David Broder’s meaningless centrism

Washington Post columnist David Broder is at this point basically a joke among serious political writers and bloggers. To them, he represents the pointlessness and shallowness of a certain kind of mainstream newspaper political coverage: A mindset that fetishizes objectivity and even-handedness to the point of prizing, above all else, “bipartisanship” for the sake of bipartisanship regardless of the policies involved.

According to this mindset, the havoc wreaked by tax cuts, cronyism, and Republicans’ turning K Street into another arm of government were not the result of deliberate policies and practices by one party, but rather occurred because of “partisan gridlock,” because “Washington is broken.” Thus bipartisan action is always good, regardless of whether the legislation produced by such action is sound. (The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait is one of the best critics of this view, and his book The Big Con is a must-read for anyone interested in this sort of thing.)

Broder’s column Thursday about the recently enacted economic stimulus package is an almost comically perfect example of this shallow strain of argument. Broder writes:

A week ahead of their self-imposed deadline, the House and Senate, by overwhelming votes, sent to President Bush almost exactly the kind of relief measure he had sought for the staggering economy.

It was a dramatic reversal of the gridlock that had characterized executive-congressional relations throughout 2007, and it reflects the recognition by both Republicans and Democrats of the public disenchantment with official Washington that has been one of the dominant themes of the 2008 presidential campaign. (emphasis added)

Notice that Broder isn’t commenting on whether the stimulus package is substantively good. To him, the most important thing is that Congress acquiesced to what President Bush wanted. Is Bush’s plan what the economy actually needs now? Who cares! Hey, it’s gotta be better than gridlock!

Also notice that Broder presents the executive-congressional gridlock neutrally, as if everyone is to blame. Because, you know, it’s not like the administration has been stonewalling for at least a year on the shady firing of U.S. attorneys; on the disappearance of up to 5 million White House e-mails; on the destruction of CIA tapes showing the interrogation/torture of detainees; on its warrantless wiretapping program; etc., etc.

But this is the best part:

Time will tell whether the stimulus package — blessed by leading economists of both parties — will be timely and substantial enough to ward off a full-scale recession. But as a symbol of Washington’s capacity to respond to a real threat and satisfy public demand for action, it is impressive and heartening.

I’m not sure which leading economists he’s talking about. Most of the commentary I’ve seen — including this helpful list compiled by Greg Mankiw, Harvard econ professor and former chairman of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors (his own view is here) — has been decidedly un-blessed. But the policy itself doesn’t seem to be all that important to Broder; that single sentence is the only part of the column that even cursorily discusses the policy’s soundness.

No, what’s important to Broder is that the stimulus bill is a “symbol of Washington’s capacity to respond to a real threat and satisfy public demand for action.” What’s “impressive and heartening” isn’t that Congress and the White House passed a necessary, smartly crafted, and useful stimulus plan — who knows if they did that! What’s impressive is the symbol of responding to threats, of heeding some alleged demand for action.

According to this worldview, any action will do — as long as it’s bipartisan.

One response to “David Broder’s meaningless centrism

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