A reporter’s wish masquerading as an accepted fact.
NPR’s Congressional reporter, Ailsa Chang, did it Wednesday morning. About Mitch McConnell, soon to be Senate leader, she said:
If he wants to see the Republicans retain the majority beyond 2016, he has to be able to prove that his party can be more than just the party of no. That means reasonable legislation that they can realistically expect the president to sign.
Peter Foster, Washington editor for The Telegraph (UK) did it too: Winning was easy: now Republicans must show they can govern.
To have a chance [in 2016] Republicans must use the next two years to show they are a party of government, not obstruction and ideology.
Jeremy Peters in the Washington bureau of the New York Times did it over the weekend. He reported that Republicans are in transition: “from being the opposition party to being one that has to show it can govern.”
These are false statements. I don’t know how they got past the editors. You can’t simply assert, like it’s some sort of natural fact, that Republicans “must show they can govern” when an alternative course is available. Not only is it not a secret — this other direction — but it’s being strongly urged upon the party by people who are a key part of its coalition.
The alternative to “show you can govern” is to keep President Obama from governing. Right? Keep him from accomplishing what he wants to get done in his final two years and then “go to the country,” as Karl Rove used to say, with a simple message: time for a change! This is not only a valid way to proceed, it’s a pretty likely outcome. Rush Limbaugh, certainly a player in the coalition, put it this way. The Republicans, he said, emerged from the 2014 election with
the biggest, and perhaps the most important mandate a political party has had in the recent era. And it is very simple what that mandate is. It is to stop Barack Obama. It is to stop the Democrat Party. There is no other reason why Republicans were elected yesterday.
Republicans were not elected to govern. How can you govern with a president that disobeys the constitution? How can you govern with a president that is demonstrably lawless when he thinks he has to be?
Limbaugh represents the populist wing of the party. How about the establishment? In a widely-cited editorial called “the Governing Trap,” National Review magazine was even more explicit.
The desire to prove Republicans can govern also makes them hostage to their opponents in the Democratic party and the media. It empowers Senator Harry Reid, whose dethroning was in large measure the point of the election. If Republicans proclaim that they have to govern now that they run Congress, they maximize the incentive for the Democrats to filibuster everything they can — and for President Obama to veto the remainder. Then the Democrats will explain that the Republicans are too extreme to get anything done.
Among the recommendations the editors had: “putting up legislation that Senate Democrats filibuster.” That’s not governing. That’s gridlock with intention.
As Paul Waldman noted on the Washington Post site, “this isn’t bad advice, politically speaking.”
After all, following the path of obstruction instead of governing has worked out pretty darn well for Republicans over the last six years. When Barack Obama took office, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress; now Republicans do.
Exactly. There is simply no factual basis for NPR’s Ailsa Chang to be telling listeners that Mitch McConnell “has to be able to prove that his party can be more than just the party of no.” He doesn’t have to do that.
Now keep in mind that for NPR correspondents like Chang, a “factual basis” is everything. They aren’t supposed to be sharing their views. They don’t do here’s-my-take analysis. NPR has “analysts” for that. It has commentators who are free to say on air: “I think the Republicans have to show they can govern.” Chang, a Congressional correspondent, was trying to put over as a natural fact an extremely debatable proposition that divides the Republican party. She spoke falsely, and no one at NPR (which reviews these scripts carefully) stopped her.
Similarly, Jeremy Peters of the New York Times has no business observing in passing that the Republicans are now a party “that has to show it can govern.” They don’t! They have other choices. It’s fine with me if the New York Times wants to loosen up and let reporters say in the news columns: “My take is that it’s going to be awfully hard for the Republicans to regain the White House if they don’t show they can govern during these two years.” But that’s not what Peters did. He went the natural fact route: the Republicans have to show they can govern because… because they do!
Why does this matter? Because reporters shouldn’t be editorializing in the news section? No. That’s not why.
