When only one house deserves the pox

Jeff Greenfield has taken a keen interest in speculative history recently, imagining what American trajectories would have been like had key events gone the other way. What if Gerald Ford hadn’t screwed up that ’76 debate and won a full term? What if the assassination attempt on JFK in December 1960 had been successful?

Today, however, Greenfield considers a speculative future, imagining a third-party emerging — and thriving — in the event of American default in two weeks. It’s written in past tense, describing events Greenfield thinks could happen in the near future.

He envisions, for example, failure in the House to raise the debt ceiling, assuming both sides will be to blame.

Maybe the last-minute agreement would have worked if there had been more time, a week or two, to persuade, cajole, threaten and beg recalcitrant legislators into backing the jury-rigged deficit-debt-ceiling deal. Maybe if there hadn’t been so many lines drawn in the sand, such a long history of treating every political dispute as Armageddon.

But on Sunday night, July 31, 2011, decades of toxic politics exploded. In the House Republican Caucus, freshman members of the Tea Party Caucus, threatened with primary challenges over insufficient budget-cutting zeal, joined with Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota in opposition to the deal. Among Democrats, virtually all 80 members of the Progressive Caucus lined up solidly against it. Even as they gathered for the critical vote, with its outcome in doubt, Fox News and MSNBC were both airing one-hour specials titled “Sellout!”

And with the measure five votes short as the count neared the end, several lawmakers signaled their intentions to switch their votes to no (“I’ll be damned,” said one, “if I’ll commit political suicide for a vote that’s going to lose anyway”).

This leads, under Greenfield’s scenario, to the expected economic crash, and a political backlash in which the public blame, naturally, both sides. Americans, he imagines, then rise up to form a third party, which then sweeps the 2012 elections and wins the White House.

And we all lived happily ever after.

Greenfield no doubt means well, but his fantasy is the result of lazy analysis. The more media insiders accept this sort of thinking, the more it does a disservice to the public that relies on news organizations to help stay informed.

Let me put this as plainly as I know how: if you’re watching this debt-ceiling fiasco, and you think both parties are equally responsible for the mess, then you’re simply not paying close enough attention.

Forget subjective questions and consider the basics. GOP leaders are saying they want a deal that’s 100% in their favor. If they don’t get what they want, many Republicans are at least open to crashing the economy on purpose. As the process unfolds and the deadline draws closer, the GOP line is hardening and becoming more extreme.

In contrast, we have the Obama White House and congressional Democratic leaders, who are prepared to accept all kinds of concessions to make Republicans happy. This includes a series of compromise offers that lean heavily in the GOP’s favor.

There’s no question here which side of the political divide is open to compromise. There’s also no question which side has rejected any and all attempts at finding common ground.

And there’s also no question that tired media assumptions lead to coverage and analysis like this — blaming both sides equally because it’s easier than thinking about the facts.

Eugene Robinson had a column the other day that Jeff Greenfield should take the time to read. It laments “reflexive tendency to see equivalence where none exists,” and explains, “The truth is that Democrats have made clear they are open to a compromise deal on budget cuts and revenue increases. Republicans have made clear they are not.”

Partisanship and ideology are utterly irrelevant here. I’m not saying Republicans are in the wrong because they have an agenda I disapprove of; I’m saying Republicans are in the wrong because that’s reality.

In Greenfield’s imaginary 2013 inauguration, featuring our new independent president, he’d won “because voters had finally rendered a harsh but long-overdue verdict: A plague on both your houses.”

If only Greenfield would consider the fact that only one house deserves it.