Lazy Reporting Enables Gridlock

As Obama prepares to leave the White House, the President and many others have contemplated the reasons why he has been unable to break through the partisan gridlock that has crippled Washington. Nowhere will you find a better example of the role the media played in fostering that gridlock than in a recent column on the topic by Chris Cillizza titled, “10 years ago today Obama made a huge promise. He didn’t keep it.” He starts by identifying the promise.

The big idea at the heart of Obama’s candidacy was that he — because of his background, proven résumé and the historic nature of his candidacy — was uniquely suited to solve the partisan gridlock that had seized our politics under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. That he could bring us all together through an appeal to our better angels and our shared values — and, in so doing, create a government that worked for all of us.

Cillizza is right, that promise has obviously not been fulfilled.

…the election of Donald Trump as Obama’s successor — someone who ran a campaign that, whether or not you agreed with him, never took the high road — would suggest a fundamental repudiation not only of Obama’s promise to “fix” politics but also of the idea that people want politics to be “fixed” at all.

We can all agree so far, right? But why did Obama fail?

From there, Cillizza engages in the kind of both-siderism we’ve become accustomed to by laying out how Democrats blame Republicans and vice versa. He goes on to make the case that there was a moment when a break-through was possible – in 2011 when Obama and Boehner engaged in negotiations on a Grand Bargain. We all know that those attempts failed (and some are grateful they did). Cillizza suggests that Boehner blames Obama, while Obama blames Boehner (yet another foray into both-siderism) and throws up his hands at the lost opportunity.

That is the narrative lazy reporters like Cillizza assume will be the conclusion of future historians. But we need to get this one right. Because it is also the narrative that has allowed partisan gridlock to flourish. If both sides do it – there is no point in holding any party or politician accountable.

One more time for the history books, let’s summarize the real narrative. First of all, the impetus for a possible Grand Bargain was that Republicans decided – for the first time in this country’s history – to hold our economy hostage unless they got the spending cuts they wanted. They did so by threatening to not raise the debt ceiling unless their demands were met. That was not only unprecedented, it was dangerous.

It can be argued that, under those circumstances, it was a mistake for President Obama to enter negotiations with Boehner on a Grand Bargain. Perhaps he should have simply done what he did later when Republicans continued their hostage-taking…say “no.” But for the historical record, those negotiations began with Obama calling for additional federal revenue and Boehner advocating for spending cuts.

If you want an in-depth accounting of how/why those negotiations failed, I’d suggest Matt Bai’s lengthy analysis. But Ryan Lizza sums it up more succinctly with words directly from the main culprit – Eric Cantor.

lizza: There’s sort of a final meeting with Paul Ryan and you and Boehner where it seems like there’s a final sort of discussion about whether this offer needs to be rejected or not. The way it seems to be reported is—it seems like Boehner wanted to do it, you and Ryan sort of talked him out of it. Is that—

cantor: I would say it’s a fair assessment, because, in the end, we felt that—well, let me back up, this is probably a longer answer. Yes, it’s probably an accurate conclusion.

In the end, it was Cantor and Ryan who pulled the plug on negotiations over a Grand Bargain. Cantor is bragging about that because he preferred to use it as a campaign wedge issue in 2012.

This is why I feel justified in using the word “lazy” to refer to Cillizza’s argument. It doesn’t take much effort to simply say, “both sides do it.” But journalists like Bai and Lizza actually did the legwork to find out what happened and report it. Cillizza doesn’t seem to have even bothered to read what they wrote (or what someone like Cantor actually said).

That’s how Cillizza enables partisan gridlock, and plays right into the hands of Republicans – who benefited greatly from this kind of obstruction.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.