A Republican politician who inherited a family tradition of moderation was fuming with frustration: “What a crazy place Congress is! My wonderful dad has to be turning over in his grave, and I am a close second!” Hosts and producers “really don’t want us moderates on TV,” the politician added, because they refuse to say outrageous things just to get tube time.
A press critic who lives in a fancy house on Pennsylvania Avenue agrees completely. In recent interviews, President Obama has returned repeatedly to a favorite theme: In the current media culture, “the loudest, shrillest voices get the most attention” (as he put it on “60 Minutes”). That makes it far harder for pragmatists in both parties to find common ground and solve the nation’s most intractable problems.
American politics has always been a contact sport. During the 1884 campaign, Grover Cleveland was accused of fathering an illegitimate child and greeted with the taunt, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” His opponent, James G. Blaine, was depicted as a tattooed man, covered with the indelible stains of scandal.
Still, there is a lot of truth in what the Republican, and the president, had to say. Look at Rep. Joe Wilson, the backbencher from South Carolina who rocketed to fame by uttering two words, “you lie,” during the president’s healthcare address to Congress. Following his outburst, Wilson probably got more ink and airtime than all House moderates put together.
“See, this is part of what happens,” Obama said of the Wilson incident. “It just ... becomes a big circus instead of us focusing on health care.”
This “big circus” stems partly from a positive development. Technology has broken the stranglehold over information once enjoyed by the big newspapers and networks. Far more voices, reflecting a wider range of viewpoints, now participate in the national debate. But there is also a downside to this fragmentation of the market.
Walter Cronkite, who died earlier this year, never had to shout to get attention. When he was an anchor for CBS, four out of five Americans watched one of the network news shows. They didn’t have a choice; his audience was guaranteed.
Today’s audience has countless options for gathering information: from Webcasts and YouTube to Facebook feeds and iPhone apps. The Glenn Becks on the right and Keith Olbermanns on the left have to scratch and claw for every ear and eyeball. The temptation to be loud and shrill – to do a Joe Wilson – is overwhelming. As the president told Bob Schieffer on CBS’ “Face the Nation”: “They can’t get enough of conflict; it’s catnip to the media right now.”
We share Obama’s fear that this culture of conflict leads to a “coarsening of our political dialogue.” And we applaud his goal of providing a “good model” for the country and making “civility interesting.” But the stakes are far higher than tone or temperament.
The polarization of politics now challenges the basic concept that independent professional journalists can produce a commonly accepted body of shared information. Not only is Walter Cronkite dead – the values and institutions he stood for are dying, and that makes the president’s job far more difficult.
As Obama told the Toledo Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding.”
Problems like health care are far too complex to be solved by people “shouting at each other across the void.” There has to be a “mutual understanding” that certain facts are true and certain goals worthy. That’s why we support Sen. Max Baucus, a card-carrying moderate, in trying to negotiate a bipartisan healthcare bill. He’s absolutely right when he says, “I felt from the get-go that bipartisan was better than not. It’s more durable. It’s more sustainable.”
But bipartisanship itself might not be sustainable. Moderates from both parties risk assault and even primary challenges from ideological purists. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was forced out of the Republican Party altogether by a conservative jihad. Only one Senate Republican, Olympia Snowe of Maine, remains willing to negotiate with Baucus, who is under intense attack from his own party’s left wing.
Almost half of all Americans call themselves moderates. And yet those moderates are in danger of being disenfranchised in the healthcare debate. A “big circus” makes bad policy.
Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2009, Steven and Cokie Roberts.