A View From The Front Lines

Yesterday I came across an article written by journalist Dan Rather … you all remember him, right?  While the piece was written two months ago, in early April, it is as relevant today as it was then.  I ask that you read it and think about it for a minute or two.  This is rather a follow up to this morning’s post where I shared the view of Charles M. Blow on bipartisanship, but it also extends a portion of the blame, rightly I believe, to the press.  Mr. Rather’s words come from experience and they are thought-worthy.


The Press and the Party of No

Dan Rather and Steady Team

The Biden Administration is finding a familiar answer to everything it is trying to do from the Republicans on Capitol Hill. It is the same answer that Biden saw up close when he was Vice President in the last Democratic administration. No matter the issue or the topic, it seems that when it comes to legislating around the challenges that face this country, the Republican answer is simple, unequivocal, cynical, and final: No. 

Many have commented, myself included, on how broken and dangerous this system has become. I believe the American experiment in self government works best when it has two strong, principled political parties who come to the table with well-formed and well-intentioned solutions to the challenges of the nation. This has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout our history, and I have seen good ideas and good candidates come from both parties. I have supported Democrats and Republicans with my vote. And, however it may appear at any given time, as a reporter I try to pull no punches, play no favorites in covering the parties. What is happening now isn’t about policy it’s about whether we can have a functional government. 

There has always been a place for obstruction in politics. Sometimes it’s a matter of principle. Sometimes it’s a negotiating position. Sometimes it’s a seeking of momentum leading into an election cycle. But that an entire political party would stand in lock step trying to undermine an entire presidency just because that president was from a different party? Well not even Newt Gingrich tried that. It has been the scorched-earth political tactics pioneered by Mitch McConnell – power for power’s sake, norms and comity shattered, the needs of the country be damned.

All of this discussion leads to questions over the filibuster, voting patterns, gerrymandering, and all sorts of ugly histories around race, power, and representation in Congress. It is obvious that the Founding Fathers, despite their faults, intended to set up a system of government that had the power to solve problems. That’s why they did away with the Articles of Confederation. But now we have many members of Congress whose entire reason for being there is to gum up a system designed for action. They are showboats promoting a nihilistic brand that threatens the well-being of our nation and makes a mockery of the idea that we have a legislature. 

One sign of how broken this system is: even when Republicans held both houses of Congress and the White House in the first two years of President Trump’s administration, they passed almost no bills that addressed problems even they claimed to care about. The perpetual “Infrastructure Week,” turned onto a joke of inactivity – infrastructure “weak.” It appears that the modern Republican party can’t get to “Yes” on anything other than judges and tax cuts. I think part of the reason for this is that a lot of what the party believes at its elite levels is so unpopular that they dare not actually pass bills that give unfettered power to rapacious business interests. They would rather save that for executive actions and the guise of “de-regulation.” There is a lot more to say on this topic, and I plan to return to it later, but in the meantime, I think an understated component of this “politics of no” dynamic is the way the press covers it. 

When I first went to Washington as a reporter, to cover the White House in the Johnson Administration, it was in the immediate wake of the Kennedy assassination. We had no way of knowing that the new president would usher in one of the most consequential flurries of domestic legislation in American history. Johnson was of course a master of the Senate, and the old (to be candid, often ugly) ways in which power could be leveraged. But he was focused on results, and he got them on everything from civil rights to health care to education to the arts. 

Then, as the Nixon years began, I was there reporting on tides of power that were very different from before. But still, there was positive activity on Capitol Hill. Nixon, as we would come to learn, was driven by such hatred of his political opponents (and those he perceived as hostile in the press) that he would drive his own fortune into ruin. But even with that mindset, he was able to accomplish a great deal by working with Democrats–and principled Republicans– in Congress. And when it was time for him to go, the response was bipartisan as well. 

Now, it is easy to glorify the past. These Congresses that “worked” also worked to perpetuate systems of government and society that were unjust and unequal. Some of the horse-trading that was done back then bartered basic rights and societal provisions that we would recoil at today. And those who served in these Congresses were far less representative of the full diversity of the nation. All that said, if the spirit of action that drove them existed today, I suspect our progress on racial justice, voting, guns, the environment, education, and many other big issues would be far more robust. For starters, it would exist. 

