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The Beltway Media Shuck-Down

The Beltway media’s standard accounts of how governing and politics operate in the American republic are as oversimplified as patty-cake. And, as the great Guignol show known as Shutdown ’13 amply demonstrates, the end results are about as edifying. The audience for this empty ritual are left with little more than a flush of embarrassment, stung palms, and a stern command to recite the same idiot mantras over and over again.

The central ploy in this well-worn narrative is to summon the will-o’-the-wisp of reasonable centrism. In this fantasy of the pundit class, lawmakers are shaken out of their ideological stupors by a crisis, like a pending government shutdown. Then, much like a superhero SWAT team in the final reel of an action film, the newly awakened lawmakers set aside their core philosophical differences and strike a bargain that neither faction is satisfied with, but that, like Adam Smith’s fabled Invisible Hand, serves the greater public good. 

And so one turns with a sense of queasy familiarity to today’s triple-bylined dispatch on the front page of today’s Washington Post—evidently the reporters, Matea Gold, Philip Rucker, and Ed O’Keefe, had to guard against the other straying too far in the direction of uttering the empirical truth that the market-fundamentalist wing of the House GOP has embarked on a full-scale attack on constitutional government. And God forbid that any reporter note that these congressional tailgunners will likely take down a good chunk of the national economy into the bargain.

Instead, the vacuous headline, “Blame Game,” suggests that the shutdown is just more lamentable partisan Kabuki choreography in today’s image-obsessed Washington. Just as reliably the subheadline delivers a surreal verdict on the shutdown debacle: “United on who’s at fault: the other side.”

The accompanying reported text is more or less an afterthought, but still noteworthy for its redoubtably centrist tongue-clucking. While our three correspondents are forced to concede that the GOP “faces a hardening perception that it is primarily to blame for setting the crisis in motion,” there’s nothing in their foreshortened chronology of the shutdown battle to suggest that this perception is because the House Republican caucus deliberately set this crisis in motion by spurning seventeen prior offers from the Senate to conference over a “clean” continuing resolution, which would fund the government without indulging in the futile and doomed demand to “defund” the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

Instead, the reporters suggest that both sides of this sorry legislative set-piece have inexplicably pulled out of negotiations just when some real progress might have been won–now they are, wouldn’t you know it, hectoring each other over their respective moral and legislative failings. To make this bald fiction stick, the Post team has to behave as though House Republican leaders were desperately seeking to hammer out a workable legislative fix to stave off disaster, while Democratic lawmakers perversely withheld their pragmatic blessing.

Our sober correspondents state that GOP strategists “started the day arguing that the Senate was not moving fast enough to consider a measure the House passed early Sunday that paired stopgap funding of the government with a one-year delay of the health-care law,” as though this represented a “compromise” of genuine substance; as though pulling the plug on the nation’s new network of health-insurance exchanges just as they were primed to go on line wouldn’t be a noticeable glitch in the system as many of the 50 million or so Americans without any healthcare coverage logged on to try and get some. As GOP leaders of the House knew perfectly well, the Democratic-led Senate would never come anywhere near to approving such a measure. And therein lies the entire problem with the faux-objective blame-both-sides narrative: It breaks down when one side repeatedly hotwires the legislative process to create the false impression that they’re good-faith negotiators.

Even worse, the Beltway media’s obsession with what pundits are pleased to call “optics” overlooks the real political substance of the fight: The Tea Party wing of the GOP is, in fact, assaulting the basic operations of our constitutional government. The Tea Party’s budget busters are acting like the nullificationists of the 1830s, or the Dixiecrat white-resistance leaders of the 1950s and 1960s—only without even the threadbare fiction of throwing themselves on the wheels of tyrannical federal power to defend the sovereign independence of the states. No, today’s nullificationists are in the federal seat of power, and they are hoping to reverse the actions of an earlier Congress, and overturn a law signed by the president and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court by effectively holding a gun to the head of the budget process. You don’t have to be an apologist for Obamacare, the Obama White House, or the sadly corporatized Democratic establishment to recognize a thuggish putsch when you see one.

Yet almost none of the unprecedented end-run around representative government, due process, and judicial review gets called by its true name by the media charged with explaining it. No, the consensus view is that this is just what every lawmaker in Washington does when his or her dander gets up. This type of oafish analysis is exemplified by Time magazine’s Zeke Miller’s piece last week: “Hostage taking—by promising harm if you do not get your way—has long been a standard way of doing business in Washington.”

Well, no. Miller cites the recent battles over the expiration of the Bush tax cuts—in which the Obama White House threatened to let a legislatively time-stamped set of giveaways to the overclass expire on its own timetable—and the many showdowns over the White House’s appointments to the federal bench as examples of this alleged Capitol Hill tradition. But those fights were about procedural matters, and the healthcare blow-up is an assault on the legitimacy of a law that’s already cleared all the procedural and legal obstacles to implementation. There is no congressional precedent for this, and it’s beyond irresponsible for the national media to act as though there is. As Michael Tomasky argued at the Daily Beast, the Tea Party wing of the House GOP aren’t hostage takers at all—that designation implies, after all, that they’re willing to alter their demands. Instead, Tomasky argues that they’re political terrorists.

In a sense, though, it scarcely matters what you call them. That’s because they can (mostly) count on being lauded as death-panel-defying heroes in their home districts, which have been gerrymandered into reliable right-wing derangement by accommodating conservative state legislatures. And those legislatures, in turn, have been bought and paid for by hard-right donors like the Koch brothers, and administered by fly-by-night law-drafting operations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council. The real story of the shutdown miasma is, in short, the effective plutocratic capture of the U.S. House of Representatives. But “plutocracy,” like “nullification,” is a word that never rises from the braindead centrist chorus that is the Beltway media.