Putting the “partisan” in “bipartisanship”

If there was any doubt that the news media have a badly skewed understanding of “bipartisanship” -- one in which no number of concessions from Democrats is enough and no number from Republicans is too little -- the reaction to Judd Gregg's decision to back out of becoming Barack Obama's commerce secretary should put the matter to rest.

If there was any doubt that the news media have a badly skewed understanding of “bipartisanship” -- one in which no number of concessions from Democrats is enough and no number from Republicans is too little -- the reaction to Judd Gregg's decision to back out of becoming Barack Obama's commerce secretary should put the matter to rest.

Even before the Gregg announcement, the flaws in the media's fetishization of bipartisanship had been on display for weeks.

Most striking has been the bizarre notion that bipartisanship is an essential end in and of itself, rather than a means to an end. When the House of Representatives passed a stimulus bill two weeks ago, ABC's The Note led not with an analysis of the content of the legislation, but with President Obama's purported failure to win a single Republican vote. (Note that the failure of bipartisanship was not portrayed as a bipartisan failing; it was Obama's alone. But we'll get back to that shortly.)

That was typical of reporting in the days before the vote, which was at its most absurd when NBC's Chuck Todd asked White House press secretary Robert Gibbs if Obama would veto a bill that lacked Republican support. In the midst of an economic crisis unlike any we've seen in decades, the news media think the most important thing is not that the government take strong, successful action to help the economy -- and the millions of Americans who are struggling -- recover. No, they think the most important thing is for Democrats and Republicans to play nicely together.

Which leads to the other problem that was evident during the stimulus coverage: Reporters always seem to think it is the Democrats' responsibility to reach out to the Republicans -- and that if Democrats reach across the aisle only to draw back a bloody stump where their hand used to be, it's their fault for not reaching further.

Just look at the stimulus debate in the House. The Democrats included billions of dollars' worth of tax cuts in an effort to appeal to Republicans, and they dropped provisions the Republicans objected to, like funding for contraceptives. The Republicans, on the other hand, offered an alternative that consisted of nothing -- absolutely nothing -- other than tax cuts. And keep in mind that government spending on things like unemployment benefits and food stamps is far more stimulative than tax cuts, according to economist and McCain campaign adviser Mark Zandi, among others.

Now, given all that, you might assume that when House Republicans responded to Democratic concessions by unanimously opposing a stimulus bill containing a mix of tax cuts and spending, voting instead for one that contained only tax cuts and would provide less of a boost to the economy, they would be portrayed by the media as intransigent partisans.

But that's not what happened. Instead, Obama and the Democrats were portrayed as insufficiently bipartisan. Time's Mark Halperin, for example, blasted Obama for failing to “go for centrist compromises” and compared him to George W. Bush.

But the public saw things much more clearly than the pundits and journalists. A CNN poll released this week found that "[t]hree out of four poll respondents said that Obama is doing enough to cooperate with Republicans in Congress, but only 39 percent feel that congressional Republicans are cooperating enough with the president." Just imagine how lopsided the results would have been if not for Halperin and The Note and Chuck Todd and all the rest suggesting insufficient bipartisanship on Obama's part.

So, that brings us to Judd Gregg. The conservative Republican senator was Barack Obama's choice for commerce secretary, and the third Republican Obama had named to his Cabinet, along with Robert Gates and Ray LaHood.

Gregg's behavior since news first broke that Obama was considering him hasn't exactly reflected a desire to put partisan politics aside and work on behalf of the administration he was about to join. First, reports indicated that Gregg agreed to take the job only on the condition that New Hampshire's Democratic governor name a Republican to take his place in the Senate. Then, Gregg announced that he would not cast a vote on the stimulus package -- the equivalent of voting no, since Senate rules required 60 votes in order to invoke cloture, regardless of how many senators cast votes. That meant that the man who was about to be Barack Obama's commerce secretary could have been responsible for the failure of Obama's stimulus package. Not a great way to start off a new job.

So maybe it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise when Gregg abruptly announced yesterday that he didn't really want the job after all, essentially explaining that he belatedly realized that he is a conservative Republican and Barack Obama is a Democrat.

For a moment, it seemed like this might finally make reporters realize that if anyone is falling short of their precious bipartisanship, it's the Republicans. After all, here's a situation in which Barack Obama asked a conservative GOP senator to become the third Republican in his Cabinet -- and after accepting the job and then working against Obama's stimulus bill anyway, the senator decided that on second thought, he didn't want to serve in Obama's administration.

