Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Fourth Estate needs to differentiate - The press and the 2010 mid-terms

It's hard to believe it's only been four years since the last mid-term elections. In 2006, the major difference between the parties was that Democrats were united in their desire for our troops to come home from Iraq (since our military had done all it could), and Republicans were committed to staying there to referee the ongoing Iraqi civil war and to fight al-Qaeda forever. It was an easy choice for voters to make, so it was an easy election for the Washington press corps to cover.

The same was true for most of the 2007 primary campaigns and the 2008 elections; until September when the fundamentals of our economy were not strong all of a sudden, and stories from the business section turned into front-page news. But this year, for the first time since 2004, a national election isn't going to be a binary choice between "to stay in Iraq or to leave Iraq." This mid-term election campaign will not only be a referendum on what the Democrats have done while in power and what the Republicans have done while out of power; it will also show if there are any credible reporters left covering politics in Washington, or if the notorious 24-hour news cycle has completely taken over.

The D.C. press corps has gotten lazy over the past six years, though the inactivity between 2004 and 2008 wasn't completely their fault. The Bushies didn't have much use for the press unless the White House was controlling the story (Judy Miller at the New York Times, Matt Cooper at Time magazine), distributing propaganda (radio talk show host Armstrong Williams), or planting questions in the briefing room (Jeff Gannon of Talon News). The openness of the early days of the new Obama administration must have been a little off-putting for reporters in Washington, who responded with a barrage of stories about the new swing set and the search for a new first pet.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, a new Democratic majority was being sworn in with a sweeping legislative agenda and a mandate from 60 million-plus voters. There was finally going to be real news to cover because there was finally going to be real policy to write. The first major task was to craft a response to the Great Recession that had our nation's economy in a tailspin. The Democrats came up with the Recovery Act: $250 billion in tax cuts (one of the largest in history), $250 billion in aid to states to keep teachers and firefighters and police on the job, and another $250 billion in new spending that included investments in health information technology, a smart grid for electricity, and expanded broadband access. That bill saved and/or created millions of jobs, led to sustained economic growth, and is credited with preventing a second Great Depression.

The Democrats also passed badly-needed Wall Street reform and a historic health care reform bill that will lower our nation's deficit by more than $1 trillion over the next 20 years — in addition to hundreds of measures (including an energy bill) passed by the House that died in the Senate. By anyone's standards, the Democratic majority in the 111th Congress has crafted effective legislation to deal with our country's problems and Democratic members of Congress elected in 2008 have kept their campaign promises.

Congressional Republicans, on the other hand, have done everything they could to stop the Democrats' agenda where it could be stopped, and slow it to a glacial pace where it couldn't. At a time when our nation was on the brink of economic disaster, only three of 249 Republicans in Congress could bring themselves to vote for the Recovery Act. In the Senate, the Republican minority has consistently abused one of the courtesies of the chamber — each Senator's privilege to filibuster, or speak without time limits — to prevent bills from ever coming to the floor for debate. Before this Congress, bills were typically brought to the floor by unanimous consent; but Sen. McConnell, who wishes he'd "been able to obstruct more," decided that literally every bill proposed by the Democrats was so bad that none of them should even be considered by the United States Senate. That's not divided government, that's misguided government.

If it was reporting the facts of the 111th Congress, the Washington press would be talking about a Democratic majority being historically productive and (or in spite of) a Republican minority that chose to make it more, not less, difficult for Congress to do its work. But Disney, Universal, News Corp., and CBS care more about profit than facts; so this political off-season between elections, we've gotten stories about death panels, armed tea parties, and whatever was on whatever passes for Glenn Beck's and Sarah Palin's minds.

For the last six months, the Washington press corps has been telling us that when the economy is bad, voters blame the party in power. But at this point, most voters don't care about assigning blame, we just want jobs and recovery. For the next six weeks, they should just do their jobs and explain the difference between the two parties so that voters can do our jobs and choose the best candidates.


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