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Ron Fournier Says Abraham Lincoln Wasn’t a Great President

Great presidents rise above circumstance. Not Obama, at least not yet. At a news conference Tuesday marking the 100th day of his second and final term, the president seemed unwilling or unable to overcome stubborn GOP opposition.

— Ron Fournier, National Journal, yesterday (h/t Jonathan Chait, New York magazine, today)

Fournier’s right, of course. About Abraham Lincoln, that is.  Lincoln was unwilling or unable to overcome stubborn Southern opposition to his agenda of ending slavery and keeping the Union whole.

Personally, I think it was the former.  Unless you count that declaration-of-war thing.  Although if you do, then you also have to count that victory at Appomattox.  Which would mean Lincoln was able to overcome stubborn Southern opposition to his agenda of ending slavery and keeping the Union whole, after all.  And that would mean that he must have been willing to do so, unless that victory was an accident.

Although, under the new definition of the word leadership, that kind of thing doesn’t count, because persuasion just didn’t work in that case.

Take me to your leader, Mr. Fournier.  Once you find one who isn’t a hypnotist or the head of a parliamentarian government. Unless, of course, by rising above circumstance, you mean military coup de tat.

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Oh, Dear. The David Brooksification of the Washington Post Editorial Board. And Brooks Doesn’t Even Write For The Washington Post. (But he does still write for the New York Times.) – UPDATED

As Greg Sargent pointed out this morning, the new “it” gimmick of the pox-on-both-houses punditry is to borrow National Journal editorial something-or-other Ron Fournier’s tac of pretending that Obama can order the military to invade the House of Representatives and hold its members at assault-weapon-point until they agree to a grand bargain.  Or at least to a less-grand one that includes additional tax revenue mainly through the closing of loopholes for the wealthy.  

Sargent doesn’t give credit where it’s due, though; he fails to identify Fournier as the etymoligcal source for this.  But, best as I can tell, he is; he just forgot to copyright it.

The key to this particular gimmick is a slight variation on the Orwellian redefinition of the word “lead” offered, repeatedly now, by John Boehner. In that original form, lead actually means follow.  Or, capitulate.  As in: The president needs to show leadership by delegating policymaking to the Republicans.  But in the slightly morphed from being employed by the punditry, it means–seriously–using actual force to compel the House to agree to a compromise that includes raising more tax revenue from the wealthy.

And surely this will resonate with the public.  After all, doesn’t everyone want a president who leads?  And isn’t all that matters simply the use of the word lead–regardless of how closely that use corresponds to the actual common English-language meaning of the word?

Well, obviously, the answer to that question is yes, because today the Washington Post features an editorial called “Sequester offers President Obama a time to lead,” which suggests that Obama offer a grand bargain that includes … additional tax revenues from the wealthy.

Call up the Army, Mr. President. And a Marine unit or two.  

Actually, apparently the purpose of the editorial–its purported purpose, anyway–is to try to goad Obama into proposing a grand bargain that would cut Social Security and Medicare benefit and that would include additional tax revenue.  So editorial writer casually segues from “leader” as someone who forces an actual agreement to “leader” who proposes a bold, sweeping, grand solution that the other side will reject out-of-hand and that therefore doesn’t resolve the sequester issue that the writer insists Obama is obligated to force a resolution of.  

But the actual purpose of the editorial–at least one actual purpose–is to support and subtly reiterate Bob Woodward’s false and baldly silly claim in that paper last weekend that in Aug. 2011 Obama agreed to a deal that forbade him and the Senate Democrats from bargaining to replace the sequester with any agreement except one that was even more abhorrent to the Dems’ position than the sequester.  According to Woodward, Obama agreed as part of the sequester itself that the Repubs were free to try to replace the sequester with a deal that removed Defense Department cuts and replaced those cuts with draconian cuts to social safety net programs and to other agencies and programs that the Dems support.  (The EPA!  The SEC! The Consumer Product Safety Commission!)  But, Obama agreed, the Dems would not be entitled to try to replace some of the cuts with additional tax revenue. 

Uh-uh.  No, sir.  This train runs in only one direction: Republican.

Sounds to me like a deal that Obama could have just cut to the chase and taken right then and there, in Aug. 2011 rather than waiting 18 months.  But it doesn’t sound that way to Woodward. Or to the editorial’s author, who writes:

The Republicans are right when they say that the sequester was Mr. Obama’s idea, in the summer of 2011, and that he agreed to a deal that was all spending cuts, no tax hikes.

Yup. I guess that if you’re a Washington Post editorial writer, you can try to get away with saying that Obama “agreed to a deal that was all spending cuts, no tax hikes,” and not identify which deal you’re talking about–the sequester deal, which indeed was all spending cuts, or instead a deal to replace the sequester, which has yet to be made and therefore includes no deal that is all spending cuts.  At least if you don’t give a damn about your paper’s credibility.  

