Broder De-coder

We don’t often comment on political commentary. After all, a columnist’s job is not to report, it’s to argue a case. But even columnists ought to frame the issue at hand accurately before they launch their premise.

On that score, David Broder, long known as the dean of the Washington press corps, flunks with Sunday’s column in the Washington Post.

Are you upset about the election? Not to worry. Broder has figured out that President Bush’s win in the end won’t make that much difference. Everything’s fine, Broder reassures us, because the Senate contains many people, “including such conservatives as Pat Roberts and Thad Cochran, whom I would trust to defend my journalistic freedom — or [Maureen] Dowd’s — no matter how much they disagreed with what we wrote.”

None of the liberals we’ve read lately — and certainly none cited by Broder — have even raised the issue of Maureen Dowd’s “journalistic freedoms” being threatened. The Supreme Court, the war in Iraq, the deficit, health care, and gay rights seem to be more immediate concerns. But never mind: Democrats must be feeling better already, knowing that Thad Cochran is a big fan of the First Amendment.

Other reasons why liberals should chill, according to Broder: “I can count two dozen Senate Republicans who have experienced with their own families and friends the pain of mental or physical illness, or poverty, or racial or sexual discrimination. Do you think they would stand silent while a vendetta against any of those groups was carried out?”

Here’s how Broder thinks congressional Republicans might challenge the president:

[S]ome of them will pester Bush to get serious about budget deficits. Some will urge him to take a cue from Arnold Schwarzenegger and rethink his restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. And some self-described “real right-wingers” from states as red as Idaho will insist on changes in the USA Patriot Act before it is renewed, because they take their right to privacy seriously.

Broder’s seems to think it’s his job to assure us that the system is working, and that all the “trade-offs and bargaining” that politics entails will ultimately be in the nation’s interest. People of good will may disagree about the issues, Broder tells us, but “the checks and balances are still there.”

But it’s hard to square Broder’s faith with the reality of the last four years.

Few congressional Republicans seriously challenged Bush in his first term on any of the issues Broder cites. During that time, President Bush got almost everything he wanted — from massive tax cuts primarily benefiting the wealthy, to the first pre-emptive war in 100 years. The GOP-controlled Congress consistently acted as a little more than a rubber stamp for White House policy. Time and again, government agencies were deployed to advance the White House’s political interests, rather than the public interest — as, for instance, when the full cost to taxpayers of the new Medicare drug benefit was deliberately withheld from Congress. For its part, the press failed adequately to scrutinize the administration’s case for war. What exactly would have to happen before Broder would feel compelled to declare that his beloved checks and balances aren’t working too well?

The last four years have brought very real developments, with real effects, on a range of issues. It’s those developments, and the prospect of more of the same over the next four years that worries the liberals whom Broder is addressing. For them, the system’s checks and balances have already failed.

That’s not something that Broder can grasp. He once said of Bill Clinton: “He came in here and he trashed the place. And it’s not his place.” It’s Broder’s place, of course. And because it’s his place, it’s impossible for him to contemplate the notion that it might not be working properly.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.