'False Equivalence' Reaches Onionesque Heights, but in a Real Paper

By James Fallows

I've heard angrily from a number of reporters in the last few days. They are objecting to my claims that mainstream journalism is "enabling" Senate dysfunction by describing it as dysfunction plain and simple, rather than as the result of deliberate and extremely effective Republican strategy. That strategy, over the past four-plus years, has been to apply the once-rare threat of a filibuster to virtually everything the Administration proposes. This means that when the Democrats can't get 60 votes for something, which they almost never can, they can't get nominations confirmed, bills enacted, or most of what they want done.

You can consider this strategy brilliant and nation-saving, if you are a Republican. You can consider it destructive and nation-wrecking, if you are a Democrat. You can view it as just what the Founders had in mind, as Justice Scalia asserted recently at an Atlantic forum. You can view it as another step down the road to collapse, since the Democrats would have no reason not to turn the same nihilist approach against the next Republican administration. Obviously I think it does more harm than good. You can even argue that it's stimulated or justified by various tactics that Democrats have used.

But you shouldn't pretend that it doesn't exist. That was my objection to a recent big Washington Post story on what is wrong with the Senate, which did not contain the word "filibuster." And there is an example again this very day. I wish to Heaven that the item had appeared somewhere else, but it happens that it's also in the Post. A  story on what happened to Obama's jobs-bill proposal in the Senate concentrates on the two Plains States Democrats, Ben Nelson and Jon Tester, who defected during the cloture vote -- and not on the 100% Republican opposition to even bringing this bill up for consideration.

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You should read the whole story to savor it, but I will point out these features:

- Like the previous one, it manages not to use the word "filibuster" while describing why the Administration's programs have not gotten through a Senate that the Democrats "control." The Democrats would actually "control" the Senate if a 51-vote majority were enough to pass most measures. But they don't control it, with 53 Dem+Indep seats, when the 60-vote standard becomes routine. This is too important a fact to be left out of accounts of what is happening in the Senate.

- It reflects so thorough an absorption of the idea that the filibuster-threat is normal business that it describes the latest cloture vote as a vote on the bill itself: "Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), who are both up for reelection next year, took to the Senate floor and delivered a sizeable blow to the bill's prospects by voting against it."  No, they voted against the cloture measure, which they knew had zero chance of getting the necessary 60 votes. Several other Democrats with doubts about the bill itself nonetheless were persuaded to vote for cloture, so that it would end up with a symbolic but ineffective 51-vote majority.

- And the story has this virtuoso suggestion that Democratic wavering really explains why the Republicans don't vote for Administration proposals. Emphasis added:
But if incumbent Democrats in Montana and Nebraska don't see the bill as a viable vote for their political futures, then it should come as no surprise that neither do many - or possibly any, considering Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown's 'no' vote on the jobs bill - Republicans.

With Nelson's and Tester's votes opposition to the bill, Republicans who may have been concerned about its popularity suddenly have an escape hatch. Because if these Democrats think a 'yes' vote is a bad move, how could it be smart for a Republican with an even more conservative constituency to support the same legislation?... GOP members of Congress will now feel a little safer about voting 'no" on a bill that is polling quite well.
"Escape hatch"? "Feel a little safer"? How "could it be smart" to support an Obama plan? It should "come as no surprise" that all the Republicans end up voting against the bill, because that is the Republican strategy. You don't have to present this as some inside-dope subtle game-theory problem, with wavering Republicans watching Nelson and Tester for cues. The explanation is simpler: Mitch McConnell's Senate Republicans have been rock-ribbed in enforcing their strategic choice that opposing the Administration makes policy and political sense.

To anticipate the next round of notes from mainstream reporters: No, I am not suggesting that the polarization and obstruction would go away if reporters began describing it more clearly. At root this is a political problem. But it's a media failure too, and the political problem is all the harder to solve if the media act as if it doesn't exist.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/10/false-equivalence-reaches-onionesque-heights-but-in-a-real-paper/246754/