It's even worse than Fox News: How Ted Cruz and Michele Bachmann get away with it

Hannity helps, but right-wing obstruction and lies take hold because the centrist, objective press wears blinders

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published August 9, 2014 12:15PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Lucas Jackson/Fox News/AP/Susan Walsh/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Lucas Jackson/Fox News/AP/Susan Walsh/Photo montage by Salon)

"It all started when he hit me back!" That's what the GOP is claiming, in a nutshell, when they try to convince the Beltway media that impeaching President Obama is a Democratic Party scaremongering fantasy/marketing scam.

It was fine for conservative Republicans to make all sorts of noise about impeaching Obama—since 2009, starting with Michael Savage, a mere 50 days after Obama's inauguration, and with Darrell Issa jumping in as early as 2010—just as they clamor about Obama not even really being president (“show us the real birth certificate!”), about using ACORN to steal his way into the White House, about being secretly Muslim, etc. With so many scurrilous false accusations flooding the lifeblood of the Republican Party, how could they not talk about impeaching him? Yet, when Democrats recently got serious about pushing back? Now, all of a sudden, it's a matter of politics! Partisan spin! Cynical manipulation! And what's truly pathetic, the Beltway media (typified by Politico) eats it up, or else “balances” it by blaming both sides (à la MSNBC's Chuck Todd) -- as the Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky and the Nation's Leslie Savan scathingly pointed out, after which Michele Bachmann and Steve King both engaged in more impeachment talk!

It would be bad enough if this political dynamic were a one-time phenomenon, but it's not. As Savan pointed out, this is standard operating procedure for the GOP:

We’ve seen this political blame-the-victim game before. Republicans from Glenn Beck to Karl Rove blamed Obama for keeping the birther issue alive by not releasing his long-form birth certificate as soon as they demanded it. (When he did, the Trump-led crazies received a very public pie in the face.) Last October, Republicans with presidential ambitions, like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, blamed Obama for the government shutdown, even though they both voted for it and maneuvered around their leadership to make it happen. It’s worth recalling that before the shutdown went down, Boehner insisted that it was going nowhere—just as he now swears that impeachment ain’t gonna happen.

But what's worse, it's not just standard operating procedure for the GOP to blame the victim. It's SOP for the so-called “liberal media” to play along with the GOP, savaging Democrats when they occasionally do push back hard. We could see that same sort of logic underlying PolitiFact proclaiming it the "Lie of the Year" in 2011 that Republicans supporting the Ryan budget plan wanted to end Medicare: Republicans launched outrageous attacks; Democrats fought back; the media punished Democrats for getting hysterical.

Remember, PolitiFact gave Republicans their “Lie of the Year” award for “death panels” in 2009, and for calling Obamacare a “government takeover of healthcare” in 2010—two clear, obvious, and politically potent base-mobilizing lies, which the GOP desperately needed to rely on, since Obamacare is basically a Republican idea [Heritage Foundation/RomneyCare], with hundreds of GOP amendments adopted in the legislative process as well. Ruled by the false logic equivalency, PolitiFact had to award the 2011 lies of the year to Democrats, preferably involving health care—which is exactly what they did, in their own incredibly tortured manner, which I critiqued extensively at the time—citing various others as well. Even a blogger at NRO's The Corner reviewed PolitiFact's top three indictments of what Democrats had said, and concluded, “I don’t think any of these examples rise to the level of 'lie,' much less 'Lie of the Year.'”

Perhaps PolitiFact's most preposterous claim was that the Ryan Plan didn't “end Medicare” because there would still be a program called “Medicare,” even though it wouldn't provide guaranteed health care for seniors anymore (vouchers would replace government-insured services, and their value would fall farther and farther behind inflation over the years). The absurdity of this argument was exposed most dramatically by...PolitiFact itself, in its Wisconsin state incarnation, as I explained in my story:

Further dramatising the partisan tilt, the day before PolitiFact's national chapter announced their list of "lie of the year" finalists on December 2, their Wisconsin chapter ruled that former Governor Tommy Thompson was telling the truth when he made the remarkably similar claim that he had "ended welfare" as Wisconsin governor in the 1990s, even though programmes continued, albeit with major rule changes. In contrast, with the Democrat's nationally-identified "lie of the year," programmes would not continue, they would all be privatised. These two arguably fuzzy cases were strikingly similar, yet the ratings assigned were wildly divergent.

Such are the absurd lengths that dogmatic centrist ideologues will go to in order to rationalize their “both sides do it” worldview. But to really understand what's going on with PolitiFact and those who think like them, we need to shift focus from the surface to the depths—from the items that float up as “lie of the year” candidates to the very different ways that those on the left and the right are routinely expected to operate.

