In the August 8 New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg reviews the debt ceiling controversy and criticizes President Obama for not pushing harder against the Tea Partiers because of his “all too civilized, all too accommodating negotiating strategy.” Obama ended up, Hertzberg complains, “too readily accept[ing] Republican terms of debate, such as likening the country to a household that must ‘live within its means.’”
True enough on the second point, although to attribute Obama’s weak negotiating performance to an excessively “civilized” temper is mistaken, I believe. Instead, I’d chalk it up to inexperience. Since this is Obama’s first real executive position, he’s still learning (slowly).
Apart from that, though, Hertzberg adds this gloss on the “live within means” axiom, and it’s an astonishing one:
“(For even the most prudent householders, living within one’s means can include going into debt, as in taking out a car loan so that one can get to one’s job.)”
How can an intelligent and experienced journalist such as Hertzberg make such a ridiculous comparison?
First of all, the Republicans haven’t demanded that the U.S. should eliminate its public debt, although they would love a return to the Clinton surplus days. Instead, they have asked the the debt be given a fixed limit.
Second, Hertzberg fails to make a crucial distinction between car loans. A good car loan is one whose monthly payments are easily handled by the household and the interest rate is modest. A bad car loan is one whose monthly payments are difficult to sustain and has a high interest rate. The whole point of the Right is that the U.S. government falls into the second category.
In other words, Hertzberg’s parenthetical piece of wisdom misses the entire point, and it repeats something that I heard over and over again from July 29 to August 3 while driving across the country. Radio journalists and interviewees spoke at length about the debt negotiations, but from what I heard on stations from Pennsylvania to Colorado from across the ideological spectrum was commentary that displayed neither the knowledge nor the experience to report on the negotiations clearly and informatively. For me, it was a case of utter failure, of incompetence among journalists. After listening to 30 hours of it, I still didn’t feel I understood what was going on in the Capitol. Too often, the speakers went out into the weeds and turned what should have been macroeconomic analysis and political information into weird psycho-political dramaturgy.
I thought print journalism wouldn’t do the same, but consider these quotations from Hertzberg’s discussion:
“. . . Boehner, a perpetrator (and, arguably, a victim) of the terrifying debt-limit arson that his party, on first with ideological fanaticism, political ruthlessness, and economic heedlessness, decided to spend the summer fanning.”
“. . . his Republican opponents, in thrall to their Tea Party Jacobins, have been reckless and irresponsible beyond imagining.”
“. . . an amendment in its purest form offers an insight into the dystopian vision of America proffered by one of our two major political parties.”
This is, of course, only more echo of the numerous descriptions of radical fiscal conservatives as “crazies” and “destroyers.” Here in Colorado I listen to progressive radio, where the allegations of insanity tumble forth every hour.
The real question about this is: Do liberal and progressive journalists believe that “psychoticizing” their opponents is an effective way to win elections and policy battles?