Neutralizing the opposition

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 2009 9:34 AM

The Foxified debate over whether the White House is being mean to a certain network is morphing into a broader argument about the politics of negativity.

The question, which is being pushed on the right, is whether the Obama team is using its muscle to demonize its opponents.

The president bears a special burden in this regard. He ran as a post-partisan guy who would reach out to the other side. (Of course, Bush also ran as a uniter-not-a-divider, and that didn't work out too well.)

But while Obama is a conciliator by nature, what should a politician do when the opposition refuses to meet him even a quarter-way? Number of Republican votes for the stimulus: zero. Number of Republican votes so far for health-care reform: one.

And if the insurance industry, after making a deal with the White House, attempts to sink health care? What administration wouldn't fight back? I just wonder if Obama is being held to a higher standard when he practices plain ol' politics.

The attacks on Fox News are different. I know this has gotten caught up in the polarization over Rupert Murdoch's network, but the White House has gone beyond pushing back and is trying to marginalize Fox. Other news organizations don't seem terribly concerned about the frontal assault against the channel; ABC's Jake Tapper is one of the few who have spoken out.

Maybe this is because many journalists privately agree with the administration that Fox is an opinion outfit, not a news network. But isn't there a principle at stake? I know the Bush White House took its shots at MSNBC, but if top officials repeatedly went on the Sunday shows and said it wasn't a news network, wouldn't there have been something of a media uproar? Are such uproars warranted only when liberals are the target?

You can't blame the White House for hitting back against the Glenn Becks of the world or Fox stories it finds unfair. There's no unilateral disarmament in politics. But going after a whole network is an unprecedented tactic.

Of course, Fox seems to be enjoying its ostracization, and the White House hasn't done much to retaliate other than keep the president off its air. But I would have thought administration officials would be tamping it down by now. Haven't they made their point?

In Politico, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen make the case that the White House is trying to sideline its critics:

"President Obama is working systematically to marginalize the most powerful forces behind the Republican Party, setting loose top White House officials to undermine conservatives in the media, business and lobbying worlds.

"With a series of private meetings and public taunts, the White House has targeted the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest-spending pro-business lobbying group in the country; Rush Limbaugh, the country's most-listened-to conservative commentator; and now, with a new volley of combative rhetoric in recent days, the insurance industry, Wall Street executives and Fox News.

"Obama aides are using their powerful White House platform, combined with techniques honed in the 2008 campaign, to cast some of the most powerful adversaries as out of the mainstream and their criticism as unworthy of serious discussion. . . .

"All of the techniques are harnessed to a larger purpose: to marginalize not only the individual person or organization but also some of the most important policy and publicity allies of the national Republican Party. . . .

"Beginning with their contretemps with Limbaugh last winter, Obama's most important advisers miss few opportunities for public and highly partisan shots at his most influential critics.

"It's too early to tell if the campaign is working, but it's clearly exacerbating partisan tensions in Washington. . . . The White House approach could backfire if Obama looks too political or petty, some Democrats say privately. The skeptical reaction to the attacks on Fox News shows this is a possibility."

This ricochets into a Washington Times news story:

"The Obama White House has deliberately placed favored Washington institutions of the Bush years in its crosshairs, a sign of an escalating battle between the Democratic administration and some of the city's pre-eminent power players."

Of course, the faith-based Bush White House made no effort to disfavor the liberal organizations that thrived under Clinton, right?

The GOP is trotting out Nixonian language, as the Weekly Standard shows by quoting a Lamar Alexander speech:

"As any veteran of the Nixon White House can attest, we've been down this road before and it won't end well. An 'enemies list' only denigrates the presidency and the republic itself." So, are any of these enemies being audited or wiretapped?

At Hot Air, Allahpundit sees a desperate administration:

"The White House must be panicking at the thought that the 'legitimate' media will only ignore these stories for so long before the lure of bigger, Foxier ratings finally proves too much. Ideological solidarity only goes so far; as Axelrod himself acknowledged about FNC, ultimately the news nets are in business to make money. So here he and Emanuel are, leaning on them not only to ignore Fox but to ignore stories that Fox covers, as if the underlying facts are somehow tainted by association ('Let's make sure that we keep perspective on what are the most important stories'). Creepy."

Does it make sense to cede the Fox battlefield? Atlantic's Matthew Cooper says no:

"Wouldn't the White House be better off flooding Fox with its opinion rather than engaging in a fight with news outlet? My guess is that the Obama charm would work, and he was better off appearing on The O'Reilly Factor, which he did last year, than not.

"As for reporters, are we enabling a bad animal by appearing on Fox? I'd appear on Fox and have many times. I'd do it again. It's a big audience, and while there's a range of bias, so what? Anyone who thinks Fox has become fair and balanced because Mara Liasson of NPR--a friend of mine whom [Slate's Jake] Weisberg singles out by name--appears regularly is delusional. Would the network be better off without her sane voice? Would viewers?

"I'm not a fan of slippery slope arguments, but where does the boycott Fox approach end? Skipping the Simpsons or the NFL because they're broadcast on the Fox network or not reading Harper Collins books or Beliefnet, also owned by a friend, because they're News Corp owned would seem extreme. I know no one is making this argument, but the logic of a boycott ought to extend to an entire conglomerate. If appearing on Fox News is a morally dubious act, why support any part of the company?"

An interesting post from Politics Daily's David Corn, from the perspective of a former Fox contributor:

"On air, I was always the visiting team. The routine usually went something like this: A right-wing host (either an out-in-the-open conservative or barely veiled one) would turn to the conservative guest and ask, 'You think the war in Iraq is a stunning success. Please tell us why it's going so well.' Then s/he would introduce me and say, 'Now, I understand you're against fighting for freedom. Can you explain to our audience why that is?'

