National Journal Editorial Director* Ron Fournier Missed Eighth-Grade Civics Class the Day They Discussed the Separation-of-Powers Thing. He Should Now Get a Tutor.

It’s hard to know who will end up taking the biggest political hit if the latest Washington-induced crisis moves from theoretical to real — but the answer may well lie in which side can get the public to buy into its finger-pointing at the other side.
That’s why the excuses matter: Polls show Obama has the upper hand now over unpopular lawmakers, but much can change if sequestration upends the country’s economic recovery and Americans lose their jobs and access to popular government services.

Sequestration: Excuses, excuses, excuses, Darren Samuelsohn and Scott Wong, Politico, yesterday

I agree.  If the sequester upends the country’s economic recovery and Americans lose their jobs and access to popular government services because of its deep cuts in federal spending, the public  may well rage against Obama for refusing to accede to the Republicans’ demand that federal spending be cut much more dramatically (except for the Defense Department’s spending, which would not be cut at all)–therefore costing at least as many Americans their jobs and further denying access to those popular government services and to additional ones.  They may well be livid with Obama that he wanted to lessen the number of job losses and the loss of access to popular government services by claiming more tax revenues from wealthy individuals and corporations.  

Especially since about three-fourths of the public supports Obama’s proposed route.  The public may be marching in the streets, demanding impeachment.   And demanding further deep spending cuts in order to cut more jobs and popular services, and lower taxes on the wealthy and on corporations. At least if they’re really, really angry about the job losses, the damage to the economy, and the loss of popular government services.

It isn’t a certainty that they will, though, even if they’re really, really angry about the job losses, the damage to the economy, and the loss of popular government services. Which is why the Politico piece says only that it’s hard to tell whether or not they will.  Such things just can’t be predicted with reasonable accuracy.

One thing John Boehner is right about: The public does understand–his word, not mine–that tax increases are off the table, because the Republicans agreed to $600 billion in tax increases on people with very high incomes as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal seven weeks ago.  

They also understand exactly why further tax revenue from the very wealthy is off the table. And they know that it’s not actually because the Republicans agreed to $600 billion in tax increases on people with very high incomes as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal seven weeks ago.  

The Politico piece, which I’m betting was not the idea of the two reporters but was instead an assignment handed to them, along with an opening script, by top management there–it is not a reporting piece at all–is an interesting variation on the highly-in-vogue-this-season pseudo-journalism pox-on-both-their-houses sequestration/fiscal-cliff/debt-ceiling/shut-down-the-government routine.  It passes for journalism.  But it is not journalism.  It is propaganda.  

The Politico piece subtlely varies the usual technique. Instead of saying, as most of the genre’s pieces do, that these crises really are the fault of both sides–equally, of course–this article says the public probably can’t distinguish between suddenly and dramatically cutting federal spending, causing substantial job losses and gutting popular government services, and cutting federal spending less and more slowly and helping to reduce the budget deficit by raising more tax revenue from the wealthy individuals and corporations.  

But most members of this Lewis-Carroll-as-journalists crowd do the straight from of it.  In fact, a few of them seem more like the Mad Hatter than like the Mad Hatter’s creator.  Ron Fournier appears to be among them.

For those of you who don’t know, and there probably are few of you who don’t, Ron Fournier is a Republican-leaning, somewhat controversial Washington political journalist who a few years ago was himself major news in journalism circles when he was appointed the Associated Press’s acting Washington bureau chief.  (Until I read his Wikipedia page a few minutes ago, I wasn’t aware that it was intended as just a temporary appointment.)  The Wikipedia paragraph about this explains the controversy:

In May 2008, Fournier was named the acting Washington bureau chief, replacing his “mentor” Sandy Johnson. Since taking over the position, Fournier has led a dramatic shift in the AP’s policy, moving it away from the neutral and objective tone it had become known for and toward a more opinionated style that would make judgments when conflicting opinions were presented in a story.

The judgments Fournier favored were ones that the Republican Party favored as well, if I remember right.  It wasn’t a hit with Fournier’s AP colleagues, nor apparently with many of the AP’s news media clients.  So he left the AP to become editor at the venerable National Journal, which, for those of you who don’t know, and there probably are a few of you who don’t, is a (mainly) print journal that at least in recent years quietly leans Republican but that clothes itself as neutral.  

Sort of like Politico.  Except that, unlike Politico, no one outside Washington reads it and no one outside Washington cares about it.  Which is understandable, since no one outside Washington has ever heard of it. (Except me, but I do qualify as someone who doesn’t read it and someone who doesn’t care about it.)

