This started with Bruce Bartlett’s piece in the Daily Beast. It ends with:
In my opinion, conservative activists, who seem to believe that the louder they shout the more correct their beliefs must be, are less angry about Obama’s policies than they are about having lost the White House in 2008. They are primarily Republican Party hacks trying to overturn the election results, not representatives of a true grassroots revolt against liberal policies. If that were the case they would have been out demonstrating against the Medicare drug benefit, the Sarbanes-Oxley bill, and all the pork-barrel spending that Bush refused to veto.
Until conservatives once again hold Republicans to the same standard they hold Democrats, they will have no credibility and deserve no respect. They can start building some by admitting to themselves that Bush caused many of the problems they are protesting.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that the president and his allies simply aren’t supposed to mention Bush/Cheney anymore. It’s uncouth, we’re told. It’s lazy. No one likes a leader who spends time looking back.
But Bartlett makes a very compelling case that Bush probably isn’t getting nearly enough blame. Conservatives are angry about the deficit, but Bush left Obama a $1.2 trillion annual deficit. Conservatives are angry about the weak economy, but “conservative protesters should remember that the recession, which led to so many of the policies they oppose, is almost entirely the result of Bush’s policies.” Conservatives are angry about efforts to reform the health care system, but the system was deteriorating throughout the Bush years, and the Republican administration ignored the problems.
Steve Benen gets an e-mail from Bartlett, which Bartlett allows Benen to reprint.
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.
Atrios on the e-mail:
I’d be curious to hear what someone like Bartlett thinks about why the situation is as he describes. He says he’s baffled, so obviously he doesn’t think he knows, but like me I assume he at least has some half-baked theories.
Benen gets a reply from Bartlett to Atrios, which is also reprinted.
“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
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.
On the road so I don’t have time to think much about it and add my two cents, but there’s his answer!
Bartlett’s response is worth reading and it’s not wrong, but I can’t help but feel that something is missing from his explanation.
I always come back to the wide chasm between local media and national media. I know a lot of local reporters and, in general, I respect their work a lot. They genuinely enjoy afflicting the comfortable and, to the extent that I’m able to judge, their work is fair and accurate. Mind you, it’s not so hard to get into afflicting the comfortable when the comfortable is some local politician or businessman who will never invite you over for quail or hook you up with wingnut welfare. And therein lies one of the key differences between national and local media: local bigwigs are seen (rightly) as losers and crooks whereas national bigwigs are seen partly as potential cash cows and career makers. The national media got used to sucking up to national Republican bigwigs when they were in power and it will take some time for them to realize that, unless you want a gig at his non-profit, there’s really no point in kissing Newt Gingrich’s ass.
But there’s another big difference, too, and I think in some ways this may be the key. On local issues, everyone is on more or less the same page. People want stuff to work and they don’t want to pay too much tax money for it. There are no Galtians on garbage trucks. Arguments tend more towards “this plan for a bus station sucks because it’s in the wrong part of downtown” and less towards “only Karl Marx would build a bus station at all”. In this environment, it’s not so difficult to do reporting that everyone regards as down-the-middle. People want their trash picked up on time, you report on if their trash is getting picked up on time. People want the crime rate to be low, you report on the crime rate. And so on. I’m making this sound simpler than it really is, but there is a general consensus that reality is important and that when your reporting accurately reflects discernible reality, you’re not exhibiting bias.
Jim Antle in AmSpec on the original article:
Just because conservatives didn’t make enough noise as Bush was running up a $1.2 trillion deficit doesn’t mean they should shut up now that Obama is jacking it up to as much as $1.8 trillion. Obama supported Bush’s TARP bailout, as did more Democrats than Republicans in Congress. The Democrats also favored an even more robust Medicare prescription drug benefit than the one irresponsibly enacted by Bush and the Republican Congress. And which of the policies that lead to our current mess — artificially low interest rates, loose money, unfunded government spending, relaxed lending standards for politically favored groups — has Obama decisively broken with now, much less opposed at the time? The Democrats were a little better on the wars’ contribution to the health of the state, the Republican better on reining in Fannie and Freddie.
Alex Massie on what this idea of penance means for the British
I think this is absolutely correct. The GOP needs a period in the wilderness to contemplate and learn from its mistakes, just as the Tories needed time out of office to renew their own ideas and rehabilitate their reputation. The question here, however, is whether Labour recognise their own sins, and what form will their penance take? That is, will Labour think that their defeat (assuming it comes next year) was simply the product of exhaustion and an unpopular Prime Minister whose ministry was crippled by a global financial crisis few people had foreseen?
In other words, will Labour take responsibility for their defeat or will they think it was the unfortunate, if perhaps inevitable, consequence of a series of unfortunate events for which they were understandably ill-prepared? If they follow the latter course – which is the easier, more comfortable choice – then they risk prolonging their spell in opposition even if the Tories prove an underwhelming government themselves.
Acknowledging all this is difficult, which is also why it’s necessary. The stewardship of the public finances is part of it, of course, but there’s more to Labour’s defeat than just that. Equally, a defeated party’s penance has to take account of the fact that the electorate has moved on. The new government will be given a chance (even if polls may fluctuate) and the opposition’s response must take account of that, rather than pretend that the decisive election was merely a blip which ought not to be taken as any meaningful statement that might have long-term consequences.
UPDATE: Nick Gillespie at Reason on the original Bartlett piece