Democrats may regret not seeking a consensus candidate for House speaker

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Photo (cc) 2020 by Gage Skidmore.

There were always two schools of thought as to what the Democrats ought to do about the civil war among the Republicans over who should be House speaker. One was to do exactly what they did: stay united and let the Republicans destroy themselves. Two years of hell awaits on the debt ceiling, aid to Ukraine and, of course, an idiotic investigation into Hunter Biden’s laptop.

One argument was that this was the best move politically — that after two years of chaos, the voters would gratefully turn back to the Democrats in 2024. And that may be the case.

The other school was that the Democrats should find a Republican they could work with, either inside or outside the House (the Constitution allows for outside candidates), stay united, and try to peel off a few reasonable Republicans to support a consensus candidate. My thought was that Liz Cheney might be a good choice. I heard former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s name come up as well.

I understand this was always unlikely in the extreme. Keeping all 212 Democrats together and finding a half-dozen Republicans to form a majority was always going to be enormously difficult. And there really are no moderate Republicans. There’s a right wing, led by Kevin McCarthy (for the moment), and a far-right wing, led by no one. But if a consensus choice had emerged, we could have avoided the horrors I mentioned above. I also happen to think it would have been good politics for the Democrats.

Unfortunately, it did not come to pass. Two years after Jan. 6, 2021, the insurrectionists finally succeeded in taking over the House. God save the United States of America.

Liz Cheney for speaker

Earlier today I posted on Mastodon what I thought was a commonsense though impossible idea: the Democrats should nominate Liz Cheney for speaker. There didn’t seem like there would be any chance of that happening. There still doesn’t, although right-wing candidate Kevin McCarthy has just lost the third round of voting at the hands of the ultra-right.

But consider the possibilities. If you could get all of the Democratic House members to vote for Cheney, she would only need about a half-dozen Republican votes. I don’t know whether there are that many rational Republicans left to do such a thing, but maybe there are.

I’m not a fan of Liz Cheney on policy issues, but I admire her integrity and commitment to principle. The Republicans won the election and the Democrats lost, so I wouldn’t be expecting too much. But perhaps a Cheney speakership could lead to a few positive outcomes. She could agree ahead of time to stop Republican efforts to hold the debt ceiling hostage, which would risk default. She could draw sensible limits around Republican attempts to investigate the Jan. 6 commission of which she was part. And she could say no to Republican fantasies about turning the next two years into a witch hunt with Hunter Biden at the center.

Other than that, I would imagine she’d pursue the agenda of a typical conservative and work with Republicans more than Democrats. Progressive dreams are not going to come true in a House where Republicans outnumber Democrats. But is it too much to ask for decency and normality?

Update: Sorry, I forgot to note that there is no constitutional requirement that the speaker be a member of the House. That should clear up some confusion.

Republicans have a Putin problem — and the media need to stop glossing over it

Madison Cawthorn. Photo (cc) 2020 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at GBH News.

Madison Cawthorn didn’t get the memo.

Sometime in early March, the extremist Republican congressman from North Carolina decided to go off on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “Remember that Zelenskyy is a thug,” Cawthorn told supporters. “Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies.”

If Cawthorn had spoken, say, a month earlier, he might have earned the praise of former President Donald Trump and gotten invited to trash Zelenskyy some more on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program. But that was before Zelenskyy had emerged as a heroic figure, standing up to Russia’s invasion of his country with a combination of eloquence and courage. “I need ammunition, not a ride,” he said to those who thought he should flee.

So former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, the sort of establishment Republican who was frozen out during the Trump era, used his Wall Street Journal column to let his readers know that Republicans like Cawthorn and Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance (“I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another”) are outliers — and that the party is oh-so-very supportive of Zelenskyy. “Republican members of Congress, candidates and commentators echoing Mr. Trump’s isolationism and Kremlin apologetics are out of sync with GOP voters,” Rove wrote.

WRAL.com of North Carolina, which obtained video of Cawthorn taking the Kremlin line, pushed that message even harder, stressing in its lead that Cawthorn’s vile rhetoric was at odds with his party and calling it “a comment that runs counter to the overwhelming share of Republicans with a favorable view of the leader fending off a military invasion from Russia.”

Oh, please. Can we get real for a moment? Yes, Rove and WRAL cited poll numbers that show Republicans, like most Americans, are now pro-Zelenskyy and support Ukraine in fending off the massive Russian invasion. But that is an exceptionally recent phenomenon.

