One persistent flaw in news reports about politics and policy is the media's stipulation to a conservative frame in which social programs (but not, say, defense spending) constitute "big government" and government regulation of health care and guns (but not, say, abortion or marriage) is "intrusive."
Opposition to "big" and "intrusive" government is, after all, a pretty significant part of the conservative movement's (and the Republican Party's) appeal -- even as conservative political leaders have spent decades supporting government spending they would describe as massive if it were coming from liberals and backing government restrictions on marriage and military service that are the very definition of "intrusive." Would the conservatives' platitudes about government win them nearly as much support if, rather than stipulating that conservatives dislike big, intrusive government, the media consistently pointed out the conflicts between their stated principles and their specific policy positions? I rather doubt it.
Today's front-page Washington Post article about Ted Olson's efforts to overturn California's ban on gay marriage is exactly the kind of news report that should have examined those conflicts. The article purported to examine the tension between Olson's work on behalf of gay marriage and his status as an impeccably-credentialed member of the conservative movement. It's right there in the headline: "Olson surprises many conservatives by seeking to overturn gay-marriage ban."
And yet Post reporter Robert Barnes never got around to mentioning the disparity between Olson's fellow conservatives' professed abhorrence of large, intrusive government and their support for laws banning the marriage of two loving, committed adults.
At times, the omission is glaring. Barnes reports:
That the man who was a loyal Reagan lieutenant and defended Bush's anti-terrorism policies is now championing gay rights has been too much for some conservatives. M. Edward Whelan III, whose National Review column is influential in conservative legal circles, called the lawsuit "a betrayal of everything that Ted Olson has purported to stand for."
Paul D. Clement, who was Olson's deputy as solicitor general and then took over the job, said conservatives have "come to terms" with Olson's decision, "but those who never understood it are still scratching their heads."
That seems like a pretty good place to introduce the question of who is really betraying everything that conservatives like Olson have "purported to stand for" -- Ted Olson, who is arguing that the government has no business telling two consenting adults who they can marry, or Edward Whelan & company, who want it to do exactly that.
But Barnes introduced no such question. Incredibly, almost unbelievably, he managed to write an entire article about the supposed oddity of a leading conservative working on behalf of gay marriage without ever mending the concept of limited government. That is perhaps the central (stated) principle of the conservative movement and the Republican Party -- and yet their position on gay marriage is, at least on its face, inconsistent with that principle. It is absolutely mind-boggling that inconsistency is absent from Barnes' article, which is all about the tension between Olson and fellow conservatives over his opposition to a ban on gay marriage.
The fact that such an article could be printed on the front page of the Washington Post just shows how thoroughly many in the media have internalized the conservative movement's spin that it opposes big, intrusive government. How else can you explain the Post's failure to consider the possibility that it is the rest of the conservative movement, not Ted Olson, that is committing apostasy -- or that the movement's stated principles are just empty spin?