New York Magazine this week publishes a piece by the New Republic's Ryan Lizza that has sadly become the standard fare in today's political journalism - a fawning, breathless, desperate-to-be-loved-and-accepted- by-the-elite profile not only of the reporter's subject, but of the entire diseased Washington culture. In Lizza's Beltway fantasy land, corruption is a virtue, pay-to-play politics an asset. Forget about democracy, forget about what government and politics is supposed to be about: It's D.C.'s nauseating political underworld as a wonderful Disneyland - and the only ones allowed in are the fat cat donors and the bought-off politicians who can fork over the high price of admission.
In the piece - which is so hackneyed in its deference to supposedly powerful politicians and operatives that it bores to tears - Lizza profiles Sen. Chuck Schumer (D), head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. I'll admit, from my time on Capitol Hill, I grew to admire Schumer's intensity and tenacity - but not his conviction compass, and certainly not his supposedly astute political sense. Lizza, by contrast, is enamored with Schumer, as many of the crop of younger Washington journalists are with their political subjects. Yet interestingly, in his desperate attempt to suck up to Schumer, Lizza inadvertently raises ever-present questions about whether Schumer or the Washington, D.C. Democrats in general really have even a semblance of a clue as to what ordinary people think in the America they hope to win elections in.
This can be best seen in the passages that come after Lizza openly salivates over Schumer's ability to shake down Big Money interests for cash. He then seamlessly moves into the crux of what he claims is Schumer's greatest asset:
"He has embraced that job as if he’d spent his career representing Dubuque rather than Brooklyn. He is obsessed with the health of what he calls his 'marginals,' red-state Democrats who live in fear of being too closely associated with, well, New York liberals like Schumer. He treats the marginals like fragile vases in constant danger of being knocked off their pedestals. Schumer considers every Washington debate in terms of how it will affect the marginals. 'There were some in our caucus that wanted to let the Patriot Act lapse,' he tells me. 'I said that I think we got to change it, and I’ll work to change it, but to let it lapse would be a disaster, particularly for our Democrats in red states. You know, when I go to a drawing room in Manhattan and they say, ‘You got to appeal to our base!’ I say, ‘There is no base in North Dakota!’...'[North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad] voted against the war,' says Schumer, explaining how worried he was about Conrad, one of his marginals."
Here, in a short passage, we see the problem in full relief. The Washington Democratic Party cabal, arrogantly patting itself on the back about how smart it thinks it is in addressing so-called "red states," actually shows just how truly out of touch it is.
Here's what I am talking about. In Washington, the conservative-liberal paradigm as peddled by reporters and politicians often has positively no relation to the real world. "Conservative" as defined in the moneyed, neoconservative environment of Washington really means "corporate" and "pro-war." In Washington, for instance, a "conservative" think tank or politician in Washington is one that supports selling out American jobs by supporting "free" trade agreements, sending Americans off to die in a war based on lies, stripping citizens of their civil liberties and privacy protections, and cutting only the taxes of millionaire campaign donors. But, as I noted in an earlier article for the Nation, these definitions are often wildly out of touch with what Americans of all political stripes outside the Beltway actually support and subscribe to.
So, for example, let's take Lizza's depiction of Schumer as the supposedly brilliant strategist who is so attuned to "red state" Democrats that he's valiantly helping force the party to sell out its convictions. In the key passage, Schumer first frets about those in his party who wanted to severely curtail the Patriot Act. Without stating so bluntly, Schumer essentially labels the Act's opponents as being out of touch with "red states." Lizza then obediently refuses to mention the repeated national polls that show Americans have deep concerns about the Patriot Act and its various abuses of power. But worse, Schumer seems to display absolutely no appreciation for the fact that the Patriot Act finds some of its most vehement opposition in the very red states he purports to understand.