Asserted as a fact of political life, “Republicans must show they can govern” is a failure of imagination, and a sentimentalism. It refuses to grapple with other equally plausible possibilities. For example: that declining to govern will produce so much confusion about lines of responsibility and alienation from a broken political system that voters can’t, won’t, or in any case don’t “punish” the people who went for obstruction. Behind a statement like Peter Foster’s: “Republicans must use the next two years to show they are a party of government…” is a prediction about price-paying that does not necessarily apply in a hyper-partisan and super-polarized era. Political journalists are supposed to know that. They are supposed to know that better than anyone else.
In raw ballot box terms, being against was successful in 2014. It could easily be successful in 2016. To declare otherwise is mushy, indulgent, insulated and lame. A reporter’s wish masquerading as an accepted fact.
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links
Depressing but right: “Republicans must show they can govern.” No, they don’t. Reporters: please stop saying that. http://t.co/9MlwbpmdzO
— Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) November 13, 2014
@jayrosen_nyu yes, I saw it yesterday. Interesting, good read. Thank you.
— Ailsa Chang (@ailsachang) November 14, 2014
I had a frank exchange of views with NPR’s Steve Inskeep about this post. He accused me of withholding key facts from my readers.
Jonathan Capehart in the Washington Post:
This is vital for the GOP since it will have to run on a record of accomplishment at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue if it hopes to be entrusted with the keys to the White House at the other end.
No, it won’t “have” to. Stop saying that.
At NewYorker.com right now it says: “The Republicans figured out how to win. Now they need to show that they can govern.” Click that headline and you find that the piece by George Packer (from the Nov. 24 print edition) is slightly more nuanced. But that’s the point: “now they need to show they can govern” is a headset widely shared in journalism.
The Brazilian press wants in on this. “Obama wants to leave a legacy and Republicans want to prove they can govern.” (Hat tip, Vinod Sreeharsha)
Associated Press, two days after the election:
Democrats suffered a drubbing in Tuesday’s midterm elections, and Republicans regained control of the Senate and widely expanded their majority in the House. In command in both chambers in January, Republicans maintained that they have to show they can govern or else voters will show them the door.
At least that one has Republicans saying “they have to show they can govern,” but I thought reporters are supposed to be more skeptical, more informed. As Politico observed the same day, the Republicans big win in 2014 “sets up a running argument within the party that’s sure to last through Obama’s final two years: Should Republicans prove they can govern? Or should they set up as many fights as possible, and settle them in the 2016 presidential election?”
Exactly. It’s a fight, not a fact.
Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog comments on this post: Republicans have no incentive to moderate or govern.
Frank Rich for New York magazine the day after the election: “Now that the Republicans have won Washington, they own it, and if it continues to be broken, they’ll be punished next time. As the maxim goes, they have to prove they can govern. Or prove they can do something other than bitch and moan.”
Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) comments on this post. “This stuff gets past the editors because they share the reporters’ sensibilities. And because they like a formulation that puts an additional burden on the GOP.”
Agree with this about the GOP and msm's requirement that the party must now "show it can govern" http://t.co/d8i2IqH4t6
— Dana Perino (@DanaPerino) November 17, 2014
John F. Harris, the editor in chief of Politico, feels he must…
ruefully acknowledge the reality: A lot of what political journalists write as we try to divine larger meaning from election results involves a whiff of bovine byproducts. At least, that is, when we issue oracular pronouncements about how one party or the other is either poised for either dominance or irrelevance ‘for the next generation or more.”
“Much of what is served up as political insight in modern media—as articulated by reporters, political operatives, academics and assorted gurus—is likewise B.S.,” Harris writes. Look, he said it. I’m just reporting what he said.
“It may seem counterintuitive, but political science research suggests that Republicans have a stronger incentive to ensure gridlock on economic issues ahead of the 2016 presidential election, rather than pass legislation that President Barack Obama is willing to sign into law.” —Talking Points Memo, Jan. 6, 2015