What matters (and what doesn’t) about Halperin

Following up on an earlier item, Time‘s Mark Halperin appeared on MSNBC earlier to critique President Obama’s press conference. With a smile usually reserved for children who’ve learned a new vulgarity, the pundit said of the president, “I thought he was kind of a dick yesterday.”

He apologized, and soon after, MSNBC announced it’s suspending him.

“Mark Halperin’s comments this morning were completely inappropriate and unacceptable. We apologize to the President, The White House and all of our viewers. We strive for a high level of discourse and comments like these have no place on our air. Therefore, Mark will be suspended indefinitely from his role as an analyst.”

Halperin issued a statement of his own at the same time:

“I completely agree with everything in MSNBC’s statement about my remark. I believe that the step they are taking in response is totally appropriate. Again, I want to offer a heartfelt and profound apology to the President, to my MSNBC colleagues, and to the viewers. My remark was unacceptable, and I deeply regret it.”

This has sparked some discussion about whether MSNBC overreacted, whether the comment counts as a “gaffe,” whether “dick” is overly crude for a news broadcast, whether the president deserves a degree of deference, etc.

These strike me as legitimate questions, but I don’t think they’re the most important questions. The key takeaway, at least for me, is what prompted Halperin’s shot in the first place.

Forget the trees; look at the forest: congressional Republicans, for the first time in American history, are holding the debt ceiling hostage. They’ve announced to the country and the world that they’ll cause an economic crash, on purpose, unless Democrats agree to dramatic spending cuts. Yesterday, President Obama held a press conference to urge GOP leaders to accept a compromise — he and other Democrats will accept massive cuts, but the president wants Republicans to agree to some concessions as part of a bipartisan agreement.

I couldn’t care less which four-letter word Halperin uses. I do care that Halperin is presented to news consumers as a neutral observer when he clearly is not. But I really care that he and others in the media establishment look at the debt-ceiling fight and think Obama’s the one who’s a big jerk. And why do they think that? Because the president offered some relatively mild criticism of truly insane tactics.

Let me say this as plainly as I know how: Republicans are threatening to deliberately cause a global recession. The president is willing to strike a deal that leans heavily in the GOP’s direction, and Republicans are refusing. Who, in this scenario, is being dickish?

Halperin’s choice of words pales in comparison to the fact that he’s offended by the president’s mild rebuke of political recklessness the likes of which American hasn’t seen in generations.

When we talk about political institutions that no longer appear capable of functioning as they should, let’s not forget to add The Village to the list.