The Agenda

Walter Russell Mead on the Virtues of a Hostile Press Corps

I found WRM’s reflections on the ongoing left-right war of position in Wisconsin very worthwhile:


That more conservative candidates and causes face hostile media scrutiny that liberal lions don’t makes the conservatives tougher and more battle tested.  It can ground their political calculations more securely in reality; if there are any gaping flaws in conservative arguments, programs or personnel, they can be reasonably sure that a vigilant mainstream media will point them out in great and loving detail.

This is not always a blessing, but surprisingly often, it is.  More hostile media scrutiny would have convinced Senator John Kerry that his Vietnam record could not anchor his presidential campaign.  It would have made then Vice President Gore much more aware of what a liability it is that so many voters heard him as condescending and elitist.  It would have alerted President Obama to the critical flaws in the congressional porkfest loosely but inaccurately referred to as a ‘stimulus package’.  It would have let the greens know that their carbon treaty concept was an obvious flop before they wasted precious time and money on a decade long unicorn hunt.

Over and over again in modern American politics, liberals have developed “frames” and strategies for key issues that they think will shift the debate their way.  Over and over again the echo chamber of the liberal press resounds with praises of the new approach.  And over and over again liberals “unexpectedly” get sucker punched by conservative counter attacks a more critical press would have forecast as both inevitable and deadly.

Mead’s take reminded of a recent column by Ross Douthat, in which he reflected on the shrewdness of President Obama’s reactions to discrete events and what appears to be his larger strategic failure:


Ever since the midterms, the White House’s tactics have consistently maximized President Obama’s short-term advantage while diminishing his overall authority. Call it the “too clever by half” presidency: the administration’s maneuvering keeps working out as planned, but Obama’s position keeps eroding.

Start with the first round of deficit debates this winter. After the Republican sweep, the White House seemed to have two options: double down on Keynesian stimulus or pivot to the center and champion deficit reduction. Instead, Obama chose to hover above the fray, passing on his own fiscal commission’s recommendations and letting the Republicans make the first move.

The strategy worked, in a sense. Goaded by the president’s evasiveness, Paul Ryan and the House Republicans put forward a detailed long-term budget proposal of their own, whose Medicare cuts proved predictably unpopular. But while the subsequent policy debate favored Obama, the optics of the confrontation diminished him. The chairman of the House Budget Committee looked more like a leader than the president of the United States.

And so on. 

Conservatives have been “blessed,” if you can call it that, with political opponents who are weak, vacillating, evasive. The trouble is that this has left conservatives in a bubble of unreality in which our highest objectives are always just around the corner. Mead is right that intense media scrutiny is a plus for conservatives. Yet the fact that, for example, hardly any seasoned D.C. journalists believe that President Obama would be willing to let the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts expire leaves conservatives in an awkward position: without countervailing pressure, there is no incentive to compromise — and thus little incentive to craft durable policy positions, i.e., positions that can withstand a shift in which party controls Congress and the White House. This goes back to the Garett Jones argument: Republicans seem unduly concerned with preventing tax increases while Republicans happen to be in office rather than preventing tax increases by implementing truly sustainable tax and entitlement reforms.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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