Two Beltway blind spots
I finally got around to reading Peter Baker’s big New York Times Magazine piece, “Education of a President.” It’s about where the Obama administration stands, and how it sees itself, two years in. Baker covers the cross-currents fairly well, but he shares a couple of the Beltway’s common blind spots, which happen to be obsessions of mine.
First, he quotes Obama insiders decrying a Washington that is, as they put it, “not on the level.”
By that, they mean the Republicans, the news media, the lobbyists, the whole Washington culture is not serious about solving problems. The challenge, as they see it, is how to rise above a town that can obsess for a week on whether an obscure Agriculture Department official in Georgia should have been fired. At the same time, as [Rahm] Emanuel told me, “We have to play the game.”
As [H.W.] Brands, the historian, put it, “It’ll be really interesting to see if a president who is thinking long term can have an impact on a political system that is almost irredeemably short term in its perspective.”
Throughout the piece, “not on the level” is characterized this way, as trivializing, biased toward short-term thinking. Everything’s about point-scoring and the day’s, or even the morning’s, news cycle.
That’s true as far as it goes, but it misses something important. The money-soaked myopia of the Beltway is not merely trivializing. It doesn’t just militate against long-term thinking and practical problem-solving. It has an ideological valence: it works against liberalism. It’s “not on the level” — it leans right.
Consider a few facts: There has been no surge in overall government spending under Obama. Increases in federal spending have just barely compensated for cuts in state and local spending and are largely accounted for by automatic safety-net spending like unemployment insurance and Medicare, not new government programs. Overall, government spending is rising at about the same rate it did under Bush. The big bank bailout, TARP, was initiated under Bush and has turned a profit for the government. The auto bailout saved tens of thousands of jobs and two major American companies at far lower cost than expected. The stimulus was 40 percent tax cuts; Obama has cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans. The health care bill is projected to reduce the long-term deficit even as it subsidizes the private health insurance industry. The climate bill would also have cut the long-term deficit.
In other words, the DC narrative of Obama as an overreaching, quasi-socialist tax-and-spender is just wildly out of sync with reality. Yet that narrative is driving how voters see Obama. It’s shaping how the media covers him. It’s shaping his ambitions, and Congress’s.
That fact that the Obama narrative is far to the left of the Obama reality is not an accident or an inevitability. It goes hand-in-hand with the trivialization Baker and Obama lament. The day-to-day focus of political journalists and pundits is increasingly dictated by far-right media. The story Baker references, involving Ag Dept. employee Shirley Sherrod, was pushed into the news cycle by right-wing propagandist Andrew Breitbart, via Fox News. It’s one of dozens of ginned-up controversies over the last few years that not only debased politics but reinforced conservative narratives and sent Democrats scurrying for cover.
There is now a right-wing media ecosystem so robust it competes on an almost equal basis with traditional media. It has been wildly successful shepherding stories from its fringes into the mainstream and making its narratives — Obama’s a socialist big spender, etc. — Beltway conventional wisdom. There is no equivalent of Fox News on the left, nothing that works to systematically amplify far-left stories and talking points. The right would respond by saying the mainstream press is already liberal, but the mainstream press bias that overwhelms all others is deference to power. D.C. is now shaped by the meeting of tepid centrism and aggressive conservatism.
Right-wing media receives enormous financial support from oligarchs, as do right-wing advocacy organizations and right-wing politicians. The effect is to lend the interests of the wealthy a wildly disproportionate influence in DC, not only on policy but on the ebb and flow of win-the-morning journalism.
So that’s one thing Baker underplays: the dominance of corporate money and conflict journalism in D.C. are not ideologically neutral. The system is geared to push the window of acceptable establishment opinion to the right, so that all the risks lie in supporting (even appearing to support) muscular, responsive government. The “partisans on both sides” analysis does not adequately capture the net effect on political life. It’s not an equal fight.
The second thing Baker underplays, or rather misses entirely, is climate change. The word “climate” is never mentioned — not as one of the big fights Obama has with the right, not as one of the pledges he made during the campaign, not as one of the reasons liberals are disappointed in him. It just doesn’t come up at all. “Energy” gets a desultory mention as something the administration might return to next year, but for climate, zilch.
This strikes me as fairly characteristic as how D.C. insiders, journos like Baker included, see things. Climate change just isn’t a big item on their radar. They see it as a boutique issue, something that left environmentalists care about and only matters for politicians that need left environmentalist votes (i.e., politicians in California).
I don’t really know how to go about changing that state of affairs. But the silence of Baker’s piece on climate is yet another signal to PCCCCE that they haven’t gotten through in Washington.