In January, for instance, a poll by The Economist and YouGov found that Republicans viewed Vladimir Putin more favorably than President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — hardly surprising after years of pro-Putin pronouncements by Trump.

No wonder former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who’d like to run for president, told Fox News that Putin is “a very talented statesman” with “lots of gifts” who “knows how to use power,” as Eric Boehlert, who tracks conservative bias on the part of the mainstream media, took note of.

Now, some of this reflects a split between the Republican Party’s right wing and its extreme right wing. Way out on the authoritarian fringes, figures such as Carlson and Steve Bannon have long admired Putin for his unabashed, anti-democratic espousal of white Christian dominance and attacks on LGBTQ folks. Politicians such as Cawthorn, Vance and Pompeo, rather than standing up for principle, are trying to thread the needle.

Meanwhile, their less extreme counterparts, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have flipped from coddling Trump, Putin and Russia to claiming that Biden is to blame for the invasion and the high gas prices it has led to.

All of this has a historical context. As everyone knows, or ought to know, Putin has represented an existential threat to Ukraine since 2014, when he invaded the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and incorporated it into Russia. Putin appears to be gripped by the idea of a Greater Russia, of which in his mind Ukraine is a part. Ukraine was a Soviet republic, and Putin has always expressed nostalgia for the U.S.S.R. But the two countries’ ties go back centuries, and apparently no one cares about that more deeply than Putin.

Into this box of dry kindling came the spark of Trump in 2016. His numerous statements of support for Putin and pro-Russia actions couldn’t possibly all be listed here, but a few that pertain to Ukraine stand out. One of Trump’s campaign managers, Paul Manafort, had worked for a pro-Russian political faction in Ukraine and, upon being forced out, offered his services to Trump free of charge. You may also recall that a plank in that year’s Republican platform guaranteeing Ukraine’s security was mysteriously watered down — and a delegate to that year’s convention later said she was asked directly by Trump to support the change. (Manafort later went to prison for financial crimes he committed in Ukraine, only to be pardoned by Trump.)

That was followed by revelations in the fall of 2019 that Trump, in a phone call to Zelenskyy, demanded dirt on Biden in return for military assistance — assistance that Ukraine needed desperately to deter Russian aggression. Trump was impeached over that massive scandal. Yet not a single Republican House member (not even Liz Cheney) supported impeachment, and only one Republican senator — Mitt Romney — voted to remove Trump from office.

As detailed a month ago by The Washington Post, Trump has continued to praise Putin, hailing his war against Ukraine as “genius” and “savvy,” while Trumpers like U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona sneer, “We should just call ourselves Ukraine and then maybe we can get NATO to engage and protect our border.”

Mother Jones reported over the weekend that Russian media outlets have been ordered to quote Tucker Carlson as much as possible. Joe Kent, a Trump-endorsed Republican congressional candidate in Washington state, endorsed Cawthorn’s eruption this past Saturday and went him one better, tweeting: “Zelenskyy was installed via a US backed color revaluation [sic], his goal is to move his country west so he virtue signals in woke ideology while using nazi battalions to crush his enemies. He was also smart enough to cut our elite in on the graft. @CawthornforNC nailed it.”

There was a time when, as the old saying went, politics stopped at the water’s edge. That wasn’t always good policy, as elected officials came under withering attack when they dared to criticize misbegotten actions such as the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. But there was a virtue to it as well. When we go to war or, in the case of Ukraine, engage in high-wire diplomacy aimed at ending a war, it’s that much harder when critics are sniping at our leaders. Can you imagine if Republicans had gone on television in 1962 to say that Nikita Khrushchev was right to place Soviet missiles in Cuba?

Claiming that Republicans are united in supporting Ukraine doesn’t make it so. Some are, some aren’t. It’s shocking that a few fringe figures like Cawthorn and Kent are openly criticizing Zeleneskyy even now — but it’s just as shocking that praise for Putin was a mainstream Republican position as recently as a month or so ago.

Unfortunately, the media’s tendency to flatten out and normalize aberrant behavior by the Republicans will prevent this from growing into an all-out crisis for the party. We’ll move on to the next thing, whether it be expressing faux outrage over Vice President Harris and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s touting electric cars while gas prices are high (what better time?) or Biden’s latest miserable polling numbers.

Anything that enables our feckless media to cover politics as the same old both-sides game that it used to be.

Why ‘both sides’ journalism fails in the face of the rising threat to our democracy

Previously published at GBH News.

