How David Broder incentivizes partisanship

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

It's bad enough that Washington Post columnist David Broder's latest paint-by-numbers lamentation of partisanship and obstructionism credulously treats John Boehner's election-season attacks on Congress as sincere efforts at reform. What's worse is that in failing to hold those most responsible for egregious acts of partisanship accountable for their actions, Broder actually encourages the very behavior he attempts to wish away.

Early on, Broder unleashes one of the most Broder-esque sentences imaginable:

That is par for the course in this campaign season, and it represents the sort of reflexive partisanship that voters are understandably sick of.

(According to pundits like Broder, voters are always understandably sick of reflexive partisanship. My own suspicion is that actual voters are more sick of sky-high unemployment rates than of political adversaries behaving in adversarial fashion, and that belief in bipartisanship as an end rather than a means is pretty much exclusive to the chattering class.)

Broder then insists that we take seriously John Boehner's criticism of Congress:

In such a setting, it might well behoove people to assume that Boehner should be taken seriously when he acknowledges that the reputation of this Congress is so bad that it cries out for reform.

Incredible. When the leader of the party that does not control Congress says a month before congressional elections that the reputation of this Congress is bad and cries out for reform, that's an allegation, not an acknowledgement. It's an attempt to encourage unhappiness with Congress for the purpose of gaining control of it, not rueful acknowledgment. Broder's blindness to that obvious reality leads him to, as Steve Benen put it, overestimate Boehner's capacity for seriousness.

Here's an example of that overestimation:

I'd like to see Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leaders take Boehner up on the challenge he has raised, not try to demean it. He said, for example, that rather than stifling debate through the manipulation of rules, "we should open things up and let the battle of ideas help break down the scar tissue between the parties. . . . Let's let legislators legislate again."

That's nothing but meaningless platitude -- and yet David Broder endorses it as a serious proposal Democrats should agree to. Broder's concluding paragraph demonstrates just how ill-considered his faith in Boehner is:

Boehner was a serious legislator for five years at the start of this decade as chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, before he became a floor leader for his party. His diagnosis of the problems in Congress offers a starting point for a cure. Let's hope the Democrats respond.

Broder's faith that John Boehner will behave as a "serious legislator" working with a Democratic president is that five years ago he did so while working with a president of his own party. That's the same crazy-talk Newsweek was peddling a couple of weeks ago. It's baffling that anyone could view John Boehner's willingness to behave as a "serious legislator" while trying to enact the agenda of a Republican president as evidence that he'll treat a Democratic president the same way. It's absolutely mind-blowing that multiple Beltway journalists have convinced themselves that Boehner's approach to working with President Bush is more indicative of his likely future approach to President Obama than is his actual track record of knee-jerk partisanship in dealing with Obama to date.

But the most fundamental problem with Broder's column isn't his remarkable willingness to take John Boehner criticisms of Congress at face value. It's his inability -- or unwillingness -- to recognize that, in fact, both parties are not equally guilty of all sins. Broder writes:

What Boehner called "a cycle of gridlock" afflicts both sides of the Capitol, and has been enabled by both parties, depending on who had the majority. As he was honest enough to admit, the abuses did not start when Pelosi took the gavel, and both sides have been guilty of twisting the rules.

Look: This is nonsense. When Bill Clinton became president in 1993, Congressional Republicans opposed him in lockstep. Not one of them voted for his first budget, for example. Democrats simply did not respond in kind when George W. Bush took office -- 28 Democrats in the House and 12 in the Senate voted for the first round of Bush tax cuts, for example. (Not to mention the broad support Democrats gave Bush's post-9/11 national security policies like the PATRIOT Act.) Then, when Barack Obama became president, Republicans again dug in their heels, filibustering and opposing nearly everything, nearly all of the time.

In short, it is wildly misleading to pretend that both parties are equally responsible for congressional gridlock. It just isn't an accurate portrayal of what has happened over the past two decades. If David Broder really doesn't understand that, how can he possibly be capable of producing meaningful political commentary?

I suspect that, on some level, Broder does understand that, but thinks that pretending that both sides are equally guilty is an important and noble effort to move beyond the "blame game" and usher forth a return to bipartisan bonhomie. It isn't.

The leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties aren't longtime best friends stuck in a spat neither wants to continue. They are competitors in a zero-sum struggle for political power. The everybody's-equally-guilty declaration that both sides have made mistakes in the past isn't a face-saving way to end the spat -- it merely incentivizes bad behavior. Republicans reap political benefit from their knee-jerk obstructionism without having to pay a price for it, because the public is constantly told by people like David Broder that they aren't any worse than the Democrats. The "both sides are equally guilty" approach thus incentivizes obstructionism and partisanship, just as privileging the lie incentivizes lying. In the end, David Broder's hand-wringing about partisanship and obstructionism actually contributes to the condition he denounces.

The Washington Post
David Broder
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