TC’s complaint is that Birnbaum makes the recent corruption scandals sound like a bipartisan affair, when in fact it’s almost exclusively Republicans who are under investigation. However, although TC is technically acurate, I think his criticism of Birnbaum is fundamentally misplaced.
Here’s the thing: the evidence indicates that Birnbaum is basically right: most voters don’t pay much attention to politics and don’t understand that it’s mostly Republicans who have been gaming the system in unprecedented numbers in recent years. Hell, most people don’t even know that Republicans control Congress. [UPDATE: Apparently that’s not true. See below.]
Now, it’s fair to say that this is partly due to reporting like Birnbaum’s in the first place, but it’s naive to think that’s the whole story. Take a look at this instructive chart from the Wall Street Journal, which shows approval ratings for various people and institutions over the past four years:
Sure, George Bush’s approval ratings are at record lows, and Dick Cheney’s are even lower. But guess what? The lowest approval ratings of all are for Democrats in Congress.
Unfair? Sure. The fault of pathologically “balanced” reporters like Birnbaum? Partially. But if you play in the big leagues, you have to learn to play in the big leagues. If Democrats want to get credit for being a cleaner party than Republicans, they need to make some splashy proposals that make their differences crystal clear.
A couple of months ago I suggested a list of items Democrats could all sign up to on the subject of congressional “accountability,” but that’s a dry subject. Norm Ornstein is interested, but probably not too many other people. So maybe instead the focus should be purely on graft and corruption and K Street largesse. But not just criticism of Republicans. It has to be accompanied by a set of firm pledges from Democrats about how they’re going to clean the place up. And the pledges better be simple and compelling.
If Dems don’t do this, they have no one to blame but themselves. Birnbaum isn’t the true villain here. He’s merely a symptom of how the world works.
UPDATE: Hmmm. According to the latest polling from Democracy Corps, 81% of Americans correctly identified Republicans as the party in control of Congress. It seems like I’ve seen much lower figures for this before, but I guess I was imagining it. Another factoid bites the dust.