What Dana Milbank’s Stunningly Awful Column Today Reveals About the Washington Press Corps – [UPDATED]

Okay.  There’s no way to do justice to Washington Post centerist columnist Dana Milbank’s column today about Obama’s “presser” yesterday by just summarizing it or quoting a sentence or short paragraph from it.  And justice for that column, titled “President Congeniality talks tough,” is what I want. So here are the first six (blessedly short) paragraphs of it:

“I’m a pretty friendly guy,” President Obama said near the end of his White House news conference Monday afternoon.

The claim might have been a touch more plausible if he hadn’t spent the bulk of the previous hour demonstrating just how adversarial he could be. Indeed, there was no precipitating event that led him to schedule the last-minute session in the East Room — lending credibility to the theory that he summoned reporters so he could bait Republicans.

“If congressional Republicans refuse to pay America’s bills on time, Social Security checks and veterans benefits will be delayed,” the friendly president said, explaining his refusal to negotiate over increasing the debt limit.

Calling the opposition’s stance “absurd,” Obama advised Republicans that they “have two choices here: They can act responsibly and pay America’s bills, or they can act irresponsibly and put America through another economic crisis. But they will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy. . . . And they better choose quickly, because time is running short.”

And that was just the opening statement. The hectoring continued through the Q&A. Exactly one month after the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., Obama said of debt-reduction talks: “What I will not do is to have that negotiation with a gun at the head of the American people.”

The Republicans’ view, President Congeniality added, “was rejected by the American people when it was debated during the presidential campaign. . . . But if the House Republicans disagree with that and they want to shut down the government to see if they can get their way on it, that’s their prerogative.”

I agree completely.  The president should never summon White House reporters to the White House press room in order to hold a press conference.  Or at least not to bait Republicans.

And, I guess, not even to respond to Republican daily baiting of him by falsely telling the public that a quirk in the law, requiring Congress to authorize the Treasury to pay the government’s already-incurred bills and bond interest, and pay such things as salaries to military personnel, air traffic controllers, Agriculture Department food inspectors, and Homeland Security airport marshals–not to mention not-yet-but-about-to-be owed Social Security payments, Medicaid payments to nursing homes, and Medicare payments to physicians and hospitals–is instead a request by the president and the Democrats in Congress to increase spending appropriations.  

No, sir.  Much better to allow the Republicans to prey on the public’s misunderstanding of the phrase “raise the debt ceiling.”   

Pass the ransom note, Republicans. Just do it through the mainstream media, as you have been doing.  They’ll happily repeat your message, complete with disinformation, without adding their own: a brief explanation of what the debt ceiling actually is.  Apparently, congressional reporters, unlike the White House press corp, don’t mind being summoned as bait.  Nor do the Sunday talk-show folk.  

Worms, all.

Milbank does allow that:

Arguably, Obama’s no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy approach is good politics. His first-term experience made clear that he gained nothing from Republicans when he took a passive approach. When it comes to getting things done in Washington, there’s no substitute for forceful presidential leadership. Teddy Roosevelt, whose oil-on-canvas likeness gazed at Obama from an East Room wall, probably would have approved.

Actually, not even just arguably, Milbank conflates statements of fact–in this instance, fact about what the debt ceiling is–with politics.  Certainly, correcting the opposition’s campaign of disinformation, and educating the public about a critical but technical statute that almost no one other than Washington pols, fiscal-policy wonks, and journalists who cover these people and subjects are familiar with, is damn good politics.  It is, in fact, absolutely necessary politics.  It’s dereliction-of-duty-for-failure-to-do-so politics.  

But statements of fact, and statements of policy based on the statements of fact, are not themselves mere politics.  They’re statements of fact and statements of policy based on those facts.

What’s most disturbing about this column is not that one high-profile political columnist confuses these things, but that he says that the entire White House press corp in attendance at the press conference yesterday does.  

So I suggest that they get out more.  Milbank, for example, might consider stepping out of Washington and into, maybe, Baltimore.  Not a long drive, really.  There, he could stop in at a coffee shop or mall and maybe ask people whether they had heard or read of Obama’s comments yesterday and, if so, whether they understood more now about the what debt ceiling statute is than they did a day before.

Then he can report his findings to the rest of the White House press corp.  And offer a different theory about the reason Obama summoned them to the press room yesterday.

Or he could just start reading Angry Bear.  

Seriously, I hope Paul Krugman and other “names” will expose Milbank’s argument for what it is. Obama has that tendency to cower whenever a media meme takes hold on fiscal-policy issues. Milbank and the White House press corp don’t read Angry Bear, but they might read Krugman’s blog. 

  Nah; probably not.  It’s not like Krugman’s a centerist, or anything. Still, it’s worth a shot, especially since what matters most is that Obama or someone close to him might.
This Bear is really ANGRY today.

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UPDATED:  Well, I woke up this morning to a few congratulatory emails, including from some Bears, telling me that Paul Krugman linked to my post yesterday in a blog post of his.  Awesome!  (Thanks, Prof. Krugman. And thanks to everyone for the congrats.)  

But I also want to republish here as an update an exchange between Bear JazzB. and me in the comments to the post:

JazzBumpa:   I always thought Milbank was more or less OK.

But this is really stupid.

Me:  Milbank was terrific back when he was the Post’s WH correspondent during the first G.W. Bush term, JazzB. But he rarely writes anything in his column that I think is really insightful or informative, and sometimes he writes a column that’s just baffling. Like yesterday’s.

What really dismays me is that he and some of the other “name” pundits flat-out missed the purpose of Obama’s Monday press conference. Obama was explaining what the debt ceiling law actually is–and what it is not. An explanation that was (and is) necessity because it’s a law that sounds like it means something that it does not, and that means something that it does not sound like it means–a fact that the Repubs have abused nearly every time one of them says anything publicly about it.

Dave Weigel wrote a [Politics article]* on Slate on Monday after the press conference that started out sounding like he missed the point–and then, wham!  He hit the nail on the head, pointing out that back in Sept. Obama said he planned to speak much more, directly, to the public and explain policy issues.  Weigel said that the Repubs mocked that then, but learned on Monday what he meant.  

And it does seem that the Repubs did learn a lot on Monday, because since then, several have publicly acknowledged that the debt ceiling game is over.  Yet Milbank and a few other pundits didn’t catch on.

And as long as I’m updating here, I’ll indulge myself and republish another exchange I had in the Comments to the post–this one with FastCommerce:

FastCommerce:  Worms. You an idiot.

Me:  Oh, dear. FastCommerce, it looks like you took the BAIT.

So sorry, folks.  But I couldn’t resist.

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*In my original comment, I said Weigel wrote a blog post.  Actually, what he wrote was a full-length article, not a comment or short piece on his Slate blog.  (Those of us who are longtime Slate addicts know there’s a difference.)

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