Put simply, there are two sets of rules: one for liberals and Democrats, the other for conservatives and Republicans. The former are supposed to be fair-minded and rule-abiding, as befits a tradition that harkens back to the likes of Jefferson, Madison, Montesquieu and Locke. The latter are expected to be Nixonian streetfighters—whatever they do is "just politics," and "everybody does it," so there's "nothing to see here."

These differences are deeply rooted in political culture. Liberalism descends from a long line of urban-, commercial- and professional-based culture, built on three major movements that have shaped the modern Western world: the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. It is primarily bourgeois, though influenced by proletarian strivings from below. Success in this world—a non-zero-sum game—is largely reflected in the uncoerced judgement of one's equals, one’s peers. Conservatism's roots, in contrast, are rural, provincial and aristocratic, centered in institutions of hierarchy: the military, the church and, more recently, big business, as well as the patriarchal family. Success in this zero-sum world comes from subordinating others to one's will, from coercing them, from escaping the judgement of one's equals and peers—indeed, even from denying that one has equals or peers. These cultural differences—which even stretch back as far as ancient Greece—are in turn built upon differences in psychology and physiology, as I recently wrote about here at Salon.

For months, years, even decades on end, liberals and Democrats have played by these bifurcated rules, and they have repeatedly gotten clobbered as a result. The single biggest reflection of this lies with attitudes toward presidential impeachment. Republicans and conservatives routinely think of impeaching Democratic presidents, expending considerable energy to roil their bases, elaborating paranoid, fantastical, conspiratorial narratives. Democrats do quite the opposite—preemptively discouraging talk of impeachment, even when major political scandals raise serious questions of legitimate rule.

When the Iran/Contra scandal broke in late 1986, for example, Democratic lawmakers preemptively indicated that impeachment was not on the table, and although they controlled the Senate, in December they appointed an investigative committee weighted in favor of Reagan's Central American policies implicated in the scandal. Just three of the six Democrats appointed (along with five Republicans) had voted against funding the Contras the previous August, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported at the time. The intent not to investigate aggressively could not be more clear—though couched in the language of “responsibility”:

Democratic leader Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who held a joint news conference with Republican Leader Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas to announce their selections, lauded the high caliber of his six Democratic choices.

He said he took care to pick senators "who will be fair, who will be tough, who will not be out to get anybody and who will not be out to protect anybody, but who will be interested in revealing to the public the facts, all the facts, and nothing but the facts."

… Acknowledging the conservative cast of the committee, [Democrat Howell] Heflin [of Alabama] said he saw no deliberate attempt to exclude liberals--only a determination by both Senate leaders to put together a "fairly impartial" panel of members that will ''not jump to a conclusion or who are not of the knee-jerk variety."

Said Heflin, "We are seeking the truth here, and I hope it doesn't end up in an adversary posture."

Indeed, the intent was not even to investigate competently. Conspicuous by his absence was John Kerry, the only member of the Senate who had already begun investigating the Contras, and who had staffers who were deeply knowledgeable about the investigative details. As explained in Salon in 2004 by Robert Parry—coauthor of the initial AP stories on the Contras:

In December 1985, when Brian Barger and I wrote a groundbreaking story for the Associated Press about Nicaraguan Contra rebels smuggling cocaine into the United States, one U.S. senator put his political career on the line to follow up on our disturbing findings. His name was John Kerry....

In early 1986, the 42-year-old Massachusetts Democrat stood almost alone in the U.S. Senate demanding answers about the emerging evidence that CIA-backed Contras were filling their coffers by collaborating with drug traffickers then flooding U.S. borders with cocaine from South America....

In taking on the inquiry, Kerry challenged President Ronald Reagan at the height of his power, at a time he was calling the Contras the “moral equals of the Founding Fathers.” Kerry’s questions represented a particular embarrassment to Vice President George H.W. Bush, whose responsibilities included overseeing U.S. drug-interdiction policies.

Although Kerry's final report would not be issued until 1989, an interim report released on Oct. 16, 1986—the month before the Iran/Contra scandal officially broke—linked Oliver North to the Contras via a former Senate staffer, Robert Owen, and implicated the Contras in drug trafficking. If there was any interest in getting to the truth in the Iran/Contra investigation, Kerry and his staff members would have been the top draft picks for the Senate committee. Instead, they were left out in the cold.  Still, the truth eventually did come out.

The Iran/Contra special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, was a lifelong Republican who had been appointed to the federal bench by Dwight Eisenhower. Walsh's 1997 book about the scandal and its investigation, "Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up," primarily drew its title from the firewall protecting Vice President Bush from prosecution, as he was operationally closer to the action than Reagan was. However, Walsh's investigation clearly established that both men had committed unambiguously impeachable acts. When "Firewall" came out, Parry wrote about it:

According to "Firewall," the cover-up conspiracy took formal shape at a meeting of Reagan and his top advisers in the Situation Room at the White House on Nov. 24, 1986. The meeting's principal point of concern was how to handle the troublesome fact that Reagan had approved illegal arms sales to Iran in fall 1985, before any covert-action finding had been signed. The act was a clear felony--a violation of the Arms Export Control Act--and possibly an impeachable offense.

Though virtually everyone at the meeting knew that Reagan had approved those shipments through Israel, Attorney General Edwin Meese announced what would become the cover story. According to Walsh's narrative, Meese "told the group that although [NSC adviser Robert] McFarlane had informed [Secretary of State George] Shultz of the planned shipment, McFarlane had not informed the president.

All this is a matter of public record—but it's far less publicly known than all manner of purely invented “scandals” attributed to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. At the root of that difference is a profound ambivalence, at best, toward aggressive investigation and truth-telling on the liberal/Democratic side.

It's undoubtedly true that many Democrats thought that their restraint in not going after Reagan or Bush would help to set a productive bipartisan tone going forward—but in this they were sorely disappointed, as Republicans almost immediately began to look for ways to bring down Bill Clinton's presidency. As if the record of under-investigating Iran/Contra weren't enough, there was another impeachment-worthy investigation that the Democrats also tanked, and which Parry also reported on, as I explained in a Salon story this June.

In 1992-93, there was a House investigation into the "October Surprise," the reported effort by the 1980 Reagan/Bush campaign to delay Iran's release of the hostages taken from the American embassy until after the election. As Parry reported in a 1995 series, “The October Surprise X-Files," the report was all but finished in January 1993, when a belated report from Russian intelligence came in, basically confirming key elements of the October Surprise:

To the shock of the task force, the six-page Russian report stated, as fact, that Casey, George Bush and other Republicans had met secretly with Iranian officials in Europe during the 1980 presidential campaign. The Russians depicted the hostage negotiations that year as a two-way competition between the Carter White House and the Reagan campaign to outbid one another for Iran’s cooperation on the hostages. The Russians asserted that the Reagan team had disrupted Carter’s hostage negotiations after all, the exact opposite of the task force conclusion….

But apparently, there was no serious follow-up….

So, in short, in the course of just over six years, congressional Democrats effectively tanked not one, but two investigations that might have uncovered impeachable acts by two Republican presidents—and Republicans, over the next six years, responded by impeaching Bill Clinton—only the second president ever impeached!—for lying about sex.

Clearly, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, represent two entirely different ways of approaching the world. What liberals/Democrats see as “acting responsibly,” trying to “minimize partisan sparring,” “focusing on the business of government,” and “serving the American people” are seen by conservatives/Republicans as showing signs of incredible weakness and lack of resolve, which are an open invitation for them to utterly crush everyone and everything that might possibly stand in their way. It's not an invitation to peace, but to war—or, more accurately, to slaughter or wanton terrorism.

This is not a caricature. Ted Cruz is not a caricature. He's a real live U.S. senator. Newt Gingrich is not a caricature. He was a real live speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Dick Cheney is not a caricature. He was a real live vice president of the United States. For all these men—and countless legions more—any sign of compromise is always and automatically a sign of weakness. And that's not just how they see Democrats, as Ted Cruz's talk of Republican “squishes” makes absolutely clear.

Now, every once in a while, something unusual happens. A significant chunk of liberals and Democrats wake up and decide to fight back—at which point conservatives and the GOP counter-attack them for “being mean” and “political” and “cynical”--in short, for acting like Republicans. And that's precisely what we're seeing now, as the GOP tries to pretend that impeaching Obama is Obama's idea. And of course, what conservatives and Republicans are counting on is that only a portion of liberals and Democrats have woken up to the game they're playing. The rest will just stay in their usual default mode, trying to be “balanced” and “reasonable,” and “responsible” and such. Which means they can easily be turned against the other liberals and Democrats who've somehow managed to take the red pill this time.

In short, conservatives' strategic advantage consists in being relatively unified themselves, and in being able to split liberals and set them against one another relatively easily. Disingenuous appeals to a range of liberal values are often key to this success, starting with simple pragmatism—”We have to pay our bills!”—all the way up to high principles, such as religious freedom.

Yet, here again, we see the same asymmetry emerge in the conservative's "religious freedom" argument—religious freedom for conservatives does not mean what it does for liberals. It does not mean everyone enjoying equal protection of their freedom of religious conscience—it means imposing their religion on everyone else, as in the Hobby Lobby case. When faced with other people's actual religious freedom, they respond to it hysterically, as an attack on their religious freedom.

