December 7, 2012

Today’s must-read is Dan Froomkin’s interview with political scientists Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein about what they call the great uncovered story of 2012: “the radical right-wing, off-the-rails lurch of the Republican Party, both in terms of its agenda and its relationship to the truth.” Or, more specifically, what happened to Mann and Ornstein once they spoke about Republicans.

That is, after decades of carefully building a reputation for serious and scholarly expertise, Mann and Ornstein were basically blackballed by the press. Well, not quite; they were, instead, reclassified. They were no longer serious and scholarly neutral arbiters, but were suddenly treated by the press as Democratic shills.

And that’s the problem. Because the conventions of the press do not allow neutral observers to conclude what, to many political scientists, is an inescapable truth: There’s something seriously wrong with the Republican Party. 

Note that this has nothing at all to do with policy positions. The issue isn’t that Republicans are “too” conservative, whatever that might mean. It’s that the party, and to a startling degree the conservative movement generally, has failed to develop reality-based policy proposals; has decided in many cases that compromise itself is against its principles; and has (in the case of the Romney/Ryan campaign) repeatedly violated norms about lying in campaigns.

As Mann and Ornstein point out, there’s nothing equivalent about the parties on these things right now. Mann says, “The mainstream press really has such a difficult time trying to cope with asymmetry between the two parties’ agendas and connections to facts and truth.” 

It’s not just a 2012 campaign story. It’s a continuing story — as indicated by the renewed Republican belief that it’s appropriate to threaten to default the nation (by refusing to raise the debt limit) in order to get their way on budget questions.

Yes, it’s difficult for the press to cope with this situation. But if it insists at all times on considering both parties equally responsible (or equally irresponsible), then it is simply missing the real story. Even worse: To find out a lot of the basic story, readers in 2012 were forced to turn to the Democratic-oriented partisan press, which did tell the story that Mann and Ornstein were telling . . . but of course added quite a bit of partisan slant. 

In other words, if the neutral press refuses to accurately describe what both parties are doing, even when it will have the effect of making clear that the parties are not equivalent, then eventually people looking for the truth are going to flee to the partisan press.

Other than being willing to call it as they see it, I don’t know of any easy solutions. But as Mann and Ornstein explain, the press failed the story in the 2012 election cycle. Figuring out how to get it right next time around — and, before that, during the 113th Congress when it meets in January — should be a top priority.