Only a few weeks into Barack Obama’s presidency, a threatening political and media dynamic has rushed to the fore cutting short a very brief honeymoon.
The Republicans and their right-wing media allies are doing whatever they can to strangle the Obama phenomenon in its cradle; the mainstream media pundits are stressing the negative so they don’t get called “in the tank for Obama”; and the Democrats are shying away from holding the Bush-Cheney administration accountable for its crimes.
None of these developments is particularly surprising. Indeed, they track closely to the political-media pattern that took shape the last time a young Democrat won the White House, when Bill Clinton became President in 1993.
Then, the dispirited Republicans got a lift from the loud voice of a younger Rush Limbaugh who used his popular three-hour radio show to pillory Bill and Hillary Clinton. That, in turn, encouraged the congressional Republicans to vote as a bloc against President Clinton’s budget and economic plan.
Mainstream journalists also used the early Clinton years to disprove the Right’s old canard about the “liberal press.” As one senior news executive told me, “we’re going to show that we can be tougher on a Democrat than any Republican.”
And the Democrats of 1993 also didn’t want to investigate abuses by the Republicans who had just lost power. Despite evidence that the Reagan-Bush-41 administrations had obstructed investigations into Iran-Contra, Iraqgate and other national security scandals, Clinton and Democratic congressional leaders feared partisan warfare if those cases were pursued.
Everyone in that 1993 mix seemed to be operating out of a logical self-interest – the Republicans viewed Clinton as an interloper at their White House; the right-wing media desired larger market share and greater political influence; the mainstream media wanted to shake off the “liberal” tag; and the Democrats hoped to focus on the nation’s deepening economic and social needs rather than on complex historical disputes.
However, the result for the country from that intersection of self-interests proved disastrous.
The Republican determination to destroy Clinton infected the political system with an ugly virus of hyper-partisanship; the right-wing media ramped up its hate talk; mainstream journalism lost its way, wandering into a strange landscape of garish sensationalism and shallow news reporting; and the Democrats failed to counteract the threat posed by the neoconservatives who surfaced during the national security scandals of the Reagan-Bush-41 years.
In short, the dynamic that took shape in 1993-94 carried the United States into the catastrophic presidency of George W. Bush just eight years later. [For details on how this happened, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Now, at the other end of the Bush-43 experience, what may be most unsettling is that so little has changed, so few lessons have been learned.
Even some of the key players are the same, with Rush Limbaugh hoping to reprise his role as the bombastic voice that lifts the Republicans out of their post-election funk. And the new GOP players in Congress seem to be following the hand-me-down playbook from that earlier era.
So, House Republicans hailed their unanimous bloc vote against President Obama’s $819 billion stimulus package as their first substantive step back. That was followed by key Republicans – Mitch McConnell, John McCain and Lindsey Graham – refusing to join in any serious negotiations with Democrats in the Senate.
With the Republican Senate leaders vowing to filibuster the stimulus bill – thus forcing the Democrats to round up 60 votes – the Republicans were almost gleeful in their insurrection. The Washington Post quoted key Republicans expressing this exhilaration in a front-page story entitled “GOP Sees Positives in Negative Stand.”
"We're so far ahead of where we thought we'd be at this time," said Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, a backbencher eager to take a leadership role. "It's not a sign that we're back to where we need to be, but it's a sign that we're beginning to find our voice.”
"What transpired,” said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the second-ranking House Republican, ”and will give us a shot in the arm going forward is that we are standing up on principle and just saying no." [Washington Post, Feb. 9, 2009]
One excited Republican congressman – Pete Sessions of Texas – went even further, comparing the GOP insurrectionist tactics to those of the Taliban, the radical Islamic group that is battling U.S. forces in Afghanistan and has been allied with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist group.
“Insurgency, we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban,” Sessions said during a meeting with editors of the National Journal’s Hotline. “And that is that they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person’s entire processes.”
Sessions caught himself slightly, adding:
“I’m not trying to say the Republican Party is the Taliban. No, that’s not what we’re saying. I’m saying [that] we need to understand that insurgency may be required when the other side, the House leadership, does not follow the same commands, which we entered the game with.”
In the Senate, only three Republicans – Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Arlen Specter – crossed the aisle to support a compromise stimulus bill that gained their support by increasing the proportion of tax cuts and by reducing spending on schools and aid to hard-pressed state governments.
Their votes became crucial for the bill to gain a 60-vote super-majority to cut off debate. After clearing the Senate, 61-37, on Tuesday, the stimulus bill goes to a conference with the House to iron out differences.
Besides the reemerging behavioral patterns of the Republicans, many Democrats also are acting like it’s 1993 all over again. Despite blunt admissions by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that they ordered waterboarding and other brutal interrogation techniques, the Democrats have shied away from any legal confrontation over whether to hold Bush and Cheney accountable for criminal violations.
Instead, there’s been talk about, maybe, a "truth and reconciliation commission" that won’t seek to embarrass anyone and – through grants of immunity – may make any criminal prosecutions impossible. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Leahy Calls for Truth Commission.”]
Another reflection from the historical mirror of 1993 is the asymmetry of media power. Then, like now, there was a scarcity of well-organized independent or progressive media, only a handful of under-funded magazines and some small FM radio stations up against a fast-growing right-wing media machine.
Over the past 16 years, independent and progressive outlets have gained a toehold in the national debate – mostly through the Internet and a few cable TV shows – but the balance remains heavily tilted toward the right-wing side, which invests vastly more money in virtually every media sector, from books, magazines and newspapers to radio, TV and the Internet.
This imbalance enabled the Republicans to throw the Obama administration onto the defensive by cherry-picking a few questionable items in the stimulus bill and making them the center of the national debate for several days. The independent/progressive media side proved woefully inadequate in countering that initial thrust.
So far, however, the key difference-maker in the economic debate has been the President himself. Despite all the TV jibber-jabber about Obama’s stumbles, he demonstrated his ability to reach past the Washington chatter and connect with an American public that, according to polls, wishes him well and desperately wants him to succeed.
Obama’s town-hall meetings in the hard-hit communities of Elkhart, Indiana, on Monday and Fort Myers, Florida, on Tuesday – as well as his strong performance in a televised news conference on Monday night – left millions of Americans delighted to have a President who could both speak in paragraphs and cite down-home examples of how his stimulus package would help common folk.
People in the audiences nodded at his explanations about money to winterize homes or to modernize schools or to build a first-class infrastructure. A refrain also kept popping up in questions, references to “for the first time in eight years,” an implicit contrast to Bush’s inarticulate oratory.
Obama’s speaking skill and personal charm may go a long way toward blunting Republican hopes for a repeat of the nasty partisan fights of 1993-94 – which ended up with the GOP winning both chambers of Congress, Rush Limbaugh becoming an honorary member of the new House majority, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich launching his “Republican Revolution.”
But except for Obama’s prodigious abilities -- and an American public that may have lost its patience for some of the Washington gamesmanship -- there are eerie parallels to the start of the last Democratic presidency 16 years ago.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.
Baltimore News Network, Inc., sponsor of this web site, is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed in stories posted on this web site are the authors' own.
This story was published on February 12, 2009.