For instance, in Montana - a state that borders the North Dakota that Schumer says he's really worried about - the state legislature near-unanimously passed a resolution condemning the Patriot Act. The same thing happened in the red states of Colorado and Alaska. And it was Idaho Congressman Butch Otter who led the opposition to the Act in the House. In North Dakota - again, the state that Schumer says he really understands - the state has been a battleground for populist outrage at the very kinds of privacy infringements the Patriot Act touches on. For instance, the archconservative Eagle Forum notes that 72% of voters voted in a referendum to overturn a state law that relaxed privacy protections. So to sum up - Schumer, aided by an already indoctrinated Washington reporter, is regurgitating Beltway conventional wisdom that is simply not supported by actual facts.
The same thing is true with the war. Schumer frets that red staters who voted against the war are supposedly going to be in big trouble. But along with national polls that have, for years, shown wide national opposition to the war, a more specific March Quinnipiac College poll shows that a clear majority (52 percent) of red state voters said they "think going to war with Iraq was the wrong thing for the United States." And, adding insult to Schumer's previous blather about the Patriot Act and the Democrats refusal to hold Bush's feet to the fire on his wiretapping program, 51 percent of red state voters also say the President should be forced to get court orders before spying on people.
To be sure, at first glance it may seem surprising that the head of a Senate campaign committee openly displays such little nuanced understanding of the very "red states" he brags about being so supposedly attuned to. And it may seem even more surprising that a reporter wouldn't even think to ask him about these contradictory realities, both on the issues mentioned above, and on the other major issues where Beltway Democrats apply the Washington conservative-liberal continuum that is, essentially, a fairy tale.
But then, if you think about it for a little while, it's not so surprising after all. Washington, D.C. Democrats have been losing elections for the last decade precisely because they are so out of touch. In fact, D.C.-based organizations like the Democratic Leadership Council which arrogantly purport to be most focused on being "in touch" with the heartland are often the most out of touch forces in politics, further reinforcing the notion that the Beltway Democratic Establishment actually cares only about trying to trick the heartland, rather than court it. And while there are certainly a number of courageous, red-state Democrats breaking the mold, they are far outgunned by a Democratic Establishment all-too-comfortable in the minority.
Similarly, the reason the public has become so disillusioned with Washington and the media is because "objective" reporters like Lizza regularly vomit up and refuse to question storylines they are fed without even bothering to wonder whether they have anything to do with reality. Certainly, there is still some terrific political journalism out there - and I have been happy to trumpet the good stuff when it gets out there. But the good stuff is often buried under a flood of the kind of hollow stenography or fiction writing like we see in Lizza's piece.
And perhaps even more depressing, these fairy-tale fabrications sometimes get echoed by a cadre of "liberal," armchair-quarterback pundits in Washington, who are supposed to actually do a bit of fact checking, but who sometimes seem interested only in sucking up to Democratic Establishment power. Just look at the American Prospect's Garance Franke-Ruta who saw the Schumer article and instead of actually trying to look at the facts, simply declared that "Schumer knows what he's doing." Need I say more?
This is not to say Schumer is a bad DSCC chairman. He's not - because anyone who has worked in politics for 5 minutes knows that all the DSCC is is a glorified bank account. A good chairman is someone who makes sure that bank account is filled - that's all.
The desperate-for-attention Schumer would, of course, like us to believe otherwise. He and Lizza would like us to believe that he is some sort of campaign mastermind, with the piece going so far as to actually credit Schumer and the DSCC with being responsible for the demise of Montana Sen. Conrad Burns (R). That assertion, to say the least, negates Burns' self-inflicted wounds, and worse, is a disgusting insult to both the Montana media and the resurgent state Democratic Party here that has so effectively highlighted his infractions.
But, then, Washington Democrats trying to take credit for something that has nothing to do with them is yet another all-too common move by a permanent-minority Establishment more concerned with cooking up and then fesating on its own B.S. than actually winning elections. Until that attitude changes, and D.C. party leaders really get serious about trying to connect with America, it could be a very long road to a Democratic majority. Because until they really get serious, Washington Democrats' campaign message will be nothing more than a distorted Howard Beale-esque rant telling voters, "We're out of touch as hell, and not going to take it anymore." The anger may certainly be genuine - but the total disconnection from reality is always the ultimate poison pill on the campaign trail.