The Demonizing of Tom Daschle
How journalists follow the party line.
For a decade until this year, the editors of the Wall Street Journal considered recess appointments to be one of the great injustices of American politics. A recess appointment occurs when the president installs a nominee (such as a federal judge) while Congress is out of session, thus avoiding the need to acquire consent from the Hill. In one editorial, titled "Abusing the System," the Journal assaulted this practice as a "brazen flouting of the Vacancies Act and Congress's authority to confirm nominees." From reading the Journal editorial page during the Clinton years, you'd get the impression that the Vacancies Act formed a pillar of our democracy, on par with, say, the First Amendment. (Or perhaps even the Second Amendment.) Since George W. Bush assumed office, though, the Journal's crusade against recess appointments has come to a screeching halt. The topic has only come up, in fact, in contexts such as "President Bush will have the opportunity eventually to fill the board with recess appointments." In other words, the Journal has been urging Bush to make more recess appointments.
Slate's Jacob Weisberg once coined the term "Conintern" to describe conservative intellectuals and journalists who slavishly follow the party line, with all its twists and turns—the way Communists in the free world took their marching orders from Moscow via the Comintern (Communist International) during the bad old days. That Conintern style has been on full display in recent days. The Bush administration, having decided that its campaign to charm Democrats was failing, decided to change strategies and attack Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle as an obstructionist. In classic Conintern fashion, the line emanated from central authority—"The orders came down from on high to start getting tougher [on Daschle]," a White House official told the Washington Times early this month—and quickly spread to the various conservative organs. The Journal editorial page (in an editorial) and the Weekly Standard (in a cover story by Fred Barnes) quickly fell in line.
Both publications argued not that Daschle takes substantively wrong positions, but that he tries to advance them through nefarious ends. "The South Dakotan's political strategy is obvious if cynical," the Journal said. "He's wrapping his arms tight around a popular President on the war and foreign policy, but on the domestic front he's conducting his own guerrilla war against Mr. Bush, blocking the President's agenda at every turn. And so far he's getting away with it." Barnes quotes Daschle as saying, "I think the American people have actually drawn a distinction between the war effort and domestic policy." Barnes tabs this distinction "crass maneuvering."
You might wonder what exactly is so devious about supporting Bush's foreign agenda but opposing his domestic agenda. We must at least consider the possibility that Daschle actually agrees with the former and disagrees with the latter. After all, that's how many Democrats feel, and neither piece suggests that Daschle doesn't as well. Now, you can easily see why Bush would find Daschle's strategy frustrating. He wants to convert support for the war into support for his prewar program, and Daschle is standing in the way. So Daschle's strategy is inconvenient for Bush. But what makes it immoral? Neither piece says.
Both pieces complain that Daschle has upset comity between the parties. Daschle is "spectacularly partisan," sniff the Journal editors. "Since September 11," chimes in Barnes, "Daschle has intervened to upset bipartisan cooperation on the energy, terrorism insurance, and economic stimulus bills." Anybody familiar with the previous work of the authors will find this a great joke. Both have long echoed the Conintern line that bipartisanship is a fiction designed to emasculate conservatives. The Journal uses the term with scare quotes (a typical editorial earlier this year sneered at "the Beltway altar of 'bipartisanship.' ") This summer Barnes wrote that "so-called bipartisan compromises are often a trap."
Indeed they are. Most legislative controversies in Washington break down along party lines. The side that holds the more popular position can often force moderate or politically vulnerable members of the other party to adopt its position, and thereby adopt the mantle of bipartisanship. It then falls to the other party to either wrangle an ineffectual compromise or scuttle the measure in such a way that it won't take the blame. Earlier this year, Bush and his congressional allies subverted campaign-finance reform and a patients' bill of rights, both of which commanded bipartisan support. Barnes and the Journal responded by praising the GOP's political acumen.
"We're not so naïve as to think that war will, or should, end partisan disagreement," the Journal unnecessarily reassures us. "But what's striking now is that Daschle is letting his liberal Old Bulls break even the agreements they've already made with the White House. Mr. Bush shook hands weeks ago on an Oval Office education deal with Teddy Kennedy, but now we hear that Mr. Kennedy wants even more spending before he'll sign on." Let's assume this story was true, despite the fact that the Kennedy and Bush agreement was passed into law shortly thereafter. Earlier this year, Bush and House Speaker Dennis Hastert famously twisted the arm of Republican Congressman Charlie Norwood to force him to renege on the patients' bill of rights deal he had made with Democrats. Paul Gigot, now the Journal's editorial editor, then a columnist, celebrated the maneuver as "especially skillful."
Perhaps the most hilarious example of party-line whiplash concerns the economic stimulus package that didn't pass this week. Specifically the question of whether a stimulus is really needed. In the negotiations, both sides tried to blame the other for failing to make a deal on this vital legislation, while at the same time trying to increase their own leverage by declaring their own willingness to walk away. The Journal has faithfully taken both positions. "The economy will be better off if President Bush calls the whole thing off," it argued in an editorial on the stimulus bill. In its Daschle editorial, the Journal mused, "All this adds to the suspicion that Mr. Daschle is only too happy to see no stimulus bill at all." In other words, the Journal's editors accuse Daschle of obstructing a bill that they themselves have urged Bush to obstruct.
It's not surprising, of course, that conservative journalists would tend to agree with the Republican Party on matters of policy, just as liberals tend to agree with the Democratic Party on matters of policy. The difference comes in the day-to-day squabbling between the parties over political procedure—the merits of recess appointments or the desirability of bipartisanship and so on. Some commentators take principled positions on such issues. The Washington Post editorial page, for instance, believes the federal judiciary has too many vacancies. Last year it condemned Senate Republicans for delaying President Clinton's nominees, and this year it condemned Senate Democrats for condemning President Bush's nominees. The parties, on the other hand, treat these questions as matters of pure expediency. Last year, Democrats complained that the judiciary was strapped for judges, while Republicans claimed it was well-stocked. This year, they've switched sides.
When party flaks peddle their line of the day, nobody expects of them anything but intellectual hypocrisy. Indeed, judging by the smirks on their faces, the flaks themselves often don't take their own lines very seriously. And yet pundits in the Conintern treat these questions as deeply held philosophical principles, albeit ones that must periodically be inverted. Either they have an extraordinary capacity to feign indignation, or they haven't been let in on the joke.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at the New Republic and author of The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics.