Monday, October 21, 2013

When does a half-truth become an untruth? (Or, why can't the Economist bring itself to tell the truth about the Republicans?)

Actually, the old Yiddish proverb I have in mind formulates the point a bit more sharply—i.e., that a half-truth is a whole lie. But I'm in a generous mood today, so I'll put it more tactfully.

Here are the first two paragraphs from an article I just read in the latest Economist. The first paragraph is very much on-target:
Imagine you are in a taxi and the driver suddenly turns violently and speeds towards a wall, tyres screeching, only to stop at the very last moment, inches from the bricks—and cheerfully informs you that he wants to do the same to you in three months time. Would you be grateful that he has not killed you? Or would you wonder why you chose his cab in the first place?
Then the next paragraph slips into a mealy-mouthed evasive formulation that is all too typical, and not only in the Economist.
That is the journey Congress has taken the American people on over the past few weeks (see article). The last-minute deal to raise America’s debt ceiling, avoid a default and reopen the government at least until mid-January, which was signed by the president on October 16th, is welcome only compared with the immediate alternative
No, it wasn't "Congress" that took the American people—and the world economy—on this scary ride. Blaming these repeated near-crashes (which cause real and accumulating damage) on an undifferentiated "Congress" is not just lazy, but misleading to the point of being outright dishonest. This latest crisis was engineered by the Congressional Republicans, who deliberately chose to use the threat of a government shutdown and an unprecedented US default as tools of political extortion—just as they did with the threat of default during their last debt-ceiling blackmail in 2011. At the last moment, when it became clear that this tactic was backfiring politically, most Republican Senators voted for a bipartisan deal worked out to avoid a crash (though not Rand Paul, John Cornyn, Charles Grassley, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and some others). But over 60% of House Republicans voted to drive the car into the wall.  (Including Paul Ryan, whom many pundits somehow continue to treat as a "responsible" Republican and a serious policy intellectual.)

This is all so obviously and unambiguously true that trying to obscure it amounts to journalistic malpractice. And in fact the writer of this Economist article knows quite well who was responsible. By the last few paragraphs of the article he or she has gotten around to conceding that the Republicans' unreasonable demands were "the principal reason for a debacle that has embarrassed America." But calling them "the principal reason" is still a weasel-worded evasion. The Republicans' blackmail attempt, and the ludicrously excessive ransom demands that went with it, constituted the reason for the debacle.

Then the very last sentence of the article finally admits the truth of the matter. As long as the Republicans keep acting this way, no one will be "inclined to take a ride in their cab again." Yes, precisely, it's their cab. Why not just come out and say so from the start, instead of trying to pretend otherwise?

As John Stewart admonished the Republicans back on October 8, when they were refusing to take responsibility for triggering the government shutdown and were trying to pretend that someone else (Obama?, Harry Reid?, Democrats, "liberals"?, OJ?) did it:
Look, you think Obamacare is a big enough threat to this country that you need to shut down the government over it?  Fine.  Own it!  Don't fart and point at the dog.
The Economist shouldn't point at the dog either. Nor should journalists and pundits trying to sound "even-handed".  Instead, let's just face reality:  The Republicans are the problem.  Trying to pretend otherwise won't make the problem magically go away.

—Jeff Weintraub