Fetishizing off-center centrism

From the way the media have covered this week's stimulus package vote, you would think the goal of the legislation was to get Democrats and Republicans to sit together for lunch in the House cafeteria, rather than to turn around an economy in free fall.

From the way the media have covered this week's stimulus package vote, you would think the goal of the legislation was to get Democrats and Republicans to sit together for lunch in the House cafeteria, rather than to turn around an economy in free fall.

After the House passed the stimulus package by a comfortable margin, much of the media reacted not by examining the bill's contents and the likelihood that it would provide a much-needed boost to the economy, but by focusing on the fact that it passed without a single Republican vote.

Why the GOP's unanimity in opposing the stimulus package should be surprising is anybody's guess; the last time we had a newly elected Democratic president, in 1993, congressional Republicans were unanimous in opposing his economic package, too. Then-Rep. John Kasich went so far as to promise that if Bill Clinton's plan worked, Kasich would switch parties. (It did; he didn't.) Point being: Congressional Republicans do not have a strong track record of working with Democratic presidents in recent memory. Perhaps because they were too busy trying to subpoena the White House cat.

Nonetheless, the Democrats' purported failure to get Republican support for the bill was, according to many reporters, the story.

Yesterday's edition of ABC's The Note, among the most reliable of indicators of conventional wisdom among Beltway journalists, began:

As President Obama said, there are a lot of numbers in the stimulus bill. But the number that may be remembered most of all from Wednesday's vote in the House is zero.

That's a goose egg in the first inning of bipartisanship -- at least as recorded on Obama's scorecard.

Got that? The most important thing is not what the bill will -- or won't -- do to fix the economy; it is that Obama failed to win the votes of Republican members of Congress.

Such thinking has driven media coverage of the stimulus debate for days. During White House press secretary Robert Gibbs' January 23 briefing, for example, not a single reporter asked Gibbs what modifications to the bill would render it unacceptable to President Obama. The content of the bill didn't seem to matter at all to the assembled reporters.

But Gibbs was asked this stunning question: “Would he veto a bill -- would he veto a bill if it didn't have Republican support?”

Reporters didn't want to know what policy provisions Obama believed the bill must contain -- but they did want to know if he would veto it if Republicans opposed it. They behaved as though bipartisanship is an end in and of itself, rather than a means to an end.

And there has been a lot of that lately -- stimulus coverage is but one example. Last week, Politico published “seven reasons to be skeptical of Obama's chances.” Reason number five? “He rarely challenges the home team.” Politico explained: "[T]here are few examples of him making decisions during the campaign or the transition that offended his own party's constituencies, or using rhetoric that challenged his [o]wn supporters to rethink assumptions or yield on a favored cause. ... This is not a good sign."

Now, Politico didn't bother to list a single example of a situation in which the merits suggested Obama should have “offended his own party's constituencies” or otherwise broken with the party. To the Politico, the merits are irrelevant -- Obama should buck his party for the sake of bucking his party. (And never mind that Obama has taken a variety of positions that have not sat well with portions of his progressive base.)

To many journalists, bucking your party -- like “centrism” and bipartisanship -- is a noble goal all by itself. But I suspect most people recognize that these things are means, not ends.

Sure, people want the politicians to stop bickering and get things done. But, more specifically, most people want the politicians to stop bickering and do things they want done. A single mother working two minimum-wage jobs to feed her kids might want politicians to come together in a spirit of bipartisanship -- but she doesn't want them to pass bipartisan legislation lowering the minimum wage; she wants a bipartisan bill raising the minimum wage. If she can't have that, I suspect she'd take a party-line minimum-wage increase, even if it means a decrease in the bonhomie at Washington cocktail parties she'll never attend.

For most people, bipartisan consensus is great -- but it is as a means of accomplishing tangible results, not a goal in and of itself. But many political reporters seem to have an ideological, if not religious, commitment to bipartisanship and centrism. But -- and here's where things get really problematic -- they don't really have any idea of where the “center” is.

A 2007 Media Matters report demonstrated that despite the near-constant insistence by members of the media that this is a conservative or “center-right” country, “Americans are progressive across a wide range of controversial issues, and they're growing more progressive all the time.”

Since then, the evidence that this is a progressive nation has only increased. Democrats have won the popular vote in four of the past five presidential elections, including Barack Obama's landslide victory last November. Democrats control both houses of Congress, with the largest majority either party has enjoyed in decades. Public polling continues to show widespread support for progressive policy proposals.

And yet the news media continue to insist that America is a “center-right” nation. They offer increasingly tortured justifications for this position, like Tom Brokaw's invocation of the total land mass of counties carried by John McCain -- as if the number of rocks and trees and blades of grass in counties McCain won is more important than the number of people who preferred Obama.

The notion of America as a fundamentally conservative nation is so ingrained in the minds of our media elite that CNN's John King found himself arguing that “the electorate voted for Barack Obama but still perceives him to be a liberal. ... The last thing you want to do if you want to keep them four years from now is to alienate them with a liberal agenda.” Of course, another possibility is that if the electorate voted for Barack Obama while perceiving him as a liberal, maybe the electorate is liberal, too. But that thought didn't seem to cross King's mind.