It's pretty hard to see that as anything other than Obama reaching out to the GOP, only to have his overture rebuffed. And having seen the public strongly disagree with their assessment that it was Obama who was insufficiently bipartisan in the stimulus negotiations, you'd think reporters would at least hesitate before again suggesting the president made inadequate efforts at bipartisanship.

But many of them rushed to portray Gregg's reversal as indicative of a failure by Obama.

An unintentionally hilarious Politico article disclosed that congressional Republicans “applauded boisterously” when they learned of Gregg's withdrawal. Why were they so excited? Because, Politico explained, Gregg's decision reinforced “an emerging GOP case against Obama and the ruling Democratic Party: Strip away the new face, the lofty rhetoric and the promises of post-partisanship and you'll find the same big-spending party of old, bent on politicizing government to consolidate its hold on power.”

Got that? Republicans applauded a Republican's decision not to work with Obama because it reinforced their contention that Obama's “promises of post-partisanship” are nothing but “lofty rhetoric” designed to conceal attempts at “politicizing government.”

Now, a slightly more ... sane take might be that in offering Gregg the job, Obama was making a sincere effort at bipartisanship, and in applauding Gregg's decision to back out, House Republicans were demonstrating their lack of interest in working with Obama. But such an assessment was nowhere to be found in the Politico article.

Not only that, Politico -- like many other news outlets -- indicated that a key factor in Gregg's decision was the White House's reported plan to directly oversee the Census Bureau.

Politico reported that “Gregg breathed life into Republican charges of a White House power grab over a critical Commerce Department function.”

Now, first of all, the White House doesn't need to execute a “power grab” over a Commerce Department function; the White House is ... well, it's the White House. Does Politico really mean to suggest that traditionally, the Commerce Department doesn't do what the president tells it to do?

Second, Politico probably should have noted that during his bizarre withdrawal announcement, Gregg repeatedly downplayed the importance of the census story, saying, “The census was only a slight catalyzing issue. It was not a major issue.” And “I don't need to elaborate. I know it was a slight issue. ... It wasn't a big enough issue for me to even discuss what the issue was.”

Rather than breathing life into the GOP's census attacks, Gregg's comments would seem to let the air out of them.

Finally: The Republicans' claims to be shocked -- shocked! -- that someone like White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel might have some influence over how the census is run ring more than a little hollow. The White House is always going to have influence over what happens at the Census Bureau. See, the president works at the White House, and he's kind of in charge of the executive branch.

But even if it were somehow the case that the Commerce Department had previously existed in a vacuum, conducting the census all on its own, without any input from the White House, it's important to keep in mind some of the people who have served as secretary of commerce in recent administrations.

George W. Bush's first commerce secretary was his campaign chairman, Don Evans. Bill Clinton's commerce secretaries included his campaign chairman, Mickey Kantor, and Ron Brown, who was chairman of the DNC when Clinton first ran for president. George H.W. Bush gave the job to Bob Mosbacher, finance chairman of his 1988 campaign.

I don't remember any Republicans complaining that Don Evans or Bob Mosbacher might be in charge of the census. In fact, you could easily conclude that by insisting that a Republican be in charge of the census, Republicans are guilty of politicizing the process.

And yet reporters take seriously the Republicans' complaints that Rahm Emanuel might have some influence over the census.

Other reporters found even sillier ways to pretend Gregg's withdrawal said something about Obama's insufficient bipartisanship. Discussing Gregg's withdrawal, Chuck Todd claimed that unlike Ray LaHood -- the longtime Republican congressman whom Obama chose as his transportation secretary -- Gregg is a “real Republican.” So now it isn't enough for Obama to keep his Republican predecessor's Republican defense secretary and to choose a longtime Republican congressman for transportation secretary -- in order to be truly bipartisan, his nominees have to pass Chuck Todd's “real Republican” litmus test.

After quoting Robert Gibbs on Gregg's abrupt reversal, Politico's Ben Smith complained that " 'bipartisan,' in the White House definition ... doesn't mean you make friends with the other side, or play nice."

Huh? Obama offered Judd Gregg a Cabinet position, which Gregg accepted ... then decided he didn't want to work with Obama after all. And it's the White House that has a phony definition of “bipartisan”?

No, it's the media.

And with the media rigging the game this thoroughly, it's no wonder that Obama's attempts at bipartisanship have brought little in return from Republicans.

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