On the trail of "legislate, don't investigate!"

With help from readers, a look at how Republican talking points spread through the media.

Published March 28, 2007 7:35PM (EDT)

I couldn't resist: With help from readers and Salon editorial fellow Jonathan Vanian, I compiled a timeline of the "Democrats should legislate, not investigate!" meme. (After we started, we found some of the trail, but not all of it, in Media Matters.)

It began, as so many such trails do, with the so-called dean of the Washington press corps David Broder. His March 18 Washington Post column, "Democrats' Oversight Offensive," actually gave party leaders credit for taking accountability seriously, after years of Republican neglect. But it closed with this dark warning: "Accountability is certainly important, but Democrats must know that people were really voting for action on Iraq, health care, immigration, energy and a few other problems. Investigations are useful, but only legislation on big issues changes lives."

And away they went. That same weekend, apparently, CNBC's John Harwood said something very similar, which NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams repeated Tuesday, March 20, talking to Tim Russert:

WILLIAMS: Now, Tim, our friend and colleague from CNBC, John Harwood, said on this broadcast over the weekend what may be at work here is the Democrats are finding it's easier to investigate than to legislate. Could that be what's at work here?

RUSSERT: Well, that's a real issue for the Democrats because if they can learn from the Republicans during the Clinton era. The public can get fed up with investigations rather than legislation.

Then Mike Allen at the Politico picked it up and ran with it on Friday, March 23, in a piece that actually attributed the whole setup to unnamed Republicans, noting that "The Republican mantra on Capitol Hill can be summed up this way: 'Democrats can't legislate, so they want to investigate.'" By Sunday, that GOP "mantra" was being chanted by the New York Times' Adam Nagourney and MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell, as Glenn Greenwald and I already noted. All of that blather while USA Today was finding strong public support for the Democrats' investigation into the U.S. attorneys scandal.

What a week! If anyone can find earlier or better examples of the "legislate, don't investigate" mantra, please post it to comments.

By Joan Walsh

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