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Mann, Ornstein Urge Media To Get Smarter On Partisan Polarity, Chris Cillizza Says 'No Thanks!'

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Former Senator Bob Bennett (R-Utah), is just one victim if the GOP's drive toward extreme ideological purity.
Former Senator Bob Bennett (R-Utah), is just one victim if the GOP's drive toward extreme ideological purity.

As you may already know, over the weekend, Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute co-authored a piece for the Washington Post Outlook section titled "Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem."

The piece is part observational and part critical. In it, Mann and Ornstein observe that the "GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics." In describing Republicans' increasing polarization, compared to their opposition, they employ a sports metaphor:

The post-McGovern Democratic Party, by contrast, while losing the bulk of its conservative Dixiecrat contingent in the decades after the civil rights revolution, has retained a more diverse base. Since the Clinton presidency, it has hewed to the center-left on issues from welfare reform to fiscal policy. While the Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25, the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post.

They manage to draw that distinction without holding the Democrats out for being saints, saying, "Democrats are hardly blameless, and they have their own extreme wing and their own predilection for hardball politics." But Mann and Ornstein state, quite reasonably, that "these tendencies do not routinely veer outside the normal bounds of robust politics."

Mann and Ornstein direct the main thrust of their criticism at the political media, saying reporters should probably suspend their traditional fetish for "both sides are equally bad when it comes to [x]" analysis:

We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

Our advice to the press: Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?

Within the body of the piece, Mann and Ornstein set up a very nice way of demonstrating the "distortion" that comes through "a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon." Here's what they have to say about the fate of the Senate's proposed debt-reduction panel: "And seven Republican co-sponsors of a Senate resolution to create a debt-reduction panel voted in January 2010 against their own resolution, solely to keep it from getting to the 60-vote threshold Republicans demanded and thus denying the president a seeming victory."

But here's how the Washington Post covered the defeat of the debt-reduction panel:

Both parties were to blame, [Senator Evan Bayh (D-Ind.)] said. Twenty-three Republicans (and one independent) voted no, seven of them people who had previously co-sponsored the commission bill. So did 22 Democrats, many of them committee chairmen looking out for their own prerogatives.

Emphasis mine. In the piece cited above, the late David Broder uncritically quotes Evan Bayh in order to get to the necessary "both sides are equally bad" trope. But had Broder applied even a cursory examination of the way the votes came down, this wouldn't have made it into print (outside of, perhaps, an article titled, "Whiny Evan Bayh doesn't understand how bills get passed"). See, you can look up the 16 Democratic committee chairpersons, find out who they are, and then see how they voted. As it happens, 10 of the 16 voted for the committee. The six that didn't aren't enough to kill it, if those seven GOP co-sponsors stay at home.

That's a pretty fitting example of the point Mann and Ornstein are trying to make. When a political reporter hangs the blame for the bill's passage on "Democratic committee chairmen," a majority of whom voted to uphold the bill, what purpose does it serve? Besides creating a "both sides are equally bad" fantasy, deflecting the blame away from seven people who clearly wanted the commission to exist right up until the moment President Obama did as well, it serves no purpose at all.

Well, if Mann and Ornstein hoped members of the media would take their advice, they're not off to a good start. This morning, the Post's Chris Cillizza opted to throw shade on their op-ed. Cillizza insists that Democrats are decamping toward the extremes as well:

But, a look at the recent departures from the Senate Democratic ranks suggests their number of moderates is also very much on the decline. Already in 2012, Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.), Jim Webb (Va.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.) have called it quits. Add to that the likes of Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.), Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) all of whom left in 2010, and its clear that the centrist Democratic ranks have taken a major hit over the last four years too.

It's worth pointing out, however, that a lot of the names on that list are people who just opted out of having to argue their continuing incumbency. Is there a lot of affection for people like Ben Nelson and Evan Bayh among progressive elites? Of course not. But we'll never know if there was some sort of extreme ideological rump capable of devouring them at the polls. Joe Sestak did manage to defeat Arlen Specter in a Democratic primary, but is that so unreasonable? We're talking about Pennsylvania Democrats preferring a lifelong Democrat to a lifelong Republican who made a late-career party switch, for the very reasons Mann and Ornstein observe. (Blanche Lincoln, I seem to recall, won her primary, and was defeated in the general by a Republican.)

Meanwhile, on the GOP side, we don't just see a concerted effort to limit their moderate membership. Over the past few years, Utah Sen. Bob Bennett and South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis have both been victimized by their party's move to the ideological outlands; Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar are facing similar pressures in this election cycle.

With the arguable exception of Lugar, none of these men are even close to being moderates -- if it's ideal for the GOP to set up on their own forty-yard line, Bennett and Inglis and Hatch are very comfortably settled in the red zone. What did these men in (or may do Hatch in) has nothing to do with fealty to conservative values. They got marked for elimination because they do not personally want to manifest a high level of snarling, lycanthropic behavior in pursuit of their politics.

Bennett's sin, in fact, was nothing more than partnering with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on a health care reform initiative. (It's fortunate that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has accrued enough celebrity to inoculate himself from the same criticism.) This phenomenon isn't replicable on the left. Ted Kennedy played a huge role in midwiving the No Child Left Behind act into existence. There's plenty of partisan dislike for that law. How successful was the "primary Ted Kennedy" movement?

Cillizza's argument gets weirder:

Look to the debt ceiling negotiations. There was clearly a desire on behalf of Speaker John Boehner to craft a grand bargain with President Obama. What was lacking was the will from the House GOP conference to sign on. And where did that collective lack of will come from? From the fact that when talking to their constituents at home, Republican members grasped the fact that a compromise was not what the people who elected them wanted. At all.

I'm so, so sorry, but doesn't this ... prove what Mann and Ornstein were talking about? Obama and Boehner were close to a "grand bargain," which was scuttled by Boehner's caucus. Between Boehner and Obama, who paid the political cost for the collaboration? If anyone, it was Boehner, who occasionally draws "primary John Boehner" threats from grass-roots extremists. Had the bargain gone through, what would have been the political cost to Obama, other than drawing the poisonous affections of Thomas Friedman?

Yes, the GOP electorate is less amenable to compromise, but in considering the debt ceiling issue, that's largely irrelevant. Should Mitt Romney become president, he will request that the debt ceiling be raised on multiple occasions. The Democrats will, in all likelihood, offer some critique, but in the end, they'll grant the request, because they do not believe that a gun should be held to the head of the global economy for the sake of scoring cheap political points. Meanwhile, you can expect GOP lawmakers to go along with the request, because they'll probably remember that Romney has an "R" next to his name. The GOP base will allow this, because it will count as a "Romney win."

Beyond that, how are we still writing sentences like "Look to the debt ceiling negotiations," without immediately noting, "Why did we have these negotiations in the first place? Oh yeah, because the right went crazy?" Because, as Mann and Ornstein note, the media is still very committed to making a "balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon."

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