One president lied about COVID-19 (the country’s and his own), embraced white supremacists and tried to overturn the results of an election that he lost. Another president has hit a few bumps in the road as he attempts to persuade Congress to pass his agenda. Can you guess which one received more negative news coverage?

If you guessed President Joe Biden, then come on down. According to an analysis of 65 news websites, Biden’s treatment by the media was as harsh or harsher from August through November of this year than then-President Donald Trump’s was during the same four-month period in 2020.

On one level, it’s inconceivable. On another, though, it’s all too predictable. Large swaths of the media simply cannot or will not move beyond both-sides journalism, equating the frustratingly hapless Democrats with a Republican Party that has embraced authoritarianism and voter suppression.

“My colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy,” wrote Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who ordered up the study. He concluded: “Too many journalists are caught in a mindless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between fact and fiction. It’s time to take a stand.”

As I’ve written before, and as many others have said, we’re in the midst of a crisis of democracy. The Republican Party, already disproportionately empowered because of the Constitution’s small-state bias and the Senate filibuster (the latter, of course, could be abolished tomorrow), is working to strengthen its advantage through partisan gerrymandering and the passage of voter-suppression laws. The result could be white minority rule for years to come.

The situation has deteriorated to the point that the European think tank International IDEA now regards the United States as a “backsliding democracy.” To quote from IDEA’s report directly, “the United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale.”

And the media remain wedded to their old tropes, covering political campaigns as though they were horse races and treating the two major parties as equally legitimate players with different views.

It’s a topic that was discussed at length recently on Ezra Klein’s New York Times podcast by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and guest host Nicole Hemmer, a scholar who studies right-wing media. Their conversation defies easy summary (the whole episode can be found here), but essentially, Rosen argued that the political press falls back on its old habits because breaking out of them is just too difficult.

“The horse race absorbs a lot of abuse from people like me,” he said. “But it can take that abuse, because it is such a problem-solver. It checks so many other boxes that even when people know it’s kind of bankrupt, it stays on.” As an alternative, Rosen proposes coverage based on a “citizens agenda,” which he has written about at his blog, PressThink. But he admitted to Hemmer that we may lose our democracy before his ideas are adopted by more than a fraction of journalists.

What I find especially frustrating is that the media have not been ignoring the Republican threat to our democracy. Far from it. As just one small example, the Times on Sunday published a front-page story by Nick Corasaniti on a multitude of actions being taken at the state level to suppress the vote and put Trump loyalists in charge of the election machinery.

“Democrats and voting rights groups say some of the Republican measures will suppress voting, especially by people of color,” Corasaniti wrote. “They warn that other bills will increase the influence of politicians and other partisans in what had been relatively routine election administration. Some measures, they argue, raise the prospect of elections being thrown into chaos or even overturned.”

So why am I frustrated? Because this sort of valuable enterprise reporting is walled off from day-to-day political coverage. We are routinely served up stories about the congressional Republican leaders, Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Mitch McConnell, going about their business as though they were latter-day versions of the late Bob Dole, sharply partisan but ultimately dedicated to the business of seeking compromise and governing. In fact, whether through cowardice or conviction, they are enabling our slide into authoritarianism by undermining the investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection as well as by failing to call out Trump and the excesses of their worst members.

Earlier this year, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan endorsed the idea of a “democracy beat,” which would look closely at attempts to subvert voting rights. Sullivan would go further than that, too. “The democracy beat shouldn’t be some kind of specialized innovation,” she wrote, “but a widespread rethinking across the mainstream media,” permeating every aspect of political and governmental coverage.

If Trump runs again, he may very well end up being installed as president even if he loses both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Who would stop him? In the aftermath of the 2020 election, there were still enough Republican state and local officials with integrity who refused to go along with Trump’s demands that they overturn the results. That is not likely to be the case in 2024. As Barton Gellman wrote in a new Atlantic cover story, “The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already.”

Meanwhile, the media go about covering President Biden and his travails as though our politics hadn’t changed over the past 40 years. Of course Biden needs to be held accountable. The ugly withdrawal from Afghanistan, confusing White House messaging about COVID and his inability to bring Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to heel are all worthy of tough coverage. (But not inflation because, please, don’t be stupid.) But it needs to be done in a way that we don’t lose sight of the big picture. And the big picture is that we are in real danger of losing our country.

As the Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan put it on Twitter, “The problem is the media failing to distinguish threats to democracy from normal negative coverage (an important form of democratic accountability!).”

