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  • Peter Baker's bizarre view of impeachment

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    On Sunday, Kevin Drum noted that the New York Times Peter Baker ignored the media's role in hyping the Blagojevich scandal as a problem for Barack Obama. As Drum explained:

    it's a little odd that Baker leaves out the role of the press in all this. I'll let Bob Somerby do the heavy lifting here, but I've lost count of the number of op-eds and TV talking head segments over the past week that have started out with something like this: "There's no evidence that Barack Obama was involved in Rod Blagojevich's pay-to-play scheme - in fact just the opposite - but...." After the "but," we get a couple thousand words with some take or another on why this is casting a "lengthening shadow" over Obama even though there's precisely zero evidence that he had even a tangential involvement in the whole thing.

    ...

    Maybe Republicans still haven't learned their lesson from the 90s, but that's no reason the press has to follow them over a cliff once again. Cool it, folks.

    In fact, Baker's whole piece was supposedly about "lesson[s] from the 90s" - but he has drawn some bizarre conclusions from the impeachment proceedings that capped the GOP's efforts to destroy Bill Clinton.

    Baker writes:

    But the impeachment represented the triumph of partisanship on both sides of the aisle, a partisanship that remains today. Democrats made a calculated decision to stick by a president of their party no matter his transgressions and to promote partisan division in the Congressional proceedings so they could discredit the other side. Republicans were so intent on turning out Mr. Clinton that they turned away from opportunities for a bipartisan solution.

    This is deeply flawed.

    First, Democrats didn't decide to "stick by" Clinton "no matter his transgressions." They decided to "stick by" Clinton despite what his transgressions actually were. In Baker's formulation, the Democrats decided to stick with Clinton no matter what he did. That isn't what happened -- unless you believe that what Clinton did was the worst thing he could possibly have done. Washington journalists like Peter Baker always seemed to believe that, but the American people have never agreed. Nor has basic common sense.

    Second, Baker's assertion that the Democrats' decision was "calculated" is utterly baseless. The Democrats opposed impeachment - but so did literally hundreds of legal experts, constitutional scholars, and historians, as well as the overwhelming majority of the American people. It is nothing short of mind-blowing that Peter Baker doesn't even entertain the possibility that this wasn't a "calculated" political decision, but rather a sober and well-reasoned assessment that impeachment was simply not the correct remedy for what President Clinton did.

    Third, Baker's assertion that it was the Democrats who promoted "partisan division in the Congressional proceedings" is jaw-dropping. The very existence of the impeachment hearings was itself a partisan act by Congressional Republicans - a partisan act that was inconsistent with the views of overwhelming numbers of legal and constitutional experts, the American people, and even the proclamations of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had said earlier in the year that Congress would not proceed with impeachment based only on allegations relating to Lewinsky.

    House Republicans conducted the proceedings in the same heavy-handed and partisan manner that they had brought to their pumpkin-shooting pursuit of Clinton for years. It was the Republicans who decided that Ken Starr would be the only fact witness during the Judiciary hearings, for example - and who gave him two hours to deliver an opening statement, and gave Clinton lawyer David Kendall only 30 minutes to question Starr. (Eventually, committee chair Henry Hyde was generous enough to give Kendall another 30 minutes.)

    Anyone who wishes to examine the facts of the House Judiciary impeachment proceedings - and the ways in which the GOP's approach differed from the committee's inquiry into Watergate in the 1970s - can find ample evidence that the committee Republicans behaved in a shockingly zealous and partisan manner. To say the Democrats were being partisan in not going along with the GOP's lunacy is simply perverse.

    But you don't even need those facts in order to see the flaws in Baker's reasoning. Baker thinks the Democrats were being excessively partisan in not going along with the GOP's efforts to impeach Clinton ... and the Republicans were being excessively partisan in insisting on impeachment. According to this logic, the only way for everyone to behave appropriately would have been for the Democrats to support impeachment and the Republicans to oppose it. But that's nonsense. Impeachment was either the right thing to do or the wrong. If you think it was right, there's no reason to criticize Republicans for supporting it. If you think it was wrong, there is no reason to criticize Democrats for opposing it.

    Baker's formulation is typical of beltway journalists - right and wrong and policy and truth don't matter; the only way to be admirable is to disagree with one's party. Ridiculous. (Not to mention impractical: what if the majority of congressional Democrats had supported impeachment? Would it then have been the Democrats who opposed impeachment who had behaved honorably for eschewing partisanship?)

