D.C.'s most infuriating pundit: What drives Ron Fournier's "leadership" fetish?

When National Journal's Ron Fournier demands that Obama "lead," what does he really want? And why does he want it?

Published October 19, 2013 1:45PM (EDT)

Ron Fournier          (AP)
Ron Fournier (AP)

If there’s one thing to know about mainstay Beltway journalist Ron Fournier, it’s this: He wants Obama to "lead." For months, if not years, that’s been the former AP Washington bureau chief and current National Journal writer's mantra. In his columns and through his Twitter feed, it's the repeated refrain: Yes, Obama faces an extremist and obstructionist Republican Party; yes, Obama is president during a time of near-unprecedented political polarization; yes, Obama is just one actor in a complex and sclerotic constitutional system; yes, yes, yes …

But can he lead?

On this score, Fournier is such a broken record that it's become something of a running joke on Twitter to ask his signature question when the answer is self-evident:


There have also been more substantive reactions. The Huffington Post's Jason Linkins wrote this epic take-down, and the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent — one of Fournier’s chief Twitter sparring partners — has devoted a superhuman amount of effort to understanding (and critiquing) Fournier's undetailed, unexplained "leadership" obsession. Even the usually above-the-fray Ezra Klein has deconstructed Fournier's thinking. In all three cases, Fournier's understanding of presidential power is called the "Green Lantern Theory," which basically holds that, like the comic book hero, presidents can change the world through sheer force of will. Or at least the great ones can. As Fournier once put it, "Great presidents overcome great hurdles."

That's a nice tautology, but it still doesn't give us a more concrete understanding of what Fournier actually means when he talks about "leadership."

It's not about Obama's words; Fournier frequently credits Obama for saying the "right" things. And it's not about Obama's failure to be a backslapping D.C. schmoozer (though Fournier isn't above making that silly complaint). What you find out, if you drill a little deeper into Fournier's work, is that "leadership" isn't one way of acting but is rather any way of acting that’s in service to one particular policy goal. That goal? "[A] long-term budget deal that raises taxes and tames entitlements." That’s right; it’s the holy grail of the D.C. establishment media crowd: the so-called grand bargain.

For those who don't know: The way the grand bargain is generally understood is that Democrats agree to cut Medicare and Social Security (aka “entitlements”) while Republicans agree to raise taxes on the wealthy. Essentially, both sides decide to do what their most loyal supporters hate the most, and as a result the U.S. reduces its long-term debt. And maybe everyone gets a pony.

Anyway, once you understand what Fournier’s ultimately after, his words take on a different meaning. "Can Obama lead?" loses its slightly mystical, heroic character and becomes a rather more prosaic question: "Will Obama please agree to cut Medicare and Social Security for many Americans who rely on it?" And this is the question that, in his exhortations for Obama to "lead," he's been asking over and over again. For an example, check out these three questions Fournier says confront the president in the wake of his victory over Republicans in the government shutdown (italics his):

Does he have the guts to anger liberal backers with a budget deal on Social Security and Medicare?

Is he willing to engage sincerely with Republicans?

Does he want a legacy beyond winning two elections and enacting a health care law that, judging by its horrendous launch, may never live up to its promise?

In reality, these aren’t three questions, but rather one question — the first one — formulated in three different ways. After all, how would Obama “anger liberal backers”? By offering cuts to Social Security and Medicare. And how would he prove he's ready to "engage sincerely with Republicans"? By offering cuts to Social Security and Medicare. And how would he secure a legacy "beyond winning two elections and enacting a health care law that ... may never live up to its promise"? You guessed it — by offering cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Every way you turn, you end up where you started: offering cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

Yet, after composing countless articles and Tweets begging for this goal, what actually motivates Fournier's deficient obsession -- whether ideology, simpleness or groupthink -- still remains unclear. Because he never explains.

Naturally, taking all of the above into account, one might conclude Fournier is a crypto-Republican. The case would be simple: He directs his frustration primarily at the president — despite the fact that it’s been the anti-tax Tea Party right, and not Obama, that’s held up the sacred grand bargain in the past — and he tirelessly advocates for cutting a welfare state that is already, in the face of record inequality, rather stingy.

But if this were the case, and Fournier were truly a GOPer in disguise, he wouldn’t also push for higher taxes; that’s verboten among Republicans nowadays. And he probably wouldn’t spend as much time as he does granting that the GOP is extremist and unreasonable — he’d deny the fact rather than demand Obama simply find a way to transcend it. (Yes, Fournier has a history of being a little too cozy with GOP operatives and pols; but a box of doughnuts hardly constitutes a smoking gun.)

What's perhaps just as likely is that Fournier doesn’t even think of his affinity for a grand bargain as a subjective, ideological stance. It's less thought-out than that. In his world, the sanctity of the grand bargain is merely an objective fact that need not be defended or explained. To him, it's simply obvious that the long-term debt projections necessitate a grand bargain in the here and now. Neither the fact that the main driver of U.S. debt is healthcare spending (not Social Security), nor that Medicare is outperforming the private market when it comes to controlling costs seem to make a dent. It would appear the allure of the Grand Bargain is just too strong!

And, ultimately, that's really what this is all about: the grand bargain, that political treasure for a certain class of self-styled Serious-minded people. Why the hyper-wealthy want it is easy to guess; they don't need Medicare or Social Security, and they know any passed tax increase will be microscopic. But why do pundits like Ron Fournier want it just as badly? We'll need someone — perhaps the man himself — to explain why a grand bargain is such good policy. In keeping with his stories and tweets on the topic, he declined Salon's request to do so for this story.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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