As the saying goes, “politics ain’t beanbag.”
In Washington, the pressures on legislators are intense — and the White House often has its way with Congress by ratcheting up the carrots and sticks. Any lawmaker who has low tolerance for coercion should probably look for another line of work.
But what we need from journalism is open scrutiny of the dynamics of power. Reporters should shine a bright light on behind-the-scenes maneuvers that block congressional oversight of administration policies.
Last Tuesday, when the House of Representatives approved a supplemental spending bill for more war in Iraq and Afghanistan, there must have been celebration at the White House. Days of intense armtwisting paid off.
The Obama administration had brandished the weapon of retribution against the newest Democratic arrivals in the House. Most news coverage seemed oblivious, but not all. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported just hours before the war-funding measure came to the floor, “the White House has threatened to pull support from Democratic freshmen who vote no.”
Several Democrats now in their first full terms refused to go back on antiwar positions. They went ahead and bravely voted no when it really counted. Those lawmakers included Donna Edwards (Md.), Eric Massa (N.Y.), Chellie Pingree (Maine), Jared Polis (Colo.) and Jackie Speier (Calif.). Second-term Democrats also voting no included Keith Ellison (Minn.), Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.) and Peter Welch (Vt.).
In sharp contrast, scores of longtime House members — spanning the country from Oregon’s Peter DeFazio to New York’s Maurice Hinchey — jumped on the war train and voted for the supplemental bill, despite the fact that they presented themselves as Iraq war opponents during the Bush administration.
Threats, whether private or public, are part of the politics of Washington. Journalists expect strong-arm tactics to come from the White House and may actually view them as evidence of the effective use of presidential power.
But huge concentrations of power are hazardous to democracy. We may shrug and say words to the effect of “that’s the way things are” — but the fact remains that we need journalism to scrutinize “the way things are.” Unfortunately, too many journalists behave as though levers pulled by the powerful are not notable enough to be questioned.
Electoral politics is one of the realms in which “nothing succeeds like success.” Victory, not virtue, is trumpeted by many a political reporter as its own reward.
But in retrospect, if not before, we can see how shortsighted such patterns of assessment tend to be.
Media institutions — and for that matter the bulk of elected officials — gravitate toward applause for a president riding high in the polls.
In our lifetimes, most presidents have enjoyed periods of press adulation even when — and maybe especially when — the presidency was engaged in laying down major policies that were to prove to be disastrous.
Journalistic failures to question the real-time policies of a president have had catastrophic consequences. Famously, the press failed to scrutinize the Gulf of Tonkin incident in early August 1964, opening the floodgates for the Vietnam War.
More recently, in the late 1990s, the repeal of the Glass- Steagall Act drastically loosened the regulatory apparatus for the nation’s financial sector. The move received adulatory news coverage that echoed President Clinton’s tone as he signed the repeal bill into law. We’re now reaping the economic whirlwind.
While the economy wobbles in the aftermath of a swan dive, the latest burst of expenditures for the warfare state is ominous. And so is the shortage of critical attention to hardball dynamics of presidential power as war escalates in Afghanistan.
Norman Solomon is the author of the book “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death,” which has been made into a documentary film.
©2009 Creators Syndicate Inc.