    Baker continues:

    The result has been a distaste for impeachment but little appetite for consensus. Liberal Democrats agitated to impeach Mr. Bush in connection with the Iraq war, warrantless surveillance and interrogation policies, but party leaders had no interest in going down that road again. "Although there are powerful arguments that President Bush has committed high crimes and misdemeanors, there are questions about whether it is prudent to do so," said Bruce Ackerman, a Yale Law School professor.

    Mr. Bush's defenders would strenuously disagree. In their minds, the very talk of impeachment over policy differences represents the real cost of the Clinton clash.

    Wow. Wrong again.

    For better or worse, there hasn't been any significant effort to impeach Bush. But to the extent anyone has advocated impeachment, it certainly hasn't been "over policy differences" - it has been over rampant law-breaking, constitution-trampling, and over lying in order to take the nation to war against a country that didn't attack us. Baker's framing could hardly be more Bush-friendly.

    Which isn't to say he didn't try. Baker, continuing directly:

    Mr. Bush, after all, campaigned for office promising to sweep out the toxic atmosphere in Washington, only to find that his disputed election had further polarized the capital and the nation. As he prepares to take leave eight years later, he calls his inability to change the political climate one of his regrets.

    Yeah, poor George W. Bush - he really wanted to "sweep out the toxic atmosphere in Washington," but just wasn't able to get it done. Again, Baker's framing couldn't be more Bush-friendly if he tried; he ignores everything Bush and those acting in his name did to contribute to the toxic atmosphere in Washington.

    Put it all together, and what do you have?

    House Democrats were shamefully partisan for opposing the impeachment of President Clinton (though they were joined in that opposition by basically everyone in America except Congressional Republicans and Beltway journalists.)

    And the polarization caused by his disputed election prevented President Bush from changing the tone in Washington - his own unbending partisanship had nothing to do with it.

    Right.

  • Howard Fineman: Better late than never

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Nobody in the Beltway likes to be left off the CW bandwagon, and Newsweek's Fineman finally got his ticket punched with this Blago/Obama doozie. Gee, nothing loaded in this language, right?

    -"The Blago Distraction"

    -"isn't great news for Team Obama"

    -"a little suspicious"

    -"It was widely speculated"

    -"Emanuel (and, by extension, Obama) could pay a price"

    -"the Chicago mess simmers"

    -"there seems little doubt that Emanuel will survive"

    -"Emanuel already has blown up"

    -"he is already a bigger story than is good for either him or his boss"

    -"however legally justified"

    Our favorite passage was this [emphasis added]:

    The original release was supposed to be this week. But it was pushed back, the Obama camp said, at the request of the official investigating Blago: Chicago-based U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the 21st-century Eliot Ness. Fitz's office confirmed that he had made the request, though there is no way of knowing how adamant he was about it.

    Behold your press corps at work.

  • Washington Times scribe compares Blago story to 9/11

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Criticizing Obama's initial reaction to the Blago story (Obama wasn't hysterical enough, apparently), Steve Chapman writes:

    But Mr. Obama had a "My Pet Goat" moment, freezing up in the face of the shock. "I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on the issue at this time," he said. "It's a sad day for Illinois." You'd have thought the Bears had failed to make the playoffs.

    Of course, "My Pet Goat" is a reference to the book president Bush continued to read to Florida school children during a Sept. 11, 2001 photo-op, even after being told by his chief of staff Andy Card that, "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack!"

    Chapman thinks Obama's reaction to the local Blago corruption story was just like Bush's reaction to news about deadly terrorist attacks on American soil.

  • The Clinton Rules of Journalism return for Obama

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    The Rules, of course, stated that from the press' perspective, anything goes. No mysterious allegation or offensive slight was out of bounds. For some reason those rules were packed away during the Bush years and are now in the process of being taken out of storage to cover president-elect Obama.

    For proof, let's look at Dana Milbank from the Washington Post, dutifully regurgitating the Beltway CW today [emphasis added]:

    But Obama's response to Blagojevich questions has been decidedly junior varsity. Begging off because of an ongoing investigation? Hiding behind Patrick Fitzgerald's skirt? Warning a reporter not to "waste" a question and asking for an alternative question? All four techniques were popularized by Bush."

    Obama's acting just like Bush, according to Milbank. Okay. Now going back and searching through the Nexis archives, how many times during Bush's eight year in office did Milbank refer to Bush as "junior varsity"? Zero. How many times did anybody at the Post refer to Bush as "junior varsity"? Zero.

    How many times did Milbank suggest Bush ever hid behind somebody's skirt? Zero. How many times did anybody at the Post make that emasculating claim? Zero.

    So according to Milbank, Obama is acting just like Bush. But Milbank used language that nobody at the Post ever dreamt of using while Bush was in office.