Anyway, Greg Sargent, who is inside Washington and who does read the National Journal, writes this morning:

To summarize, Fournier and Pfeiffer argued over who is to blame for the sequester. Pfeiffer criticized David Brooks’ “pox on both houses” column this morning and noted that only one side (the GOP) is not willing to compromise to avoid the sequester. Fournier, who also tweeted a link to Brooks’ column, replied with several tweets arguing that it’s on the President to secure compromise from the opposition, such as this one: “only one side is president. Both sides should be ashamed.”

This echoes Fournier’s recent column arguing that while Republicans have adopted a fundamentally uncompromising position (which to Fournier’s credit he’s been willing to acknowledge), “in any enterprise, the chief executive is ultimately accountable for success and failure.” Brooks’s column, meanwhile, argues that both sides are to blame, because Obama doesn’t have a plan to avert the sequester (which is false). So, some questions for the “blame it on both sides” crowd:

1) Let’s grant Fournier’s premise that a president should do all he can to secure cooperation from the other side. What more, if anything, could Obama actually do to win cooperation from today’s Republican Party on averting the sequester, short of giving in to the GOP demand that we replace it only with spending cuts? Republicans say no compromise to avert the sequester is acceptable. That’s not an exaggeration: It’s the party’s explicit, publicly stated position. What more specifically could Obama do to change this? If the answer is “nothing,” then why are both sides equally to blame?

Okay, look.  The president can be appropriately analogized to the CEO of the executive branch of the federal government.  It’s not a perfect analogy; obviously, there are laws that limit the president’s control over the executive branch–the Federalist Society’s silly Reagan-era “unitary executive” theory of law (don’t ask) to the contrary, notwithstanding.  But it’s a useful analogy nonetheless.  

But unless you recognize that Congress is not the president’s subordinate, whose membership he can hire and fire, and that federal fiscal policy is not established by fiat of top management, or unless you realize this but aren’t astute enough to understand that these are, to use a favorite word of lawyers, “material” differences between corporate CEOs and the president of the United States, you do know that it is deeply stupid to say that “in any enterprise, the chief executive is ultimately accountable for success and failure,” and not realize that some enterprises actually don’t have a chief executive and that the federal government is among those enterprises that do not.

I guess this is confusing, because, after all, the president is the chief of the executive branch of the federal government.  You have to know that this particular enterprise has three separate branches that, as per the Constitution, operate independent of one another, in order to understand the difference between being the chief of the executive branch and being the chief executive.  And Fournier apparently does not.

Greg Sargent, Paul Krugman, The New Yorker’s Jonathan Chait, Slate’s Matthew Yglesias, and a few other political writers have been sounding sirens of alarm and utter dismay at this increasingly dangerous and perverted juggernaut by so many self-styled neutral mainstream political journalists, including two days ago a Washington Post editorial writer, to engage in a campaign of deceit and propaganda in reporting on these sequential Republican-orchestrated federal fiscal crises.  

In my opinion, the very best of the deconstruction-of-the-pretzel-positions pieces–and one of the most piercing and quietly eloquent political opinion pieces I’ve ever read–is this one, from Wednesday, by Chait, which Yglesias linked to on Wednesday and which Sargent links to today. Yglesias’s excellent posts are here and here.

I think we’re about to reach an epiphany point, at which enough important journalists become genuinely scared of what is by now creepily similar to a government-controlled mainstream press in totalitarian countries that this will cease.  No, not by the stupid Ron Fournier or by the silly, robotic David Brooks.  But maybe at least by the Washington Post’s editorial writers and by reporters who certainly need their current jobs but who also are young enough to need reputations as credible and intelligent journalists, going forward.

And once that happens, maybe mainstream journalism will have a similar epiphany about the austerity juggernaut. Or, as Ezra Klein points out, mainstream journalism’s really weird role in it.

As for Fournier, according to Wikipedia, he’s won several prestigious journalism awards. But never one for commentary. Maybe this year.

*Originally, this post said Fournier was the National Journal’s title was editor.


POSTSCRIPT: I hadn’t seen this post of Paul Krugman’s from yesterday until just now. Talk about cutting to–cutting into, really–the heart of something slimy yet seemingly ever-evading analysis and puncture!

Enough. Enough. Time now to end it. Psychiatrists are standing by to offer withdrawal counseling.

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