As Republican objections to President Obama's Cabinet picks continue to pile up in the new year, we're watching a strange collision of two favorite media trends inside the Beltway, both of which bolster Republicans.
The first is that Obama hasn't done enough to change the tone in Washington, D.C.; that he hasn't torn down the capitol's stark partisan divide. The second is that, the radical obstructionism Obama faces while trying to change the tone is no big deal. That the monumental obstacles Republicans construct, like opposing Obama's Cabinet picks, represents politics as usual and everybody does it.
It's not and they don't.
But as confirmation battles like the ugly one surrounding Chuck Hagel to become the next Secretary of Defense continue to boil, the press keeps giving Republicans all kinds of cover.
In fact, the Hagel story, in which Obama made an effort to change the tone in Washington, D.C. by including a Republican in his Cabinet, only to have the goodwill gesture trampled by Republicans, perfectly captures the skewed way the news media depict modern-day politics. And the way journalists who beseech Obama to change the tone give him no credit when he tries.
Instead, we're told Obama is courting controversy, he's picking a fight, because he's doing what newly elected presidents have done for centuries in this country, he's selecting respected, well-qualified individuals whom he trusts to serve in his Cabinet. Writing for Bloomberg, Francis Wilkinson suggested that by nominating a Republican, Obama had intensified the Beltway's "polarization."
If this seems unusual, that's because it is. What's also unusual is that the Beltway press mostly refuses to acknowledge the strange obstructionist ways being adopted by the GOP as these dogged cabinet fights continue to roll out.
As New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait noted this week:
The basic assumption is no longer that the president needs only to appoint people who are broadly qualified and not wildly more radical than himself. It's that the cabinet represents a kind of middle ground between the president and the opposing party.
Chait's right. Republicans and their extended right-media attack machine led by Bill Kristol have successfully changed the rules for Cabinet nominees. And the Beltway press has let it happen without an ounce of pushback and, more importantly, without informing news consumers that a radical shift has taken place.
The unprecedented campaign to derail Obama's nominees (and derail people who haven't even been nominated yet) represents an unheard of political strategy in modern American politics. But the press insists on treating it as commonplace. The press for years now has insisted on providing no framework with regards to the radical obstructionism that now defines the GOP.
And so what's the downside for the Republican's strategy of attack, attack and attack? There is none. We've reached the point where if a handful of Republican senators go on the record objecting to a nominee, the way some have done with Hagel, the Beltway press will spend days, if not weeks, churning out stories about his "major fight" brewing to win confirmation, even though, in the case of Hagel, most of the articles quote the same handful of Hagel critics. (Not a single Democratic senator has come out against him.)
Republicans chalk that up as a victory, seeing the Obama White House as using up political capital and being dragged into "grinding personnel" fights, as Politico described it, to accomplish what used to be an almost friction-free process, appointing the Cabinet.
That's not to say previous nominees haven't received 'No' votes. When President George W. Bush nominated Condoleezza Rice to be Secretary of State after her close association with selling and planning the Iraq War, news coverage noted that some Democrats would vote against her. But the press never took seriously the idea that her confirmation would be denied; that there was a major battle brewing.
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer reiterated that point during Rice's relatively easy confirmation: "In this country, it is customary to allow the president to choose his own Cabinet so long as the nominee is minimally qualified."
But as Chait notes, that tradition has now be turned on its head with Republicans (and conservative pundits) insisting the party out of power -- the party that just lost the election -- must be given considerable say in the president's Cabinet picks.
Meanwhile, the news media remain mostly silent about the bizarre turn-about that's unfolding.
Here is a perfect example, from a January 6, Associated Press dispatch [emphasis added]:
Hagel is the second straight Obama favorite for a top national security post to face criticism from Capitol Hill even before being nominated. [Susan] Rice withdrew her name from consideration for secretary of state amid charges from GOP senators that she misled the public in her initial accounting of the attacks on Americans at a diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.
That is accurate, but what's entirely missing? The simple fact that it's unprecedented for parties out of power to mount campaigns to try to block national security cabinet nominees even before they're nominated.
That key fact, the AP leaves out.
Meanwhile, most of the Beltway pundits who have chastised Obama for failing to "change the tone" in Washington have suddenly gone quiet in the wake of Obama's gesture to try to change the tone in Washington.
Following Obama's reelection, National Journal's Ron Fournier, who's written extensively about the need for bipartisan compromise, urged Obama to "reach out to Republicans with concrete and symbolic gestures." You mean like nominating a Republican to be his Secretary of Defense? Apparently not. Fournier this week belittled the Hagel move.
Meanwhile, the day after Obama nominated a Republican, Vietnam Veteran from Nebraska who scored a lifetime rating of 85 from the American Conservative Union, the Wall Street Journal's Gerald Seib wrote a column lamenting the failure of politicians like Obama to work across the aisle in a bipartisan manner. Seib made no mention of Obama's across-the-aisle pick of Hagel.
So yes, the message from Beltway media elites has been quite clear for years: Obama needs to be more bipartisan. He needs to make a bold gesture to break the grip of Washington D.C., gridlock. But when Obama tried to do that this week and the gesture was slapped down by obstructionist Republicans, the press gave the president no credit and pretended the GOP's cabinet blowback was routine.
Obama just can't win with that crowd.
Crossposted at County Fair, a Media Matters blog.