  • NY Daily News invents Blago facts

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    As we've seen for the last week, the Blago/Obama story is much more interesting when the press invents facts. Today it's the Daily News' turn:

    Aides to the President-elect acknowledge Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Obama's incoming chief of staff, did talk to Blagojevich about the Senate seat and even handed over a list of candidates acceptable to Obama, a fairly common exchange in politics.

    False. According to all available information, Emanuel talked with Blago's staff about filling the seat, not with Blago himself. Considering that the press seems to be hanging the entire Obama "scandal" around Emanuel's possible contacts with Blago, the fact that the Daily News mangled the key point is sort of important.

  • Was Rasmussen trying to be disingenuous?

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Rasmussen was out of the gate early in terms of national polling numbers regarding the unfolding Blago story and after reading Rasmussen's summary the only question we have is this: Was the polling firm trying to mislead people? Because the survey, and the Rasmussen write-up about the results, are pretty much a disaster.

    First the poll findings:

    Forty five percent (45%) of U.S. voters say it is likely President-elect Obama or one of his top campaign aides was involved in the unfolding Blagojevich scandal in Illinois, including 23% who say it is Very Likely.

    The problem here is glaringly obvious: The Blago question asked to voters was utterly pointless. Polls are supposed to help us understand where Americans stand on the issues of the day. But that's pretty hard to do when pollster like Rassmussen ask completely worthless questions.

    i.e. What does it mean to suggest Obama or one of his top campaign aides "was involved" in the Blago story? If a pollster called me at home over the weekend and asked me that question I could see possibly answering 'Yes' they were technically "involved" because obviously it's Obama's former U.S. senate seat that Blago was trying to auction off. And yes, Obama aides were in touch with Blago about filling the seat, as any campaign would. So I guess they were "involved," not unlike the way special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is "involved" in the story.

    But reporting the results, Rasmussen assumed the worst and suggested everyone who answered yes that Obama or his aides might be "involved" in the scandal meant they did something wrong. But that's not what Rasmussen asked. Rasmussen asked a pointless question about who might have been "involved."

    If Rassmussen wanted to find out if people thought Obama or his aides helped Blago try to sell a U.S. senate seat and/or broke the law, than why didn't Rassmussen just ask people that very simple, straight forward question? Instead, Rasmussen posed a completely vague and meaningless question about who was "involved," and that's why the results are utterly pointless.

    As for the Rasmussen write-up about the poll findings, it was just was useless [emphasis added]:

    Up until now, no one in a position of authority is saying that Obama or anyone on his staff is guilty of wrongdoing.

    Good grief that's bad. First, last time we checked it would a judge and jury to decide if "Obama or anyone on his staff is guilty of wrongdoing," not somebody in "a position of authority."

    And second, prosecutors have been quite clear that neither Obama nor his top aide are even being investigated for wrongdoing, so why on earth is Rasmussen daydreaming about finding them guilty?

  • Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Weisman writes:

    Robert Luskin, a Washington white-collar defense lawyer who knows Mr. Fitzgerald well, said he doesn't doubt the prosecutor would have asked that Obama officials keep quiet until his investigation is further along. That is to prevent witnesses from tailoring their stories to what they learn others are saying. But, he said, Mr. Obama and his aides don't have to comply. They are using the prosecutor as a "fig leaf" to avoid answering questions just now, Mr. Luskin said. They could just as easily have decided that assuring the public about their actions is more important than acceding to the prosecutor's request.

    So according to Jonathan Weisman and the Wall Street Journal, Obama's team could "just as easily" have ignored Fitzgerald's request not to reveal the contacts.

    Nonsense. If Obama ignored Fitzgerald's request and released the findings anyway, the Wall Street Journal - and the rest of the media - would be full of stories about Obama deliberately undermining Fitzgerald's investigation. They'd be speculating breathlessly about why Obama would undermine the investigation, and claiming that it proves he has something to hide.

    And that's the entire point of Weisman's article - that Obama could have blown off Fitzgerald's request. Yet nowhere does Weisman acknowledge the obvious reality that if Obama did so, the media - probably including Weisman himself - and the Republicans would freak out, accusing him of obstruction. That makes it disingenuous at best to suggest that Obama is to blame for the delay in releasing information about contacts between Obama staff and Blago.

  • Karl Rove, fan of disclosure

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    Newsweek & Fox contributor Karl Rove criticizes Barack Obama for being insufficiently forthcoming:

    Karl Rove, who refused to answer questions for years on the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA official, criticized Barack Obama on Monday for not being more forthcoming in the Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) scandal.

