If you watch the pundits on cable news or read the big-name newspaper columnists, you will find a general consensus that the national Republicans are returning to their core principles in their near-unanimous opposition to President Barack Obama’s stimulus bill and other proposals.
Republicans are taken at their word when they claim to be motivated by ideological consistency in opposing Obama’s “big government” solutions to America’s economic troubles, not by a political desire to strangle Obama’s presidency in the cradle.
Despite this Washington “conventional wisdom,” there is a growing sense across the United States that the Republicans are lying about their motivations, that their real reason for trying to obstruct Obama is not principle but political opportunism, that they want the President to fail so they can succeed at the polls.
One of the most telling responses to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll was what people said in answering Question 44: “Do you think [Republicans] opposed [the stimulus bill] mostly because they thought it would be bad for the economy or mostly for political reasons?”
Sixty-three percent of respondents cited “political reasons” and only 29 percent believed the “not good for the economy” explanation from the Republicans. This two-to-one margin suggests that the Republicans are suffering from a serious credibility gap.
Public incredulity also was a common reaction to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Republican response to President Obama’s Tuesday night speech to a joint session of Congress. Jindal didn’t seem to have much to offer that would address the severity of America’s economic crisis.
However, in a moment of candor, Jindal acknowledged that the Republicans of the George W. Bush era had failed to live up to their promises of fiscal restraint.
“You elected Republicans to champion limited government, fiscal discipline and personal responsibility,” Jindal said. “Instead, Republicans went along with earmarks and big government spending in Washington. Republicans lost your trust, and rightly so.”
But something bigger may be afoot than Jindal’s notion that some well-meaning Republicans went to the big city of Washington and lost their ideological bearings.
In my three decades as a Washington-based journalist, what I have witnessed is a Republican Party that has grown increasingly arrogant about its ability to twist reality into any shape of its choosing – and to get lots of gullible people to go along.
As a reporter, I was familiar with the typical political spin and the occasional outright lie. But the Republican Party that emerged from the post-Watergate era was building its own right-wing media infrastructure that took deception to new heights, unabashedly declaring that up is down and then punishing anyone who disagreed.
On a personal level, I first encountered this technique of cognitive dissonance in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan appointed Ernest Lefever as assistant secretary of state for human rights. The post had been created by President Jimmy Carter to make human rights a higher priority.
Reagan was hostile to the concept, viewing right-wing dictators in Latin America and the Third World as vital allies in the Cold War. However, instead of junking the human rights position, Reagan selected someone who was anathema to the human rights community. Reagan simply declared that Ernest Lefever was a great advocate of human rights.
Even as it became clear that Lefever had cozy ties to the apartheid government of South Africa and other repressive regimes, it was difficult for the mainstream press to contest Reagan’s bald-faced assertion that Lefever was pro-human rights.
Though the right-wing media infrastructure and its anti-journalism attack groups were at relatively early stages of development, any mainstream journalist who challenged Reagan’s Orwellian twist on the phrase “human rights” could expect to be targeted for public attack for "liberal bias." It was easier to just go along.
In 1981, as an Associated Press reporter, I was one of a handful of journalists who helped expose Lefever’s fondness for white European colonizers of black Africa. In his writings, he had stressed the beneficence of the white conquerors and lamented the barbarism of the black natives. When I interviewed members of Lefever’s family, they recalled some of his personal comments that they regarded as racist.
Finally, in the face of mounting evidence that the proposed human-rights coordinator appeared to consider some people more human than others, the Reagan administration was forced to withdraw Lefever’s nomination. He was replaced by a bright, young neoconservative named Elliott Abrams.
Abrams easily won confirmation though he, too, had a selective view of human rights. When I interviewed him at the State Department early in his tenure, he minimized the atrocities committed by U.S.-backed regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala, two countries where soldiers and right-wing paramilitary groups tortured and murdered hundreds of victims a week.
