Obstruction And How The Press Helped Punch The GOP's Midterm Ticket

Five Years Of Enabling Radical Gridlock

In the days after the midterm elections, the New York Times has been a cornucopia of campaign commentary. Lots of attention is being paid to the issue of gridlock, which has defined Washington, D.C. since President Obama was first inaugurated.

Lamenting America's “broken politics,” Times columnist Nicholas Kristof opted for the both-sides-are-to-blame model, suggesting that, “Critics are right that [Obama] should try harder to schmooze with legislators.” Across from Kristof on the Times opinion page, Republican pollster Frank Luntz urged Obama to find a way to create “common-sense solutions” with his Republican counterparts. (This, despite the fact that Luntz in 2009 helped Republicans craft their trademark strategy of obstructing Obama at every turn.) 

And the same day, while reviewing Chuck Todd's new book on Obama, which stressed that the president “wanted to soar above partisanship” though his two terms will likely “be remembered as a nadir of partisan relations,” the Times book critic stressed Obama's “reluctance to reach out to Congress and members of both parties to engage in the sort of forceful horse trading (like Lyndon B. Johnson's) and dogged retail politics (like Bill Clinton's) that might have helped forge more legislative deals and build public consensus.”

So after six years of radical, blanketed reticence from the GOP, we're still repeatedly reading in the New York Times that while Republicans have put up road blocks, if Obama would just try harder, Republicans might cooperate with him. You can almost hear the frustration seeping through the pages of the Times: 'What is wrong with this guy?  Bipartisanship is so simple. Republicans say they want to work with the White House, so why doesn't Obama just do it?'

Indeed, cooperation is simple if you purposefully ignore reality--if you downplay the fact the Republican Party is acting in a way that defies all historic norms. If you adopt that fantasy version of Beltway politics today (i.e. the GOP is filled with honest brokers just waiting to work with the White House), then it's easy to dissect the problems, and it's easy to file both-sides-are-to-blame columns that urge bipartisan cooperation.

What's trickier, apparently, is speaking truth to power and accurately portraying what has happened to American politics and noting without equivocation that the sabotage that has occurred is designed to ensure the federal government doesn't function as designed, and that it cannot efficiently address the problems of the nation.

And this week, it all paid off for Republicans. “Obstruction has just been rewarded, in a huge way,” wrote Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast.

Led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Republicans vowed in 2009 to oppose every political move Obama made, not matter how sweeping or how minor.  “To prevent Obama from becoming the hero who fixed Washington, McConnell decided to break it. And it worked,” wrote Matthew Yglesias at Vox, in the wake of the midterm election results. New York's Jonathan Chait made a similar observation about McConnell: “His single strategic insight is that voters do not blame Congress for gridlock, they blame the president, and therefore reward the opposition.”

But why? Why don't voters blame Congress for gridlock?

Why would the president, who's had virtually his entire agenda categorically obstructed, be blamed and not the politicians who purposefully plot the gridlock? Because the press has given Republicans a pass. For more than five years, too many Beltway pundits and reporters have treated the spectacular stalemate as if it were everyday politics; just more "partisan combat." It's not. It's extraordinary. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Note the press complaint Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) logged four years ago. It was about how timid the news media were in covering Republican obstructionism. Her critique still applies today:

You guys don't write about [it], and this is what they do. I don't see it, and I take five newspapers. I don't see it on the tube, and I don't see it anywhere. It's obstruction. It's obfuscation. It's bringing the body to a halt and it's been done dozens of times. And this is one more of those times... and they haven't gotten much criticism for it clearly or they would have stopped it.

On paper, the GOP's desperate maneuver in 2009 looked risky: Just gum up the works of Congress and stand in the way of every proposal from the new president who was just swept into office with a public mandate for change? Wouldn't commentators clobber the GOP for blind partisanship and hollow obstruction?

Looking back though, there was very little risk involved. There was no element of chance because within days of Obama being sworn into office, the Beltway press sent out clarion call: If Republicans don't cooperate with the new, wildly popular president, it's the president's fault.

And that press judgment hasn't budged since 2009.

If you think I'm exaggerating about this phenomenon taking root within days of Obama's first term, just go back to the White House's January 23, 2009 press conference. That's when NBC's Chuck Todd asked the new president if he would veto his own party's stimulus bill if not enough Republicans voted in support of it.

Todd's weird query highlighted the unheard-of double standard constructed almost overnight by the press with regard to the pressing issue of bipartisanship: If there was little or no bipartisan support for Obama's stimulus package, then it was Obama's fault, his fault alone, and the bill itself must be a P.R. failure.

Sure, the legislation might help save the collapsing economy at the time. (Fact: It did.) But in terms of optics and how it looked, the emergency stimulus bill was a loser. Why? Republicans didn't like it. The party that had just been pushed out of office didn't support the bill, so the press declared it to be an Obama failure and a key Republican victory.

“Republicans find their voice,” cheered Politico after the GOP snubbed Obama weeks into his first term. The Los Angeles Times reported in January 2009, "[I]t was clear that [Obama's] efforts so far had not delivered the post-partisan era that he called for in his inauguration address." Meaning, nine days after being sworn in, Obama still hadn't ushered in a “post-partisan era.”

Five years later the simple question remains: If Republicans emphatically do not want to cooperate in any meaningful way with Democrats, is there anything Obama can do to change that? Answer: No, not really. But according to the press, Obama is supposed to change that equation, or else he loses. He takes all of the blame.

That's how the game has been played since early 2009. And that's the dynamic Republicans just rode to midterm victory.