"Context is everything. While there have been decent, hardworking journalists at Fox, the enterprise is indeed colored by its far-right opinion-masters, most notably those on-air: Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly. Even its supposed straight-news shows tilt right, with panels loaded with more arch-conservatives than strong liberals. . . .

"The White House ought to opt for what I'd call strategic derision. Good-natured belittling -- but belittling, all the same -- would go further than indignation, even if the indignation can be justified. That is, don't demolish Fox, demean it."

That had kind of been Obama's tone -- "I'll watch Fox News and feel bad about myself" -- until Anita Dunn launched the offensive.

Perhaps, says's Michael Wolff, it's a divide-and-conquer strategy:

"I am revising my theory of what the Obama administration is doing in its frontal assault on Fox: I think they want us to take sides. Are you a Fox person or not a Fox person? And I think they want to identify Fox as the standard bearer of American conservatism. If you're a conservative, you're for Fox (ie, is that who you want to be?)"

Wall Street Payback

Cutting the pay of the bailout-enabled fat cats -- isn't that what we used to call them? -- by an average of 90 percent may or may not make good business sense. But it's hard to argue with the politics. And the press seems to be casting the move in a positive light.

NYT: "Responding to the growing furor over the paychecks of executives at companies that received billions of dollars in federal bailouts, the Obama administration will order the companies that received the most aid to deeply slash the compensation to their highest paid executives, an official involved in the decision said on Wednesday."

LAT: "In the most dramatic step yet to curtail huge pay packages for executives on Wall Street and elsewhere, the Obama administration plans to slash the compensation of those running the seven biggest recipients of federal bailout money."

The Disaffected

What motivates those who are mad as hell at the administration? From the left, WSJ columnist Thomas Frank is reminded of Richard Hofstader's 45-year-old book, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics":

"The source for much of the current epidemic of paranoia is no doubt the 'Glenn Beck Show' on Fox News, which follows the Hofstadter script with remarkable faithfulness. One episode last month featured Mr. Beck and a panel of guests speculating darkly about indoctrination in the public schools, about the war on religion, about the Federal Reserve, about the student loan system, the United Nations, and the swine flu vaccine. As a bonus, Mr. Beck rattled off a short history of lobbying that was almost entirely incorrect--perhaps to illustrate his favorite plaint about Americans not learning history. And in the commercial break the real-life conspirator G. Gordon Liddy advised viewers to invest in gold.

"What is most remarkable about the paranoid style, though, is the earnest self-pitying that always seems to follow each round of accusation. Case in point: a recent essay by syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin. After describing the murder of a controversial abortion doctor, a guard at Washington's Holocaust Museum, and a census bureau employee who was found with the word 'Fed' written on his corpse, she insisted that 'The criminalization of conservative dissent is well underway.' How so? Because some of these acts caused media revulsion against certain branches of the conservative movement; surely the clampdown is not far behind."

From the right, Jonah Goldberg recalls another bit of history: Ross Perot's candidacy. He says Perot might have done better in '92 "had he not been so Yosemite Sam-goofy":

"In part because Perot voters and sympathizers were disproportionately white and male, and because they expressed their dismay with Clinton by voting for the GOP, the Democrats and the media ginned up the 'angry white male' theory of American politics. The same voters who were part of a 'vital center' when attacking a Republican president were increasingly recast as dangerous minions of Rush Limbaugh and the forces of hate when they aligned with Republicans.

"Fast-forward to today. The tea-party protesters are in large part the heirs of Perotism, and they are being subjected to the same insults. Liberal commentators are deaf to the tea partiers' disdain for both political parties, preferring to cast the protesters as a deranged band of birthers and racists or hired guns of a Republican 'AstroTurf' campaign. . . .

"President Obama promised a 'new era of fiscal responsibility,' but he's governing as if exploding the size of government is what Americans want, polls be damned. The Democrats' budget games and giveaways amount to poking the angry Perotista beast with a stick. If the GOP can convincingly align with and exploit the growing Perotista discontent, it very well might ride to victory on a tsunami the Democrats can't even see."


First a 4-month-old baby deemed too fat to be covered, now this. Reason No. 10,347 to hate the insurance industry, from the HuffPost investigative fund:

"Christina Turner feared that she might have been sexually assaulted after two men slipped her a knockout drug. She thought she was taking proper precautions when her doctor prescribed a month's worth of anti-AIDS medicine.

"Only later did she learn that she had made herself all but uninsurable.

"Turner had let the men buy her drinks at a bar in Fort Lauderdale. The next thing she knew, she said, she was lying on a roadside with cuts and bruises that indicated she had been raped. She never developed an HIV infection. But months later, when she lost her health insurance and sought new coverage, she ran into a problem.

"Turner, 45, who used to be a health insurance underwriter herself, said the insurance companies examined her health records. Even after she explained the assault, the insurers would not sell her a policy because the HIV medication raised too many health questions."

Death Wish?

I'm sure El Rushbo was being a bit sarcastic when he said the following, as noted by Columbia Journalism Review:

"I think these militant environmentalists, these wackos, have so much in common with the jihad guys. . . . The environmentalist wackos are the same way. This guy from The New York Times, if he really thinks that humanity is destroying the planet, humanity is destroying the climate, that human beings in their natural existence are going to cause the extinction of life on Earth -- Andrew Revkin. Mr. Revkin, why don't you just go kill yourself and help the planet by dying?"

Andrew Revkin responds: "This might be funny, in a sad way, if it weren't for the fact that my mailbox is already heaped with hate mail."

He recounts what he said that drew Limbaugh's ire: "Should you get credit -- if we're going to become carbon-centric -- for having a one-child family when you could have had two or three. And obviously it's just a thought experiment, but it raises some interesting questions about all this."

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