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Hey Media: Stop Grading Republicans on a Curve
The political press is tripping over themselves to celebrate Kevin McCarthy for not falling on his face
As someone with a long history of high blood pressure, yesterday was not a good day to be online.
Last night, the House of Representatives passed the debt limit extension/budget deal negotiated by President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy by a surprising margin. On the one hand, the bill prevented the first-ever default in U.S. history and avoided a potential global financial collapse. On the other, this deal was small potatoes, consisting of relatively minor and temporary cuts to discretionary spending programs.
But you wouldn’t know any of that from today’s coverage. The press — and particularly Congressional reporters — are treating the passage of this basic bill as a significant accomplishment for McCarthy. On Twitter and in the press, reporters are slavishly fete-ing the Speaker for passage of the bill.
Benjy Sarlin wrote in Semafor:
McCarthy pulled off a legislative two-step, forcing Biden to the negotiating table by rallying Republicans behind a deeply partisan bill hardliners would agree to, then keeping the right on board just long enough to hash out a viable compromise. Conservatives may be unhappy with the final bill, but for now there doesn’t appear to be any serious effort to topple McCarthy.
Senior Republicans said McCarthy succeeded in part by bringing some of his antagonists from the speaker’s race into the decision-making process, including by placing three hardline conservatives onto the prestigious Rules Committee.
Everyone, go take a cold shower. McCarthy did the bare minimum required and didn’t get fired (yet) in the process. If folks want to say McCarthy exceeded historically low expectations, fine; but treating him as some conquering hero or the second coming of Lyndon Baines Johnson is ridiculously over the top.
The way the media treats McCarthy is part of the broader and very annoying habit of grading Republicans on a curve. The GOP gets participation trophies from the press, while Democrats are often held to much higher standards.
Putting McCarthy’s “Big Day” in Context
On one level, I get it. Most people thought Kevin McCarthy was doomed to fail. He became Speaker in the most degrading way possible after his party massively underperformed in the midterms. In this case, McCarthy did not fail. He exceeded the historically low expectations that most people had for him. It’s time we put this debt limit deal in context.
First, this was not a major legislative accomplishment. There were no new policies, no major reforms, and nothing that would stand the test of time. Heck, this bill doesn’t even guarantee the government won’t shut down this fall. Second, McCarthy acquired little of what he demanded. The Inflation Reduction Act and Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan remain intact. The cuts are smaller and for a much shorter duration than the GOP wanted. Third, regarding the details of the bill, Biden and his team ran circles around the Republicans. For example, Republicans desperately wanted more onerous work requirements for aid programs, yet somehow Biden tricked them into a reform that expanded the number of people eligible for food assistance. Finally, McCarthy needed Democrats to bail him out on the vote for the rule to bring the bill to the floor.
In the end, more Democrats than Republicans voted for the bill, which says everything about the substance of the deal.
America didn’t default, and McCarthy didn’t get fired. That’s certainly an improvement over the alternative, but it’s not an accomplishment.
And oh yea, did we somehow forget that McCarthy used the full faith and credit of the United States to extort the President and the public?
Why Do Republicans Get Graded on a Curve?
The McCarthy coverage is an egregious example of a trend in the political media. They grade Republicans on a curve while holding Democrats to a different, higher standard. Perhaps, you remember the many, many times during the Trump era when the press celebrated a newly disciplined or strategic Trump simply because he went ten days without committing a crime in public or tweeting hate speech. Other Republicans, like Mitch McConnell, received a Profiles in Courage award for being slightly less bad than Trump. Doing anything other than lighting the government on fire is seen as a substantive achievement.
Grading the GOP on a curve is endemic to longstanding journalistic cultural mores.
First, political media prizes balance over accuracy. They would rather be seen as “objective” and “non-partisan” than correctly detail what is happening in politics. In a world where the Republicans cavort with Nazis, enable Trump’s crimes, lie with impunity, and generally enjoy watching the world burn, the media has to go out of its way to say nice things about Republicans. In those instances, they tend to compensate to prove their bona fides as balanced reporters.
Second, the media has fully internalized the idea that the modern GOP is radical and reckless. Therefore, they price that assumption into the baseline when judging their conduct.
“Of course, the House Republicans will strap a legislative bomb to their chest and extort policy concessions under threat of default.”
“Of course, [Insert Republican here] would lie about Joe Biden’s family/record/health.”
Because such conduct is expected, it is not treated as news and therefore receives less attention than it would otherwise. Now, if a Democrat does something that might possibly be seen as uncivil or irresponsible, the press goes after them whole hog. Throughout the debt limit standoff, the Republican extortion was normalized, and Biden was repeatedly criticized for not negotiating with the extortionists. Republicans were excused for starting the fire and Biden was at fault for not putting it out fast enough.
Ultimately, this sort of media criticism is shouting into the wind. It’s more cathartic than constructive — especially as the power and influence of legacy fade before our eyes. But I wanted to set the record straight before the folks at Punchbowl News erect a bronze statue of McCarthy on the steps of the Capitol; and I do think it’s worthwhile to understand the underlying reasons for the double standard.