The Associated Press is taking some heat for a “Fact Check” piece about Bill Clinton’s convention speech that succeeds mostly in demonstrating the wire service’s obliviousness to the meaning of the words “fact” and “check.” Most of the ridicule is focused on the AP’s deeply gratuitous invocation of Monica Lewinsky:
CLINTON: "Their campaign pollster said, `We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.' Now that is true. I couldn't have said it better myself - I just hope you remember that every time you see the ad."Actually, the facts are that the Romney campaign pollster said exactly what Bill Clinton said he said. Clinton’s own personal credibility doesn’t really have anything to do with it. And even if it was relevant, you’d think the AP could come up with a better example of Clinton’s mendacity than a 14 year old quote that was “legally accurate.” Finally, it’s worth noting that a quick search failed to turn up any examples of the Associated Press invoking Newt Gingrich’s dishonesty about infidelity in writing up his speech at last week’s GOP convention. So it’s both an incredibly cheap shot by the AP and an incredibly dumb one.
THE FACTS: Clinton, who famously finger-wagged a denial on national television about his sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky and was subsequently impeached in the House on a perjury charge, has had his own uncomfortable moments over telling the truth. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," Clinton told television viewers. Later, after he was forced to testify to a grand jury, Clinton said his statements were "legally accurate" but also allowed that he "misled people, including even my wife."
But it isn’t the worst part of the article.* The worst part is the first statement the AP pretends to fact-check:
CLINTON: "When times are tough, constant conflict may be good politics but in the real world, cooperation works better. ...Unfortunately, the faction that now dominates the Republican Party doesn't see it that way. They think government is the enemy and compromise is weakness. One of the main reasons America should re-elect President Obama is that he is still committed to cooperation."That purported statement of fact by the Associated Press may be the most rigidly ideological statement of the convention season, and the biggest whopper.
THE FACTS: From Clinton's speech, voters would have no idea that the inflexibility of both parties is to blame for much of the gridlock. Right from the beginning Obama brought in as his first chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel [sic], a man known for his getting his way, not for getting along.
Barack Obama’s stimulus package was smaller than necessary, and laden with tax cuts, both in an effort to win Republican votes. Republicans opposed it anyway. His health care legislation was an approach long championed by Republicans and conservatives, and implemented years ago by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. Republicans opposed it anyway. Obama has talked up deficit-reduction, which Republicans supposedly care about, at the expense of jobs, which they clearly do not. They’ve given him no credit for it. He’s made symbolic and substantive concessions to Republican anti-government fervor at a time when the economy desperately needs a helping hand from the government. Republicans call him a socialist anyway. Time and time again, Obama and Democrats extended a hand to Republicans, and Republicans extended a single finger in response. This isn’t any kind of secret: Republicans have explicitly said they won’t work with Obama because they don’t want to give him bipartisan victories.
But those are just examples. Maybe you prefer cumulative data. Congressional Republicans have gotten steadily and significantly more conservative over the past three decades. Meanwhile, Democrats, after having gotten a bit more liberal over the years, have actually gotten more conservative during the Obama administration.
The insistence by the Associated Press -- and the AP isn’t alone in this -- that both parties are equally to blame for everything, particularly partisanship, simply is not consistent with actual facts and history. It’s an ideological claim made by people who wish to be seen, and to see themselves, as perfectly neutral observers, and who (wrongly) think neutrality means pretending the parties’ respective flaws are perfectly symmetrical.
So what does it matter? Certainly, Democrats are occasionally guilty of putting political interests ahead of governing, if not as frequently as Republicans. What, then, is the harm in calling out both parties? Simple: If you pretend that both parties are equally guilty of something that one party does more egregiously, you incentivize that party to continue behaving badly, and the other to behave worse than it already is. Here’s how I explained this back in 2010:
When Bill Clinton became president in 1993, Congressional Republicans opposed him in lockstep. Not one of them voted for his first budget, for example. Democrats simply did not respond in kind when George W. Bush took office -- 28 Democrats in the House and 12 in the Senate voted for the first round of Bush tax cuts, for example. (Not to mention the broad support Democrats gave Bush's post-9/11 national security policies like the PATRIOT Act.) Then, when Barack Obama became president, Republicans again dug in their heels, filibustering and opposing nearly everything, nearly all of the time.And that’s why the AP’s false equivalence is so much worse than its cheap shot about Lewinsky. By claiming that both parties are equally ideological and partisan, they create an environment that encourages the GOP’s partisanship and extremism. They help drag the national political discourse further to the right. It’s the opposite of “balance.” And it’s a clear falsehood, which is something you should generally avoid in a “fact check” article.
In short, it is wildly misleading to pretend that both parties are equally responsible for congressional gridlock. It just isn't an accurate portrayal of what has happened over the past two decades. If David Broder really doesn't understand that, how can he possibly be capable of producing meaningful political commentary?
I suspect that, on some level, Broder does understand that, but thinks that pretending that both sides are equally guilty is an important and noble effort to move beyond the "blame game" and usher forth a return to bipartisan bonhomie. It isn't.
The leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties aren't longtime best friends stuck in a spat neither wants to continue. They are competitors in a zero-sum struggle for political power. The everybody's-equally-guilty declaration that both sides have made mistakes in the past isn't a face-saving way to end the spat -- it merely incentivizes bad behavior. Republicans reap political benefit from their knee-jerk obstructionism without having to pay a price for it, because the public is constantly told by people like David Broder that they aren't any worse than the Democrats. The "both sides are equally guilty" approach thus incentivizes obstructionism and partisanship, just as privileging the lie incentivizes lying. In the end, David Broder's hand-wringing about partisanship and obstructionism actually contributes to the condition he denounces.
* Those of you who know me, and the amount of time I spent dealing with the Lewinsky circus while working at the DNC in the 1990s, know I don’t say this lightly.