15 October 2013

The false equivalence of party and government

You may not expect to see an attack on the so-called "false equivalence" of Republican and Democratic intransigence, as portrayed by the mainstream media, in a mainstream media organ like Time magazine. Yet that's where I read media critic James Poniewozik's piece, an attack on his peers for failing to describe the shutdown/debt-ceiling crisis accurately. Poniewozik argues that "seeming fair becomes more important than being fair" at times like these. That is, a desire to appear nonpartisan only obscures the fact that the present crisis is not bipartisan in origin. I can agree with that to a point. But does Poniewozik pass his own test? Does he describe the crisis accurately? Here's his attempt:

One party (in fact, essentially one wing of the Republican party), seeking the elimination or delay of Obamacare precipitated a government shutdown and threatened to force a default on U.S. debt. Period. There was no corresponding threat or demand on the Democratic or White House side; having gotten the Affordable Care Act into law three years ago, they are not in the situation of saying, “Pass Obamacare or we shut ‘er down.”

That looks right at first glance, but it doesn't entirely explain why we have a crisis. Poniewozik's account needs a slight correction. The decisive fact is that the House of Representatives precipitated a government shutdown. That body happens to be controlled by the Republican party, but how you approach the crisis depends, to some extent, on whether you perceive your antagonist as merely a party or a branch of the government. As has been stated repeatedly by partisans and nonpartisans alike, the House has the power of the purse and has used it in the past to force government shutdowns while negotiating with the Senate or the President. The Republican argument for the past two weeks has been that the President has an obligation to negotiate with the House of Representatives. The President's view, and that of most Democrats, is that he doesn't have to negotiate with the Republican party. From that perspective, which Poniewozik ignores, the White House and the Democrats have made a "corresponding threat or demand:" fund Obamacare or we shut 'er down -- or default. That doesn't put Democrats less in the right on the issue of Obamacare itself, practical issues notwithstanding, but it does help account for the crisis without heaping 100% of the blame on the Republicans or the House as a body.

Poniewozik probably anticipated this argument. Here's the next paragraph of his article:

That’s the situation. To accurately describe it, as news coverage should, is not to endorse an ideology. It’s not to say that Obamacare is good or bad. It’s not to say that Republicans do or don’t have good reasons to oppose it. It’s not to say that Democrats have or haven’t sought political benefit in the aftermath. But it correctly places the impetus where it belongs.

In other words, the discussion begins and ends with "they started it." Poniewozik throws in a disclaimer, arguing that the "they started it" argument can be "used as a crowbar to leverage coverage in one direction or to obscure issues." Sometimes, however, "they started it" is an appropriate analysis  of an extraordinary situation, and Poniewozik contends that this is such a time because a win for the Republicans (as opposed to the House) would set a precedent for "renegotiating major pieces of law" by forcing a fiscal crisis. It's an arguable point. But as long as the House has the power to force this issue, can we really depend on Democrats' ability to break the opposite party's will? Poniewozik's party-based analysis suggests a test of wills as an appropriate response, but recognizing that the problem exists only because of the power of the House, regardless of who controls it, points to the necessity of more fundamental change as the only long-term solution. That may not be the story Poniewozik prefers to report, but it's the big picture for all of us.


Anonymous said...

"the Democrats have made a corresponding threat or demand: fund Obamacare or we shut 'er down "
I do believe that is an incorrect assessment. As "Obamacare" was already passed into law, the government - until it repeals the law - is obliged to fund it. What you really have hear is teabaggers saying (more-or-less) "We refuse to meet our legal fiscal responsibilities because we don't like you and we don't like your law. And to prove it, we are willing to shut down the gubbermint and everything that citizens are legally entitled to until we get our way." It is fair and accurate to completely blame the teabagger repugnicans for this. The democrats are not at fault in this particular case. To claim otherwise is to distort the truth and to slant your bias towards the right.

Samuel Wilson said...

Your assessment corresponds with common sense, but our system of government doesn't. We are in our present crisis (which is reportedly headed toward an eleventh-hour resolution as I write) because Congress is not legally obliged to fund any particular law. The Gephardt Rule addressed this constitutional omission but since it was only a rule Congress made for itself, it could be repealed and was by the Gingrich House. Gingrich apparently saw the Gephardt Rule as license for unrestrained borrowing, but something like that, preferably a "Gephardt Amendment" to the Constitution, seems to be necessary to orderly government. Historically, the Tea Party definitely should be blamed, but we need to remember that it was the system that allowed them to create this crisis. The long-term remedy is not just defeating the Tea Party but changing the system so that there is no ambiguity about the obligation to fund the government.