By comparison, Abrams said the human rights situation in Nicaragua was worse, even though there were far, far fewer political killings. Abrams argued that the leftist Nicaraguan government was guilty of worse human rights violations because it suppressed some opposition media and political groups (some of which we learned later were getting covert U.S. funding with the goal of destabilizing and overthrowing the Nicaraguan government).
In other words, even in those early days of the Reagan era, key operatives were confident that they could get away with mind-boggling double standards and word games. They realized that the mainstream press was limited in its ability – or its courage – to call them out on their lies.
This proved to be a key recognition as the Right solidified its domination of Washington. As the right-wing media expanded to include everything from book publishing, magazines and newspapers to radio, TV and eventually the Internet, “perception management” became the watchword of the Republican image-manipulators. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
Sometimes the brazenness of the lying went over the top. For example, as the Iran-Contra scandal began to unravel in October 1986 – when a contra supply plane was shot down over Nicaragua – President Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush and Elliott Abrams (who had moved on to be assistant secretary of state for Latin America) denied that the plane had any connection to the U.S. government.
After that lie collapsed and the arms-money-and-hostages scandal blew up, Abrams pled guilty to misleading Congress (although he was pardoned in the final days of George H.W. Bush’s presidency).
Reagan and Bush largely escaped the scandal’s legal fallout thanks to the aggressive counterattacks by Republicans and their right-wing media allies against Iran-Contra investigators, particularly special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh. The cover-up also was helped along by many cowardly Democrats and much of the mainstream news media. [See Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
What the Right-Wing Machine showed was that it could make big scandals – like Iran-Contra, Iraqgate, contra-cocaine trafficking, etc. – small or even redefine them as not scandals at all.
Yet when Democrats were in power, little scandals – like Bill Clinton’s Whitewater deal and the Travel Office firings – could be made large. Some controversies, such as Al Gore’s apocryphal “I invented the Internet” boast, could be made out of whole cloth.
To a troubling degree, reality became whatever the Republicans and the Right said it was, a faux reality that set the stage for the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush.
Bush’s image itself was mostly a media fiction, that he was a regular guy, just like the rest of us, when in truth he was a privileged plutocrat whose previous failures had been bailed out by his father’s rich friends.
After Bush became President – and especially after 9/11 – the Right wrapped him in a protective cult of personality that tolerated no skepticism. Bush grew even more arrogant about his ability to make up any reality and compel the American people to go along.
So, when Bush and his neocon advisers – with Elliott Abrams back in a key role on the National Security Council – had their hearts set on invading Iraq, a staunchly supportive right-wing media and a thoroughly co-opted mainstream press let him get away with one of the most preposterous cases for war in modern history.
According to Bush, Iraq and its secular ruler Saddam Hussein possessed large caches of WMD and were prepared to share these dangerous weapons with the Islamic fundamentalists of al-Qaeda. None of this made any sense to objective experts, who knew that Iraq had been largely stripped of its WMD and that Hussein hated Islamic extremists like Osama bin Laden.
But Bush and his media allies said it was true, so – within Official Washington at least – it became true.
And pity anyone who didn’t go along. Arms-control expert Scott Ritter was smeared as a traitor; United Nations inspectors who searched Iraqi sites and found no WMD evidence were mocked as incompetent buffoons; U.S. intelligence officers who doubted the evidence were marginalized; the Dixie Chicks, whose lead singer criticized Bush’s war plans at a March 2003 concert, were subjected to boycotts and death threats.
Then, when the U.S. invasion force also found no WMD, Bush simply rewrote the history. In July 2003, he began claiming that he had no choice but to invade because Saddam Hussein had refused to let the UN inspectors in. Washington’s courtier press corps stood mute in the face of this lie that became a Bush favorite through the last days of his presidency. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush Still Lies About Iraqi Inspections.”]
After the Iraq-WMD rationale finally became untenable, the U.S. news media accepted a new claim -- that Bush and the neoconservatives wanted to bring democracy to the Middle East. Supposedly, Bush and the neocons so loved democracy that they were ready to conquer Arab countries and kill countless thousands of inhabitants so democracy could be planted.
