James Fallows: the GOP Pulled Off an Institutional Coup With the Help of Enablers in the Media
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If you take this most recent episode about Romney with Bain Capital, it’s really the most startling one. You would think -- and I don’t know myself how it’s all going to sort out with Romney’s claims -- that if you have SEC forms showing he is the CEO and only stockholder within a certain company, then at least at face value that suggests he has something to do with that company.
You can imagine if with Obama there were some William Ayers charitable foundation of which he was the CEO and only shareholder, that he wouldn’t be able to say he had nothing to do with it. I think that the instinct to think there has to be 50-50 symmetrical Republican and Democratic fault in any kind of public event in the press has not lined up with the reality of today’s polarized politics, where the Republicans are objectively much more extreme right now than the Democrats are. So it is an awkward moment for reporting.
JH: Last year the New York Times’ ombudsman Arthur Brisbane asked his readers whether or not the Times should be a “truth vigilante,” and actually look critically at the claims made by the politicians they cover. It seems like this is the job of the media. The fact that he would even ask that question suggests some deep cultural flaws in our fourth estate.
JF: I think so. To indulge in my own little false equivalence rhapsody for a second, I think you can understand it as an institutional mismatch, as I think most political scientists argued. Even the deeply responsible and careful Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann have argued that the Republican Party is simply, by historical norms, in an extreme way right now. People will feel free to say that in retrospect. We can look back on the 2008 campaign and nobody has any problems with saying Sarah Palin was an extreme and irresponsible choice. But it was very difficult for mainstream reporters to say that then, four years ago. We can look back on Barry Goldwater and say that was an extreme moment for the party.
In real time, it’s an extreme moment for the party, but it is very hard for the institutional press to say that. That’s the kind of tension that has a lot of mainstream journalism wrapped up in knots now. It’s not something they’re used to dealing with.
JH: You’ve written a lot about the abuse of the filibuster -- about 20 posts in the last year.
JF: I’ve gone on at Strom Thurmond-like lengths.
JH: I was very happy to see that. When you see a headline like the Senate kills such and such measure by a 51-47 vote, with 51 votes in favor of the measure -- what impact do you think that has on the average news consumer?
JF: You have to recognize that most people don’t even know what a filibuster is and probably couldn’t name five senators. I think there’s been a profound Republican Party victory in the last five years. Five years ago is when the Democrats won control of the Senate again in the 2006 midterms. So starting in 2007, the Republicans, with Mitch McConnell went into the minority, and for the first time in history they essentially decided to filibuster everything. They subject everything going to the Senate to not a 51 vote requirement, like in the Constitution, but a 60 vote super-majority. They’ve done that so often that they’ve changed people’s sense of what reality is. You have stories in responsible papers saying the measure lost 51-47, when the 51 were for it. You see offhand references that it takes 60 votes to pass the bill. So it’s the biggest recent amendment to the Constitution that’s happened just de-facto. We act as if it requires a super-majority to do anything.