Five years ago Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School issued a report showing that coverage of Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 general-election campaign had been equally negative — a finding that he found disturbing. Patterson wrote that “indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions. Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it.”

Well, here we go again. Next time, though, it’s the future of democracy that is likely to be at stake.

While NPR throws softballs, the ‘PBS NewsHour’ is showing some spine

Liz Cheney takes the oath of office in 2017. Photo in the public domain.

It wasn’t too many years ago when NPR was a bold, truth-telling news organization and the “PBS NewsHour” was a bastion of timidity. But at some point during the Trump era, their roles reversed. “NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff and the program’s two most prominent reporters, White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor and congressional correspondent Lisa Desjardins, became much more assertive, challenging the powerful and demonstrating a willingness to call a lie a lie.

Rarely, though, do you get as clear-cut an example of what I’m talking about as what played out on Wednesday following U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney’s removal from the House Republican leadership. NPR anchor Mary Louise Kelly, a journalist I respect, never pressed two young Republicans she interviewed. Woodruff, meanwhile, pinned Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, up against a wall and wouldn’t let go until it was clear that he wasn’t going to answer her questions.

Kelly’s guests were Republican strategist Antonia Ferrier and Hoover Institution fellow Lanhee Chen, both of whom were intent on pretending that the elephant in the room — the implosion of their party into a tangle of lies and conspiracy theories — didn’t actually exist. Here, for instance, is how Chen responded to Kelly’s question about what it all means:

Well, I think it’s about alternate visions, maybe not alternate, but certainly two different visions of what the future of the Republican Party looks like. Will the party be a party that is fundamentally about ideas, about concepts? Or is it going to be an idea — a party focused on one personality? And I think, you know, Liz Cheney is articulating one pathway, and others are articulating another. It’s not mutually exclusive necessarily to the extent that there are some who might believe, for example, that former President Trump should have some role or some who believe that there ought to be more of a focus on policy.

But I think what Cheney is doing is setting out a very clear contrast, and, you know, that’s sure to irk some of her colleagues. But it is, I think, an important question that Republicans need to ask, which is, what is the direction that those of us who are self-identified Republicans want to see the party go in? And what’s the best way to get there?

No, what Cheney is doing is pointing out, over and over, that Joe Biden won the November election and that Donald Trump helped incite violence on Jan. 6 in an attempt to reverse the results. That has nothing to do with “two different visions of what the future of the Republican Party looks like.”

And how did Kelly respond? “Well,” she said, “it has very clearly irked more than a few of her colleagues.” It went no better with Ferrier, who talked around the real issue at length — again, never mentioning Trump’s big lie or the insurrection. Kelly reacted by telling Ferrier that “it’s a complicated subject with a lot of nuance there. So I appreciate your laying some of that out for us.”

Meanwhile, Woodruff was politely laying into Portman, who started off by saying that “Republicans here in the House and the Senate do not question the legitimacy of Joe Biden as president.” Woodruff’s response:

Senator, as you know, there’s a contradiction, because I hear what you’re saying and I hear what Kevin McCarthy is saying about, yes, we accept Joe Biden.

But, as we all know, former President Trump does not accept that the election was held legitimately. And Liz Cheney was saying that out loud, and she’s being punished for it. So, the message is that it’s fealty to President Trump, rather than issues, that are driving the Republican Party.

Is that the right message for the future?

“No,” Portman replied before dissembling some more. Woodruff also challenged him on Republican opposition to tax hikes and to include child care and elder care in President Biden’s infrastructure bill.

Now, I will grant that there’s always a problem in trying to draw these comparisons. No doubt NPR could point to plenty of examples when they’ve been much tougher than Kelly was on Wednesday. As I said, I respect her, and maybe she’ll take a completely different tack the next time I hear her. Maybe she didn’t want to badger two young, relatively powerless interview subjects — though I hardly think that asking them the most pressing questions of the day constitutes badgering.

Overall, though, I think Wednesday’s interviews fit into what I’ve observed — that NPR and the “NewsHour” have switched roles over the past few years.

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McConnell’s hypocrisy shows why Democrats made the right call on witnesses

Mitch McConnell. Photo (cc) 2014 by Gage Skidmore.

And so it’s over. In the aftermath of Impeachment II, the main controversy is about whether the Democrats did the right thing in reversing themselves over calling witnesses. I think they made a wise judgment. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hypocrisy shows why.