In late July, Sarah Gray posted a short piece here at Salon, “GOP mayor compares atheists to Nazis and the KKK,” but in the Hobby Lobby spirit, I want to highlight a different part of the underlying story [bolded below], which appeared in the Christian Post:

A city in Michigan has become the subject of a lawsuit after refusing to allow an atheist to display a "reason station" at its city hall atrium....

"When the government opens a forum for private speech, it must treat viewpoints equally, and it is strictly forbidden from favoring religious expression over non-religious speech,"read the lawsuit's introductory statement.

"In this case, the government has opened a forum in which religious speech is allowed, but plaintiff's atheist speech is prohibited. This is unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination."….

James R. Fouts, mayor of Warren, told The Christian Post that he considers the lawsuit the act of "an isolated group attempting to disparage traditional religious beliefs in a public forum." Fouts said that any religion "can put a display" in the city hall space, noting that a Ramadan display presently stands there.

"However, this group is a non-religion and I don't know what display they're going to put up unless they are attempting to disparage our prayer station, which I cannot tolerate," said Fouts.

"I will not allow either a racial hate group to go up, a religious hate group to go up, or a group that disparages a particular ethnicity to go up on the city hall atrium."

Now it's possible that an atheist would use their "reason station" to disparage the prayer station—just as it's possible for a Christian prayer station to disparage Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or Pagans. Indeed the possibility of abusing such public spaces is one of the best reasons why they shouldn't be set up in the first place: Better to just leave the state out of the picture entirely, so it doesn't get drawn into endless disputes. The Establishment Clause is a very good candidate for strict construction, if ever there was one.

But that's not how Mayor Fouts sees things: The religious prayer station can only be good. The atheist reason station can only exist to do evil. That is his Manichean view of the world—all good on one side, all evil on the other, and thus only one side deserves freedom. Talk about a religious hate group!

In short, the problem here is twofold: First, that conservatives like Mayor Fouts and Tea Party Republicans have a deep-seated double-standard. Second, that the Beltway media takes these double standards for granted, accepts them as normal and even adopts them as their default framework—at the same time convincing themselves that they're being "balanced," neutral and objective when they do so, thus giving conservative double-standards and moral hypocrisy the standing of unquestionable revealed religious truth.

One final example can help to flesh out the pattern here by illuminating how the lack of factual grounding corrupts the practice of journalism, which our Founders rightly saw as the lifeblood of democracy. David Cay Johnston recently wrote a piece,"Governor Christie Embraces Theft," about Christie reneging on the long-term pension deal he previously negotiated with public sector unions. “And to be clear, it’s not the taxpayers’ money, but the workers’,” Johnston points out. “The state gets their labor as compensation for the work they do. No moral principle supports paying workers less than was agreed.” Yet, he notes how differently political reporters have approached the story:

[Washington Post reporter Karen] Tumulty and other first-rate political reporters are covering Christie’s not-fully-specified plans to cut post-retirement health care benefits and/or pensions as a political story: Reformist GOP governor championing taxpayer interests takes on greedy, Democratic-allied public worker unions.

Nothing better illustrates why policy reporters, not politics reporters, should be covering these issues. Politics can be entertaining, but that entertainment often comes at the expense of ignoring the heart of serious matters like Christie’s declared support for stealing from state employees so he can spend their money elsewhere.

Political reporting, as Johnston refers to it, is part and parcel of the media's problem as described above. If you try to treat both sides equally regardless of the merits, then by definition that automatically favors the side that has less merit. And if the side with less merit realizes what you're doing—if it has been spending decades getting you to do it, for example—then it's also much more likely to spend additional resources manipulating your perceptions, rather than wasting time and resources on making a solid policy-based case,

This is what global warming denialists have been doing for decades, and it's clearly what Chris Christie is doing now, trying to relaunch his presidential campaign. It also describes what conservatives have been doing across virtually every policy domain for the past 30 or 40 years. One sees this most clearly with conservative think tanks, who have far fewer researchers and far more communications people than their liberal counterparts—they know very well what game they are playing.

Of course, the media's politics vs. policy problem is not limited to liberal vs. conservative issues—but it does help to illuminate them. James Fallows wrote about this problem extensively in his 1996 book, "Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy," in which he argued that reducing everything to political gamesmanship undermined democracy while eroding the public's trust in the media as well. While not overly and intentionally ideological, this process clearly favors conservatives over liberals, it values their war-fighting skill set, while downgrading the importance of facts, with their well-known liberal bias.

And that, of course, is the Democrats' original sin when they accuse Republicans of wanting to impeach Obama—they're simply telling the truth. Everybody knows we can't have that.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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