And if you don’t care that you’re playing with fire.  Words have actual meanings, and these semantics sleights of hand are matches.

But the editorial is dangerous in a substantive, rather than only a semantics, respect as well, because it bases its grand-bargain argument upon a claim that we must agree now to cut Social Security and Medicare in the future in order to pay for things like increases in education funding and guaranteed quality preschool now.  At least I think that’s what it’s saying.  

Ben Bernake, by the way, made clear today under questioning before the Senate Banking Committee, that he begs to differ with the assessment that this is a grand idea. The Washington Post’s economics and finance reporter who covered the hearing will report accurately on what transpired. The Washington Post’s editorial board won’t even understand it. Or won’t admit that they do.

Meanwhile, never to be outdone in recommending policies to Obama so that Obama can lead, without offering an iota of explanation or support for them, David Brooks weighed in this morning with another leadership-as-a-double-entendre column.  This time, fresh from his mea culpa about his last column, and in fact reiterating the walk-back, Brooks acknowledges that inequality has spiraled out of control since the Clinton era, and agrees that Obama should propose policies to address this.  Like a consumption tax to offset an elimination of income taxes on incomes up to $100,000 and a reduction of corporate tax rates to 15%.  

Brooks doesn’t explain the policy reasons for the two offsets he suggests.  But he doesn’t have to.  Everyone knows that the less progressive the tax code, the less inequality in wealth we will have, and that record corporate profits and record corporate hoarding of those profits leads to more equality of income.  After all, they’ve read past Brooks columns.

As for the Washington Post editorial board, when they consider important people who should lead, but aren’t, they might want to look in the mirror.  They emphasize that the Republicans are right that the sequester was Mr. Obama’s idea, in the summer of 2011.  But they don’t mention that the alternative was the default by the United States on all of its already-incurred financial obligations, including its Treasury bonds. Nor that that, by absolutely all accounts, would have destabilized the entire world economy.

This is important stuff. And as the editorial board of one this country’s emanant general-news publications, they’re important people. They should take that responsibility seriously. They should lead.


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UPDATE:  Washington Post columnist David Ignatius writes, in a column posted this afternoon:

Much as I would criticize Obama, it’s wrong to say that both sides are equally to blame for what’s about to hit us. This isn’t a one-off case of Republicans using Obama’s sequestration legislation to force reckless budget cuts. It’s a pattern of behavior: First the Republicans were prepared to shut down the government and damage the national credit rating with their showdown over the debt ceiling; then they were careening toward the “fiscal cliff.” This isn’t a legislative tactic anymore; it’s an addiction.

Excuse me, Mr. Ignatius, but given that you acknowledge that the Republicans were prepared to shut down the government and damage the national credit rating with their showdown over the debt ceiling, isn’t it a bit–oh, I don’t know–odd for you to imply that that was unconnected to, y’know, Obama’s sequester? Since, without* Obama’s sequester, the government would in fact have shut down, and the damage the national credit rating would have been, um, significant–so, this is what Obama’s sequester avoided?

Or was Obama’s sequest really just proposed in a vacuum, as you suggest? I forget. Or you do.

Or maybe you just pretend to.

*Typo-corrected. Originally, it said “with” rather than “without.” Oops.

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Why You Don’t Want Ron Fournier to Be a Journalist – (Mainstream-journalism gimmickry) [Post republished after editing]

I was wrong.  It turns out that National Journal editorial director Ron Fournier wasn’t out sick the day his eighth-grade civics class learned about the separation of powers between the three branches of the federal government, after all.  He was present and learned about it.  But he missed a class a few weeks later explaining that the president lacks the authority to order a military invasion of the House of Representatives and sequestration–the literal kind, not the budgetary kind.  

I know, I know; the president is the commander in chief. But it’s Congress that must formally declare war, and Congress probably wouldn’t declare war on itself. One house might declare war on the other, but that wouldn’t meet the Constitution’s requirement that both houses vote to declare war on the same target.

There is, of course, the option of CIA renditions.  Which, after reading Fournier’s new blog post [h/t Greg Sargent] responding to the critics of a blog post in which he blamed Obama for the sequester because in “any enterprise, the chief executive is ultimately accountable for success and failure”–any enterprise, even one in which the chief executive isn’t actually the chief executive, but instead is the chief of the executive branch–I’m presuming is what Fournier has in mind.

Originally, I’d thought he meant that he wanted Obama to simply capitulate to the House Republicans and let them gut discretionary spending, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.  In other words, delegate federal fiscal policy to the Tea Party.  Others thought that, too, among them an unidentified senior White House official, who wrote to Fournier to complain.  But Fournier says he doesn’t understand what he calls this defensive reaction.*  He quotes part of the defensive reaction:

“Your point … in this piece and in a bunch of others in between seems to be that, because he’s president, Obama is obligated to do all the compromising himself,” wrote a senior White House official, whom I agreed not to identify. “Essentially what you’re saying is that he should respond to the GOP’s absolute refusal to compromise by giving in to them entirely.”