This new excuse was elevated to the level of uncontestable conventional wisdom, especially after President Bush’s second inaugural address which recited the words “freedom” and “liberty” over and over again.
No big-name journalist ever stopped to ask the question why, if Bush and the neocons were such great lovers of democracy, they would have seized power in Election 2000 after losing the popular vote and only after getting Republican cronies on the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the counting of votes in Florida.
Nor did the sycophantic Washington press corps wonder aloud about the contradiction between loving democracy and the stated aim of Karl Rove and other Bush strategists, establishing “a permanent Republican majority” in Washington, with the Democrats kept around as a cosmetic appendage to give the false appearance of a democratic system.
Given the disdain that Bush, Rove and the neocons had for democracy at home, it made little sense to believe that they actually were invading countries halfway around the world for the cause of democracy.
Indeed, when democratic elections went the “wrong” way – as happened with Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian territories – the Bush administration didn’t hesitate to punish the voters for their erroneous judgments. Bush also didn’t push too hard for democracy among his friends in the Saudi royal family or other autocratic Arab regimes.
Despite all this evidence that “love of democracy” was not a truthful explanation, the Washington press corps continued to disdain alternative (far more plausible) rationales for Bush’s policies. Dumped into the “conspiracy theory” bin, therefore, were suggestions that Bush and the neocons invaded Iraq to project American power east of Suez, or to secure oil supplies, or to eliminate one of Israel’s key enemies.
By transforming Iraq into a U.S. military platform, Bush and the neocons also could seek regime change against other Israeli adversaries, such as Iran and Syria, with the ultimate goal of weakening closer-in enemies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.
Of course, such Realpolitik explanations would not have sold too well with the American people. So the Washington press corps put on blinders and focused only on what the Bush administration claimed were the war justifications: Iraq’s WMD and the noble cause of spreading democracy.
Back home, Bush and his Republicans also made a mockery of their alleged commitment to fiscal responsibility, both regarding the exploding federal deficit and the vast sums of government money shelled out in no-bid contracts to well-connected corporations, like Dick Cheney’s old firm, Halliburton.
Rather than a true free market, the Bush administration – with the help of a Republican-controlled Congress – oversaw an era of crony capitalism that would have put Ferdinand Marcos to shame.
After inheriting a federal government with a nearly balanced budget and years of projected surpluses, Bush rewarded his wealthy friends with huge tax cuts and further pared back regulation of the financial sector, allowing bankers and executives to lavish themselves with multi-million-dollar bonuses and extravagant lifestyles.
By the time Bush left office, the budget deficit had soared to over $1 trillion with oceans of red ink as far as the eye could see, a corrupt Wall Street was in freefall, and millions of Americans had lost their life savings, their jobs and their homes.
At that point, only the most gullible Americans could believe any of the explanations coming from George W. Bush and other Republicans. Nearly everything they had claimed over the years had turned out to be a lie.
Nevertheless, old Washington habits die hard. When President Barack Obama stepped forward with a giant stimulus plan of spending and tax cuts aimed at preventing Bush’s severe recession from morphing into a depression, congressional Republicans demanded that he scrap much of the spending in favor of more tax cuts.
The Republicans also insisted that they were motivated not by a desire to sabotage Obama’s presidency – and thus hasten their restoration of power – but by their deeply held principle of fiscal restraint and their commitment to small government. It wasn’t about power; they said, it was about principle.
Though one might have thought the Washington press corps finally might have had enough of this decades-old Republican ploy of self-serving explanations, pundits and journalists alike again fell into line; the near-unanimous GOP opposition to Obama’s $787 billion stimulus plan was motivated by a determination to return to core principles, these Washington insiders agreed.
However, the broader American public was far less credulous. As the recent opinion poll showed, the respondents broke two-to-one in favor of judging the Republican motivation as politics, not principle.
Surely in the months ahead, the powerful right-wing media will do its best to restore Republican credibility and wear down Obama’s – and much of the mainstream U.S. press corps will likely go along.
But at least for now, most of the American people appear to see through the latest rationalizations and the lies.
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.
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This story was published on February 27, 2009.