Just this week, Politico's Glenn Thrush provided another example of false media assumptions about the public's policy views. Thrush wrote that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's support for public funding for contraceptives would play into Republican efforts to portray her as a “Bay Area liberal” pursuing a “far left agenda.” Just one problem: Public funding for contraceptives is really, really popular. How popular? Eighty-six percent of Americans support such funding, according to a 2005 poll conducted by a Republican polling firm. Pelosi's support for contraceptive funding doesn't make her look, as Thrush indicated, “far left” -- to the contrary, the conservatives who oppose it make up a tiny, far-right minority of Americans.

You'd think reporters would have learned a lesson from the Terri Schiavo story. When Republican politicians first decided they, not Schiavo's husband, should make decisions about medical care for the woman who had been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years, much of the media assumed that the public agreed with the GOP -- and that the matter would play to their political benefit. That wasn't true.

So when reporters and pundits clamor for “bipartisan compromise” on “moderate, centrist” solutions, they do so based on a mistaken belief about where the “center” really is -- in effect, arguing for conservative positions that they believe to be centrist. And when faced with party-line votes, they blame Democrats for not compromising enough, falsely assuming the Democrats to be the party that is further from the center.

Looking back at that press briefing by Robert Gibbs, we see examples: Gibbs was asked if Obama “need[ed] to be twisting arms of Democrats to get them to take the idea of bipartisan support more seriously” and “Democrats on the Hill don't seem to be serious about it. Is he applying pressure on them to get them into the fold here?” But he wasn't asked a single question premised on the possibility that it was the Republicans who weren't serious about bipartisanship.

After the bill passed without Republican votes, Time's Mark Halperin blasted Obama for failing to pursue “centrist compromises”:

HALPERIN: The other thing he could have done -- when you say, “What could he have done?” -- you can go for centrist compromises. You can say to your own party, “Sorry, some of you liberals aren't going to like it, but I'm going to change this legislation radically to get a big centrist majority rather than an all-Democratic vote.” He chose not to do that. That's the exact path that George Bush took for most of his presidency with disastrous consequences for bipartisanship and solving big problems.

This is simply nonsense. The stimulus bill included a mixture of spending and Republican-friendly tax cuts. Provisions Republicans objected to -- including that wildly popular contraceptive funding -- were dropped. Obama and the Democrats, in other words, did compromise. It was a “centrist” bill -- Mark Halperin just doesn't realize it because he has no idea where the “center” is. He seems to think for something to be “centrist,” it must be supported by congressional Republicans. But congressional Republicans aren't centrists, and their policy positions don't enjoy broad support.

Meanwhile, the congressional Republicans offered their own alternative stimulus bill. It was completely -- 100 percent -- tax cuts. Nothing else.

So, to sum up: The Democrats -- who won landslide electoral victories in both 2006 and 2008 and whose policy positions enjoy broad public support -- offered a bill that included a mix of tax cuts and spending, that removed provisions the Republicans didn't like. The Republicans, having lost badly in the past two elections and enjoying about as much popularity as a kick in the head, offered a bill that consisted solely of their own priority, tax cuts.

And yet the Mark Halperins of the world blast Obama and the Democrats for not compromising enough. Absolutely incredible.

The media's insistence that Democrats, but not Republicans, must constantly make concessions in order to be “centrist” and “bipartisan” is also evident in one of the most persistent media myths in modern political history.

In 1992, anti-abortion Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey wanted to speak at the Democratic convention -- but he did not want to endorse the party's presidential nominee; he wanted instead to attack the party's position on abortion. Other Democrats who opposed abortion rights were allowed to speak at the convention, but Casey was not given a platform to attack his party.

Ever since, the media have repeated over and over again the falsehood that Casey was “denied” a speaking slot (as though he were entitled to one) because of his views on abortion. The fact that others who opposed abortion were given speaking slots demonstrates the falsity of this claim, and yet it is repeated over and over again.

The ubiquity of the claim is interesting even aside from its falsity. In fact, let's pretend for a moment that it's true. So what? The media continually portray the incident as evidence that the Democrats are intolerant of dissenting views and need to “moderate” themselves to reach out to “centrists.”

Well, guess what? The next person given a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention for the sole purpose of speaking out against the GOP's opposition to abortion rights will be the first such person. Even if you buy the (false) claim that Casey was excluded because of intolerance of his dissenting views, the Republicans have been just as intolerant at their conventions. Yet the media haven't spent the past two decades constantly talking about the Republicans' refusal to feature a convention speaker who attacks their position on abortion.

And here's the kicker: Most Americans support abortion rights. So why is it that the Democrats have to “moderate” themselves in order to appeal to “centrists”?

It's bad enough that Beltway journalists have developed a cultlike devotion to bipartisan centrism. But the real problem is that they have no idea where the center is.

Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.