But Fournier says the White House official misunderstood him.  Fournier explains:

Actually, that’s not what I’m saying. Ignore the straw man. My point is this: Unlike presidential aides and liberal allies, I don’t think the president is politically impotent. I think he has the personal skills and power to lead, to fix this crazy mess.

It would require compromise, something the president has expressed a willingness to do. True problem-solving leadership also would require making tough choices that would anger his liberal base far more than the president is doing now; imposing sacrifice on all voters, including the middle class; and risking his high approval ratings. And, yes, he can’t do it without Republicans.

Actually, though, the White House official’s description was exactly what Fournier was saying,  Because although Fournier wants the president to act like a CEO, he knows that in this particular enterprise there is no CEO, and one branch of the enterprise is controlled by the Tea Party.

Fournier titles his new post, “Why You Don’t Want Me to Be President.”  The answer to that question is that he has no idea how the president could get the House to compromise.  But Fournier reminds that, unlike Obama, he didn’t run for president in 2008 promising to lead.  And Fournier says he wants the president to lead.  

Except that actually he makes clear that what he wants the president to do is follow.  

The subtitle of his post is “The White House is waving the white flag on working with a hardheaded GOP.”  It should read “The White House should wave the white flag on working with a hardheaded GOP.”  That would be an accurate description of the contents of the post.  

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*This post is an edited version of one I posted at about 6 p.m. on Friday.  The asterisked sentence is one of three that I edited.  I’ve also added the final two sentences.  The post is a followup to a post from earlier Friday. I’ve also created an additional label: mainstream-journalism gimmickry. I’ve left the original rather than delete it, because of the comments posted to that post.

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Why You Don’t Want Ron Fournier to Be a Journalist

I was wrong.  It turns out that National Journal editorial director Ron Fournier wasn’t out sick the day his eighth-grade civics class learned about the separation of powers between the three branches of the federal government, after all.  He was present and learned about it.  But he missed a class a few weeks later explaining that the president lacks the authority to order a military invasion of the House of Representatives and sequestration–the literal kind, not the budgetary kind.  

I know, I know; the president is the commander in chief. But it’s Congress that must formally declare war, and Congress probably wouldn’t declare war on itself. One house might declare war on the other, but that wouldn’t meet the Constitution’s requirement that both houses vote to declare war on the same target.

There is, of course, the option of CIA renditions.  Which, after reading Fournier’s new blog post [h/t Greg Sargent] responding to the critics of a blog post in which he blamed Obama for the sequester because in “any enterprise, the chief executive is ultimately accountable for success and failure”–any enterprise, even one in which the chief executive isn’t actually the chief executive, but instead is the chief of the executive branch–I’m presuming is what Fournier has in mind.

Originally, I’d thought he meant that he wanted Obama to simply capitulate to the House Republicans and let them gut discretionary spending, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.  In other words, delegate federal fiscal policy to the Tea Party.  Others thought that, too, among them an unidentified senior White House official, who wrote to Fournier to complain.  And Fournier says he doesn’t understand what he calls this defensive reaction.  He quotes part of the defensive reaction:

“Your point … in this piece and in a bunch of others in between seems to be that, because he’s president, Obama is obligated to do all the compromising himself,” wrote a senior White House official, whom I agreed not to identify. “Essentially what you’re saying is that he should respond to the GOP’s absolute refusal to compromise by giving in to them entirely.”

But Fournier says the White House official misunderstood him.  Fournier explains:

Actually, that’s not what I’m saying. Ignore the straw man. My point is this: Unlike presidential aides and liberal allies, I don’t think the president is politically impotent. I think he has the personal skills and power to lead, to fix this crazy mess.

It would require compromise, something the president has expressed a willingness to do. True problem-solving leadership also would require making tough choices that would anger his liberal base far more than the president is doing now; imposing sacrifice on all voters, including the middle class; and risking his high approval ratings. And, yes, he can’t do it without Republicans.

Actually, the White House official’s description was exactly what Fournier was saying,  Because although Fournier wants the president to act like a CEO, he knows that in this particular enterprise there is no CEO, and one branch of the enterprise is controlled by the Tea Party.

Fournier titles this post, “Why You Don’t Want Me to Be President.”  The answer to that question is that he has no idea how the president could get the House to compromise.  But Fournier reminds that, unlike Obama, he didn’t run for president in 2008 promising to lead.  And Fournier says he wants the president to lead.  

Except that actually he makes clear that what he wants the president to do is follow.  The subtitle of his post is “The White House is waving the white flag on working with a hardheaded GOP.”

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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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