Reporting on the contentious, drawn-out political battle surrounding President Obama's decision to pick Republican Chuck Hagel to be his next secretary of defense, Politico recently noted the extraordinary partisan acrimony the confirmation process has produced.
With Republicans adopting an unprecedented obstructionist strategy to block a premier cabinet post by lodging all kinds of threats to "hold" the confirmation or even to try to deny Hagel a Senate vote, Politico concluded the controversy meant problems for party leaders, including Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI).
"Levin faces a conundrum," Politico reported. "He can force a party-line vote on Hagel, but that could damage the committee's longtime bipartisan spirit."
This makes no sense.
By launching a drawn out campaign against Hagel, Republicans have torn up decades worth of tradition on the Senate Armed Services Committee in terms of working across party lines to confirm secretaries of defense. But according to Politico it's the Democratic chairman who faces a "conundrum" over the lack of "bipartisan spirit" in the Senate. It's the Democrat who has to deal with the "damage" done by Republican maneuvers.
Sometimes it seems the Beltway press will do anything to avoid blaming Republicans for their wildly obstructionist ways. It's a pattern of timidity that has marked Obama's time in Washington, D.C. Indeed, the press for years now has insisted on providing no framework with regards to the radical ways that now define the GOP.
By refusing to hold Obama's opponents accountable, and by actually making media stars out of the ones who actively obstruct, the press simply encourages the corrosive behavior. (By the way, this is the same Beltway press corps that has routinely blamed Obama for not successfully changing the tone in Washington.)
Both in terms of Republican obstructionist behavior and the press' unwillingness to call it what it is, the trend has reached its pinnacle with the current confirmation mess. And it's getting worse. Fox News this week reported Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was threatening to block a confirmation vote on Jack Lew, selected by the president to be the next secretary of treasury.
Discarding centuries worth of advise-and-consent tradition (i.e. the winning president picks his cabinet), Republicans have radically rewritten the cabinet confirmation rulebook while journalists have stood quietly by, not bothering to inform news consumers about the dramatic shift taking place. Instead, the press treats it all as being commonplace; as just more partisan bickering.
And when not downplaying the ramifications or erroneously suggesting Obama's "picking fights" with "controversial" cabinet picks like Hagel, journalists have bungled the story altogether, giving Republicans political cover in the process.
Appearing on Fox News on Monday to discuss the Hagel impasse and the various hurdles Republicans keep putting up while plotting ways to put off his confirmation vote, Roll Call's associate political editor David Drucker said, "Everybody argues it's politics, but everybody does it." He claimed the party out of power often does this for key cabinet positions.
I understand that political journalists operate under the constant threat of the Liberal Media Bias mob that the GOP Noise Machine perpetually whips up. Pointing out the Republican's radical path of obstructionism would certainly draw the wrath of the right-wing. But sometimes that's the price reporters have to pay for practicing journalism. And this week journalism does not mean simply reporting that Republicans continue to try to delay and block high-level cabinet appointees. It means reporting that it's never been done with this frequency before in modern American history.
The endless, never-before-seen attacks on Obama's Cabinet choices (and would-be choices, such as Susan Rice who was preemptively attacked; an unheard of partisan strategy) have been going on for months now since Election Day. But we've only recently begun to see efforts by journalists to include context regarding how unusual the Republican confirmation behavior has been.
But the filibuster threat -- reiterated Monday by Sen. Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee -- would make Hagel just the third Cabinet nominee in history to require 60 votes to overcome a filibuster on the Senate floor. The other two nominees were President Ronald Reagan's 1987 choice to head his Commerce Department, C. William Verity, and President George W. Bush's 2006 choice of Dirk Kempthorne to be secretary of the interior.
So this kind of obstructionism is abnormal but it's not entirely new, Politico seemed to suggest, noting recent Republican presidents have faced similarly dug-in Democratic opponents when trying to fill out their cabinets.
In the case of Reagan, it was a group of Republican senators who threatened to filibuster Reagan's Commerce pick because he wasn't sufficiently conservative. And with regards to Bush's pick of Kempthorne to head Interior, there was Capitol Hill chatter about a Democratic hold being placed on his confirmation, but in the end it didn't amount to anything.
Looking back at the news coverage, the Beltway press never took seriously the idea that either Kempthorne's or Verity's confirmation would be blocked or that a major battle was brewing. In the end, Verity won 84 votes of support and Kempthorne was easily confirmed on a Senate voice vote.
All of which means we've never seen anything like the coordinated, dubious efforts by outside conservative groups and Republican members in Congress to block Hagel's confirmation. (Or to make sure Rice was never nominated.) As Sen. Levin noted yesterday, we've never seen a secretary of defense nominee like Hagel be asked to provide detailed financial information about non-profit organizations that have paid him in the past.
It's all unheard of. But if you turn on cable news you'll hear a Beltway editor claim "everybody does it."
They didn't. Until now.
Crossposted at County Fair, a Media Matters for America blog.
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