False Equivalence, Obamacare, the Government Shutdown, and the Failure of the Beltway Media

With a government shutdown perhaps a little more than a day away, the nonsense emanating out of Washington is heavier than usual, but this bit of claptrap on Twitter by a fellow who normally seems like a pretty decent journalist, Mark Halperin, got my blood up this morning:

Tips for inciting left/right attacks on CR tweets: say both sides share blame; say media is doing its best; say Obama/Boehner both good men

— Mark Halperin (@MarkHalperin) September 29, 2013


I’d like to take issue with at least two of Mr. Halperin’s three points of contention.

First of all, how exactly is this whole mess even partially the Democrats’ fault? Allow me to recap precisely what is happening here. The House Republicans, attempting to appease their wacko primary voters who might otherwise vote them out unless they stick it to the black man in the White House, sent a bill to fund the government to the Senate that would defund “Obamacare.” That, of course, would be the most notable accomplishment of the Obama presidency, which hasn’t even been implemented yet.

OK, let me pause here for a quick civics lesson. Generally, when a law is enacted, it is given time to work before we determine it is a failure. If it does, in fact, fail to work as hoped, we overturn it at that time and try something else. We don’t strangle it in the crib before we see whether or not it is actually going to do what we hope it will do. This latter thing—strangling it in the crib—is what Republicans are proposing to do because they believe it won’t work, or perhaps more correctly, because they fear it will work.

So, to get back to where we were: the House Republicans sent a bill to the Senate that would condition the funding of government operations IF the Senate Democrats agree to take away all funding for their chief accomplishment that hasn’t even been implemented yet.

The House Republicans had to know that this proposal would be rejected, as in fact it was; the Senate amended the bill to take out the defunding of Obamacare and sent it back to the House. At this point, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), who is not normally known for standing up to Republican bullying, told the House: stop wasting our time. We are not going to agree to gut our own healthcare bill, so send us something else.

The House Republicans responded by passing another bill, this one delaying Obamacare (which is what you do when you can’t defund it outright—you delay it and delay it until you get control of the government, and then you kill it). And when it became even more clear that Harry Reid really wasn’t bluffing (which, let’s face it, the Republicans already knew), they pivoted to a third bill that, also, will take steps to prevent Obamacare from ever taking effect.

I’d like Mr. Halperin to answer this question: exactly what part of this is the Democrats’ fault? The Republicans have made it plain that they will shut down the government unless the Democrats agree to give up on the centerpiece of their brief control of the government from 2009-11. They have given the Democrats no other options; they have put no other proposals on the table. It’s either gut Obamacare or government shutdown. Every time the Senate Democrats say “Leave Obamacare out of the funding bill or we won’t pass it,” the House Republicans send the Senate another bill attacking Obamacare. How, exactly, are the Democrats even partially to blame for the fact that they are being blackmailed by obstinate, childish Republicans? That is a case of “victim blaming” on an epic level.

As to Mr. Halperin’s second point (the media is doing its best)—please. Today’s media covering federal government and politics, with a few exceptions, appears to be a hapless collection of glorified stenographers who feel their only responsibility is to accurately report what either side says. So if one side lies, and the other side tells the truth, both are given equal weight because it is not the media’s responsibility to actually find and report objective facts. If they merely present each side’s talking points accurately, they seem to believe that they have done their job properly. “Team A says the sky is blue, and Team B says the sky is pink with purple polka dots. We report; you decide!”

As to Mr. Halperin’s third point, that President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) are both good men, well, that one may well be correct. From my observations over the last few years, I’ve always gotten the impression that Boehner would like to cut a deal with the president, but that the absolute loons on the far right of his caucus have blocked him from doing so. But even this point, if correct, is irrelevant to the larger point. That point, simply put, is this: the Republicans are so hell-bent on strangling Obamacare in the crib that they are willing to shut the government down to do it. Shouldn’t the media be making that point and, more importantly, asking why?

Did Pressure-Based Diplomacy Win The Day In Syria?

As President Obama prepares to go on the airwaves to seek support for a military attack on Syria, a new development has entered the equation. A new Russian proposal would have international monitors take control of Syria’s chemical weapons, offering everybody involved a face-saving way out.

For the president, the Russian plan is a lifeline. Having been trapped by his own pledge to become involved in Syria’s civil war if dictator Bashir al-Assad used chemical weapons— which hawks like Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and his protege, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) have used to put constant pressure on him—Obama needed a way out to avoid an unpopular attack. He made a smart political move to put the onus on Congress—which, importantly, broke a longstanding precedent of presidents violating Congress’s constitutional war-making prerogative—but this gives him an opportunity to get out of the trick bag cleanly.

If the deal happens, and Syria gives up its chemical weapons, President Obama can say—probably not without justification—that his threats of force brought the Syrians to heel. He will have won, through a triumph of pressure diplomacy and the happy coincidence of the Russians saving his political bacon, a diplomatic triumph without firing a shot. One wonders if he and Russian president Vladimir Putin didn’t cook this up during the recent G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. If so, it was a brilliant move by both presidents. It gets Obama out of a political mess at home, and it makes Putin look like a positive contributor to the global diplomatic scene—not exactly a familiar role for the often-criticized, autocratic Russian leader.

In fact, it is probably Putin who comes out the big winner here. It’s a PR coup for him, at home and abroad; this marks a major return to the world leadership arena for a country that has suffered a crisis of confidence since losing the Cold War and seeing the Soviet empire break apart at the seams. Putin can make the case that Russia is back on the world stage—if not quite at the top, then at least near the head of the table.

But even if Putin is the big winner, Obama can also come out smelling like a rose too, which seemed impossible just a day ago.

I have been a harsh critic of the president’s push for military intervention in Syria over the last few weeks. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe he was gambling that mere bluster and threats would win the day, and he wouldn’t have the need to actually engage militarily. I obviously have no idea, but if that was his plan, it wouldn’t be the first time Obama was playing chess while everyone else was playing tic-tac-toe.

Assuming the Syrian government takes the deal—and it would probably be stupid not to, because what it gives up in chemical weapons, the Russians will more than make up for with conventional ones—it looks like this thing may have just come together as well as possible, and that rarely happens by accident. The only losers here appear to be the Syrian rebels, and given the uncertain character and composition of their movement, that may not be a terrible thing. Assad’s a bad guy, sure, but sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.