In a blistering speech, McConnell endorsed the entire factual basis of the Democrats’ case against Trump. “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day,” McConnell said. “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president.” And there was this:

Even after it was clear to any reasonable observer that Vice President Pence was in danger, even as the mob carrying Trump banners was beating cops and breaching perimeters, the president sent a further tweet attacking his vice president. Predictably and foreseeably under the circumstances, members of the mob seemed to interpret this as further inspiration to lawlessness and violence.

Yet McConnell still voted against conviction, relying on the bogus argument that a vote to convict was unconstitutional because Trump is no longer in office.

At the end of all this, no reasonable person doubts that Trump incited the mob — not just on Jan. 6, but over the course of many months. No reasonable person doubts that he was reveling in the destruction, or that Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler was telling the truth about a toxic exchange between House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Trump. Seven Republicans voted to convict Trump, making this the most bipartisan impeachment in history.

Given all that, it’s time for the Democrats to move on and let the center of gravity finally shift from Donald Trump to President Joe Biden.

Not everyone agrees, of course. The normally pragmatic Josh Marshall was apoplectic Saturday, writing in Talking Points Memo that the decision not to call witnesses was “inexplicable and maddening, to many or most Democrats outside the chamber because Democrats appeared to hold all the cards and all the votes and yet capitulated entirely.”

But I thought Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson made a better argument:

While it’s reasonable to imagine that witnesses would illustrate Trump’s depravity, it seems entirely likely that, as Trump’s lawyers continued simply to lie and their lies got spread through right-wing media as truth, Americans would have learned the opposite of what they should have.

Instead, the issue of Trump’s guilt on January 6 will play out in a courtroom, where there are actual rules about telling the truth.

We have lived through a terrible time, and it’s not over yet. The future direction of the Republican Party is far from certain, and it’s easy to imagine a thoroughly Trumpified party recapturing the House in 2022 as a result of gerrymandering and low voter turnout.

What we all need to concentrate on for the next two years is good governance — pushing for policies and programs that help people and, as best we can, putting the Trump era behind us. Biden is off to a good start, but a continuing obsession with Trump will hold him back. And that will hurt everyone.

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BostInno acquired by Boston Business Journal’s owner

Chase Garbarino

For some time now I’ve been keeping an eye on Streetwise Media, a Boston start-up whose chief executive and public face, Chase Garbarino, has been trying to figure out new ways of reaching tech-savvy, city-dwelling twentysomethings.

First came Pinyadda, an attempt to meld journalism and social networking in a way that was supposed to be less serious and more fun than NewsTrust. Well, it may have been less serious, but it wasn’t less cumbersome, and Pinyadda went the way of all pixels.

Next, and more lasting: BostInno, a website that covers technology, city life and higher education for an audience that I would describe as young urban singles. Nothing too heavy, but it’s enjoyed some success. An old acquaintance, veteran journalist Mary McGrath, has been involved with it. A former student of mine had an internship there. Garbarino and company launched a satellite site in Washington, and were planning to open a third site in New York.

So I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it when it was announced a few days ago that BostInno had been acquired by American City Business Journals (ACBJ), the parent company of the Boston Business Journal. What’s posted on the BostInno (here) and BBJ (here) websites is all very hopeful and enthusiastic, as these things generally are. But is this going to give BostInno a chance to grow — or does it mark the beginning of the end?

Although the terms were not disclosed, I suspect that ACBJ’s managers are genuinely interested in BostInno, if only because there was no reason for them to acquire it just to shut it down. I also predict a culture clash ahead. The BBJ and its sister papers are high-quality but rather staid. (Indeed, ACBJ is part of the Newhouse empire, making the BBJ — and now BostInno — corporate cousins of the New Yorker.) BostInno is energetic and can be fun, but it is not a hardcore journalistic enterprise.

Here’s how BostInno put it:

While acquisitions are usually viewed as endings, we believe this is just the beginning for Streetwise. We believe more and more each day in what we are doing and we love doing it.

And here is a considerably more reserved quote from ACBJ chief executive Whitney Shaw that appears in the BBJ:

In a short amount of time, Streetwise has attracted a very loyal and robust audience that is different from but complementary to what we do at our business journals in Boston, Washington and elsewhere.

I’m hoping that the acquisition means good things for BostInno, and that Garbarino and co-founder Kevin McCarthy will be allowed to do their thing. I think they’re on to something, and I’d like to see them have the time and resources they need to figure it out.