    Rove, a former top White House adviser to President Bush, said on Fox News, "[Obama] should have, right from the beginning, been more forthcoming."

    Raise your hand if you thought you'd ever see Karl Rove argue in favor of people being "forthcoming" about an investigation conducated by Patrick Fitzgerald. Anyone? Anyone at all?

    (And keep in mind, there is no allegation of wrongdoing by Obama or his staff about which they need to be "forthcoming.")

  • GOP trying to catch up to the media in hyping the Blago/Obama story

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Chris Cillizza makes some sense regarding the Blago/Obama story. In a post raising doubts that the GOP will be able to make the guilt-by-association-claims stick between the two Illinois pols (especially since prosecutors don't think Obama did anything wrong,) Cillizza suggests it might be a non-starter in the long term:

    Combine the relative paucity of proof that Obama or anyone in his political inner circle has any strong ties to Blagojevich with the fact that a series of national polls have shown widespread approval for Obama and it becomes clear that Republicans' strategy is not without risk.

    That's the good news. The bad news is that Cillizza, in his lengthy analysis, pretends the press has played no role in the unfolding story or in spreading the guilt-by-association meme. Cillizza pretends it's been Republicans, and Republicans exclusively, who have been trying to taint Obama with the Blago story. Of course, as we've been documenting for the last week, the press has been waaaaay out in front of Republicans in hyping Obama's potential Blago woes.

    That the GOP is playing-the-guilt-by-association card is a given and the press will acknowledge that. But trust us, the GOP has merely been playing catch-up with reporters and pundits who set up shop long before the GOP arrived on the Blago/Obama scene.

    In fact, here's a little exercise we did to illustrate the point about how the press has basically done the GOP's bidding re: Blago. Below are highlighted portions from Cillizza's post, and each time he suggested the RNC or Republicans were pressing the Blago story, we took out "Republicans" and inserted "the press" or "reporters" And guess what, it reads just as true.

    Take a look [emphasis added to the phrases we substituted]:

    -"[Reporters] moved aggressively over the weekend to link scandal-tarred Gov. Rod Blagojevich to President-elect Barack Obama."

    -"That video followed hard on a series of statements from the [press] over the last week that sought to raise questions about the nature and depth of Obama's ties to Blagojevich and that demanded more information concerning the number and substance of contacts between Obama's aides and the governor and his staff about the possible Senate appointment."

    -"The goal here is clear: Blagojevich is the prototypical example of political power run amok, and if he can be used in any way to slow Obama's momentum throughout the transition, then [the media] regard that as a worthwhile endeavor."

    -"At issue for [journalists] (and herein lies the risk) is whether, in fact, there is any there there as it relates to Obama's relationship with Blagojevich."

    -"How hard will [reporters] continue to push on Obama-Blagojevich? And will it work in their favor or blow up in their faces?"

    Uncanny, no?

  • When the press plays dumb

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    It can tell whatever story it wants to tell. (It helps if everyone agrees to play dumb.) And that's what we're witnessing in Washington now regarding the Blago/Obama story. The press has made it perfectly clear that a collective decision has been made to make all kinds of dark inferences regarding Obama's involvement even though reporters and pundits know, and will occasionally state publicly, that nothing suggests Obama or his aides did anything wrong. It's really quite amazing, and gruesome, to watch.

    Matt Yglesias captures the phenomena:

    But this morning on MSNBC there was a lengthy discussion of Obama's involvement in Blagojevich's corruption. Of course, there was no evidence of any involvement on Obama's part. Nor, despite this being a news channel, was there any original reporting of any kind whatsoever. There was, however, a ton of time spent criticizing the Obama campaign's PR strategy with regard to this issue - the suggestion being that had Obama adopted a better PR strategy, then people wouldn't be on television making evidence-free guilt-by-association accusations against him.

    This strong me as odd. The people making the accusations kept acknowledging that they had no evidence. One might think that communicating to television personalities the fact that there was no evidence of wrongdoing on Obama's part would constitute a good PR strategy. Given that they knew there was no evidence of wrongdoing, they should have ceased implying that there was wrongdoing. But they didn't do that at all. Not, I would submit, because of any failings on Obama's part, but because Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, John Heileman, Mark Halperin, and Pat Buchanan don't care at all about the accuracy of the impression their coverage gives.

    We do disagree with Yglesias in one regard, though. The headline to his post reads, "The New Rules." We don't think the media rules being applied to the Blago story are new. They're just the Clinton Rules, as defined by Atrios (i.e. anything goes), updated for a new Democratic era.