The Washington Post completed its sale to Amazon kingpin Jeff Bezos on Tuesday, and within 24 hours, a new hope was born unto this world. The Post's editors, normally found proudly running the worst opinion section in the history of newspapers, published a piece of government shutdown criticism on Wednesday that's actually legible. And to my astonishment, the editors have successfully -- though perhaps temporarily -- loosened the grip on the tired "both sides do it trope" and instead grasped reality with both hands.
All glory on Jeff Bezos! Washington welcomes you.
Check out these opening paragraphs, folks. I literally had to double-check that I wasn't rolling on molly as I read these words:
Americans’ respect for their Congress has, sad to say, diminished in recent years. But citizens still expect a minimal level of competence and responsibility: Pay the bills and try not to embarrass us in front of the world.
By those minimal standards, this Congress is failing. More specifically, the Republican leaders of the House of Representatives are failing. They should fulfill their basic duties to the American people or make way for legislators who will.
Wowsers, y'all. This is something of a monumental achievement. The Atlantic's James Fallows last week issued a style guide for anyone who wanted to report on the government shutdown story without being thought of as a complete idiot. Fallows specifically mentioned that stories that treated the shutdown "as a 'standoff,' a 'showdown,' a 'failure of leadership,' a sign of 'partisan gridlock,' or any of the other usual terms for political disagreement" were a de facto failure. Fallows went on to note that the correct way of covering the shutdown story involved acknowledging that it is "a ferocious struggle within one party, between its traditionalists and its radical factions, with results that unfortunately can harm all the rest of us."
Just days ago, The Washington Post was failing the Fallows test, publishing a piece that incorrectly captured the shutdown as a "Washington breakdown," and went on to use, as Fallows put it, "every 'fair'-seeming sentiment you might have expected from a talk show in some bygone age." The internecine war within the Republican Party was described as a bilateral "wrenching standoff" that left Washington as a "primitive, leaderless village." All of which was strange enough, but compounding the oddness of it all is that the Post had previously written a news article on the matter that correctly framed the situation as one in which "GOP hardliners" were impeding a "strategy to avoid [a] shutdown." The first paragraph of that article read:
Washington stumbled toward a shutdown as the Republican Party's rebellious right wing on Thursday blocked a strategy by House Speaker John A. Boehner for navigating a series of deadlines to keep the government funded and avoid a first-ever default.
You know, people who work at The Washington Post editorial page really need to read some of the stuff that's being published in this whole "Washington Post" thingy! Happily, the editors who wrote Wednesday's editorial seem to have mostly read the good stuff. And they even seem self-aware, regarding their own tendencies. From their editorial:
We don’t come to that view as rabid partisans. On many of the issues stalemating Washington, we find plenty of blame to go around. We’ve criticized President Obama’s reluctance to pursue entitlement reform. The last time the country reached the debt ceiling, we urged both sides to compromise on revenue and spending in the interest of long-term fiscal soundness.
This time, fiscal responsibility isn’t even a topic. Instead, Republicans have shut much of the government in what they had to know was a doomed effort to derail the Affordable Care Act.
Because I want to foster more editorials like this, I'll dole out some pro tips for free. First, let me point out that when The Washington Post "urged both sides to compromise on revenue and spending in the interest of long-term fiscal soundness" on the occasion of the debt ceiling, this was a terrible mistake, because President Barack Obama decided that he'd give that a try, and it resulted in normalizing the idea that the debt ceiling should be used, in this manner, to broker deals. Hopefully we've all learned how stupid this urging was.
I will also point out that Obama was not actually "reluctant to pursue entitlement reform." The Post editors just failed to take note of all the entitlement reform Obama was offering. In their defense, lots of people seem to have missed this, which was strange because Obama put his entitlement reform offer on a website that anyone could go and read. Ezra Klein explored this matter in detail, in a pair of columns that featured a colloquy with Jonathan Chait, and the inevitable conclusion was that Obama had attempted to pursue entitlement reform, and more people should know about this.
Klein, by the way, is this guy who The Washington Post hired to write about stuff like this, and again, maybe more people at the Post should just read their own paper? You can haz so many avoided mistakes!
Nevertheless, it's nice to hear these folks acknowledge that they've often steered themselves wrong, following Ye Auld Both-Sides-Are-To-Blame trope. Naturally, I understand why using that trope over and over again is so tempting -- it means you don't have to actually pencil in time on your calendar to do a lot of original thinking. This process works really well for Post columnist Robert Samuelson, who just writes the same column over and over again, changing only enough to allude to current events.
The editorial on Wednesday concludes with this bit of gloriousness:
Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Budget Committee chairman and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and their colleagues may be in a difficult political position. Honestly, we don’t much care. They need to reopen the government and let it pay its bills.
I can't underscore enough how important that little sentence, "Honestly, we don't much care" is. The Beltway commentariat's more traditional way of opining on these matters involves caring a great deal about the side that's staked out a position antithetical to the one the editorialist is trying to advocate. Previously, in order to feel comfortable with a column like this, in which the editors are clearly asking for a specific process to be followed, the party that is impeding their desired outcome would get a nice little dollop of sop, something like, "Of course, it should be acknowledged that neither party has been blameless."
The fact that the editors have a take, and bravely stick to it, is a monumental achievement, relatively speaking. It's like they've become vertebrates today! Guys, you are really going to love standing up and walking around. It's so much nicer than just flapping around limply in your own brine.
Perhaps there is hope for this old DC newspaper after all. In recent weeks, the paper has acquired the marvelous writings of the political scientists from The Monkey Cage. They're now doing business on the Post's webpage, and if more people from The Washington Post read their own work, they'll discover just how astute you can become when you are not saying things like "so-and-so needs to show leadership" and "the President needs to use his bully pulpit." Days of high-IQ political coverage are at hand.
But for now, let us treasure this editorial for what it finally manages to provide: sentences with sentience.
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