And that brings me back to the press. It is impossible and I would argue irresponsible to try to cover Washington as we did in earlier eras. Every story, every reporting angle, must begin with the understanding that one of the two political parties doesn’t try, at least on the national level, to legislate solutions to our problems. The burden for asking why we don’t have bipartisanship to solve major problems shouldn’t be primarily on those making the legislative proposals. Negotiating doesn’t mean saying “no” and walking away. It means offering counter solutions or ideas. It means acting in the best interests of the nation, not in scoring political advantage often at the expense of those in need. [emphasis added]

I understand it is difficult for reporters to cover politics in this manner. Contrary to the politically-motivated attacks on the press, I do believe most reporters try to be as fair as they can. They are loathe to be seen as tools for particular political ends. But this instinct is being weaponized by those who want to break government, and the American system more generally. We have seen from those who delegitimize a fair election and seek to suppress the vote that they are eager to create scapegoats in the press for reporting on these outrages. And they are poised to do the same if they are called out as the party of no. 

But our hope is that journalists do not bend to the pressure. Rather than take every new issue or bill as a separate case, I would respectfully encourage my peers in the press to do more digging into the general systemic dysfunction. For example, when interviewing members of Congress don’t treat their opposition to the issue of moment as separate to their oppositions in the past – including to recognizing the results of the last presidential election. 

The optimist in me believes that the majority of the American public would like a government that works to solve problems. This does not mean giving up one’s own beliefs. And there are issues on which you will never find compromise. We need different approaches to battle in the marketplace of ideas. None of us has a monopoly on wisdom. Far from it. But for this system to work you need to be able to get to “Yes” on some things. You need to have a system that functions. And when that isn’t happening, when our political process is being crippled by cynical actors who have learned they can keep a grip on power by blowing up the government and then blaming failure on their political foes, we need to report on this reality. It is a story of incredible importance and in many ways the future of our nation is resting on getting it told.

—Dan

14 thoughts on “A View From The Front Lines

  1. Jill, this is well done. Earlier today, I called my two Republican Senators urging them to vote for the voting rights bill and making a deal on infrastructure in some way. Keith

    Liked by 3 people

    • I thought so too … Rather always did make a lot of sense. Well, as we both know now, the Republicans killed the For the People Act with not one single Republican having the guts to say, “Yeah, we ought to at least debate about it.” Sigh.

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      • Jill, not debating the bill is akin to not calling witnesses in the first impeachment trial of the former president and not seating a January 6 bipartisan commission – the adrift Republican party does not want an evidence trail that shows the malevolence of their actions and plans – in this case to suppress the vote to win because the demographics are not in their favor. This mission dates back to winning the 2010 midterms and capturing state legislatures. Using the cookie cutter guidance of ALEC, the Voting ID laws and gerrymandering escalated as subterfuge for Jim Crow like voter suppression. This is why North Carolina’s efforts were ruled unconstitutional. Texas Republicans are worried as the state is becoming more Democrat leaning, as evidence by Beto O’Rourke almost beating Ted Cruz. So, cheating has to be part of the plan. Keith

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        • You are so right on all counts! And thank you, my friend, for this comment inspired my afternoon post! The voters in this nation simply MUST wake up and vote these autocrats out of office, for if they don’t, we will soon see our rights, our freedom, our democratic foundation slipping away … else being destroyed with a sledgehammer. The GOP, in my eyes, is no longer a viable party working in the best interests of the nation. If their boat sinks, they have nobody to blame but themselves.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Agreed. When people do not amputate a foot with gangrene, it can spread up the leg. The gangrene is the impact of the corrupt, deceitful and seditious actions of the former president that continue to this day.

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  2. This is a song that many reporters are singing. indeed it’s a song many voters are singing but the Republican party have entrenched themselves in negativity. Rather than respond to calls for bipartisanship they are just negative to every policy of the current Government, of which they re supposed to be a functioning part, and say no to everything.
    They run the risk of the Republican voters becoming aware that not only do they have no policies of their own to help the voters but that they’re trying to end the Democrat ones in play and the ones to come that do. If there are any reasonable men/women in that party, they should be looking at grasping the nettle and looking to work with the Democrats in areas where they can ern their wages and be less of a drain on the 1% who own them and pay their second wage at the expense of the voter.
    Cwtch

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    • True, but the press has, in subtle ways, been undermining us by not blatantly calling out the injustices. When Trump was in office, they rarely actually said he lied, but couched it in other language such as “his unproven assertion”. And now, they are doing much the same by not calling a spade a spade. The Republicans scream for bipartisanship, then once they get it, they laugh and turn their backs on it, just as they did today in refusing to even debate the For the People Act.

      I’ve been pondering on this a lot lately … too much for my own good … and I told Chris tonight that she needs to start considering making a plan for her and Goose to leave this country once I’m gone, for I honestly believe that unless someone rises from the ashes and saves our skins, the U.S. will be a dictatorship by the end of this decade. I see the free press going first, then freedom of speech, and ultimately the rest of our constitutional rights, such as the right to vote and participate in government. Sigh.
      Cwtch

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