objectivity. And so the default position for reporting is to say, “A plague on both their houses.” On almost every issue, it’s, “Well, Democrats and Republicans can’t agree”—as opposed to looking at why is it that they can’t agree. Who exactly is preventing us from agreeing?

How gratifying that was to read. Imagine: The President isn’t as ignorant as some folks thought he was on the issue of both-sides-do-it journalism. He’s a pretty smart guy after all!

Yes, public opinion is the only way to change “the political environment.” And, yes, journalists play the lazy game of telling the public that both sides are equally guilty of the dysfunction we see.

But sometimes journalists don’t take the lazy way out and blame both parties. There is no better example of that than the immigration issue.  USA Today reports:

As President Obama prepares to lay out his immigration plan during a speech in Las Vegas on Tuesday, a group of bipartisan senators has reached agreement on a framework to overhaul the nation’s immigration system.

One doesn’t read very often that “a group of bipartisan senators” have reached agreement on anything because, well, Republicans have taken the bi out of bipartisan. So, why the change of mind on the immigration issue? I’ll let John McCain, making his trillionth appearance on a Sunday TV talk show, tell you:

Well, look, I’ll give you a little straight talk. Look at the last election. Look at the last election. We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours, for a variety of reasons, and we’ve got to understand that.

McCain, of course, was for comprehensive immigration reform before he was against it before he was for it, so he should know why it is that Republicans have come to the table ready to deal. It isn’t because they have suddenly swelled up with compassion.

No, as President Obama said, public opinion changes things and there is no better snapshot of public opinion than an election. And the one issue where one could find good reporting—that is, explaining to people what was really happening in Congress—during the last election was on the issue of immigration. Democrats hammered Republicans on this issue and, for once, journalists didn’t engage in any false equivalence.

It was clear who was obstructing progress on immigration in Washington and it was clear that the GOP presidential candidate took a hard line on the issue because the extremists in his party would have it no other way.

And thus it was clear to the electorate, that browning and beautiful swarm of voters, who the culprits were. That, and only that, is why we finally see Republicans acting on the issue.

The lesson in all this is that if Democrats will keep hammering Republicans on their party’s dangerous hostage-taking budget strategy—and if President Obama will lead the way and keep reminding journalists that both sides are not equally guilty—then we may be able to correct at least the most destabilizing form of dysfunction in our country’s capital.

As the President told The New Republic:

Until Republicans feel that there’s a real price to pay for them just saying no and being obstructionist, you’ll probably see at least a number of them arguing that we should keep on doing it. It worked for them in the 2010 election cycle, and I think there are those who believe that it can work again. I disagree with them, and I think the cost to the country has been enormous.

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