The last two days have offered a fascinating case study in how a Republican pollster and the “objective” mainstream mass media can pull off a fast one to exculpate the GOP from responsibility for problems and create a “both sides are equally to blame” narrative instead.
This particular story began when leading Republican Pollster Bill McInturff released a poll and set of charts titled “The Washington Economy.” In his text commentary on the results he says
It is clear we have entered a new phase where the dysfunction and paralysis in Washington is having a significant and deleterious impact on how consumers feel about the overall state of the economy and their personal financial situations…This sharp a drop in consumer confidence is a direct consequence of the lack of confidence in our political system and its leaders.
He then continues:
…we wanted to develop a new NBC/WSJ polling question that could be tracked over time. Its purpose is to measure whether people say negotiations between Congress and President Obama make them more or less confident the economy will get better. Our hope is that this question will provide guidance about the relationship between how people perceive what is happening in Washington and economic confidence.
Now here’s the exact wording of the question:
“Thinking about President Obama and Republicans in Congress and their negotiations about the budget, does it make you feel more confident or less confident about the economy getting better”
Well, OK, the wording does seem a little oddly convoluted but still perhaps of some value. But, if you’re a pollster, after you ask this question, shouldn’t you also ask whether people think that the fault lies mainly with Obama or with the GOP. That certainly seems like a reasonable question, doesn’t it? Particularly if your goal is really to understand how the public views the relationship between “what is happening in Washington and economic confidence.”
In point of fact, the major U.S. opinion polls quite clearly show that the American people generally blame the GOP more than Obama for the dysfunction and paralysis in Washington when the question of blame is directly posed.
Now maybe it won’t come as a great surprise to anyone, but in McInturff’s presentation there’s absolutely no review or discussion of the polling data on questions about the relative blame and responsibility people consider Obama and the GOP to have for the problems described. There is only the odd question wording “thinking about President Obama and the Republicans in congress and their negotiation about the budget, does it make you feel more or less confident about the economy getting better” – a wording that makes it impossible to distinguish who the public might think is mainly at fault. This very ambiguous wording then allows McInturff in his text to point the finger of blame at a very wide and disparate range of culprits including “Washington,” “the political system” and “leaders,” thus creating the false impression that it is his polling data itself that actually shows that the American people blame both sides equally.
At bottom it’s the political commentator’s equivalent of the stage magician’s sleight of hand maneuver, but one really can’t fault McInturff himself too much. He’s one of the more honest Republican pollsters and is entirely straightforward and open about his strong partisan affiliation. There’s no law that says he can’t ignore polling data that undermines the argument he is trying to make.
On the other hand, however, you would generally hope and expect that mainstream political commentators – individuals who majestically and self-righteously present themselves as objective and nonpartisan — would sharply point out McInturff’s obvious omission and provide the missing data from other opinion polls in order to clarify the matter.
But, nope, readers have no such luck. Instead, two leading political commentators of the Washington Post and New York Times both picked up McInturff’s report and happily went right along with the misleading “both sides are equally to blame” spin that he put on his data.
Here’s what Chris Cillizza says in this Sunday’s Washington Post (and be sure to note the terms he uses about who is to blame):
The country has a confidence problem, and Congress bears much of the responsibility for it.
What’s clear from all the data is that a federal government that lurches from financial crisis to financial crisis as its normal course of business is doing a great disservice to a country badly looking to finds its footing again…
“It is important leaders in both parties begin to recognize how the tenor, tone and the outcome of the policy debates in Washington are actually retarding economic confidence in a way that makes building a sustained recovery more difficult,” concludes McInturff
….The warnings, from the debt ceiling fight through the “fiscal cliff” crisis, are clear. But, political Washington has shown a remarkable inability to heed them in the past few years. If that doesn’t change in the next three months, the impact on the nation’s economy could be drastic.
Wow, that’s no less than five different euphemisms for “both sides are equally to blame,” more than one per paragraph. And nope, there’s not a single solitary suggestion of any specifically GOP responsibility or culpability anywhere in Cilizza’s piece. There’s just that mean, nasty old city “Washington” that’s completely to blame.
Well, OK, that’s Cillizza’s view. But let’s also listen to Tom Freidman over at the New York Times take McInturff’s “both sides are equally to blame” basketball and dribble it down the field. Here’s what he says:
The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, conducted in mid-January, found that Americans see some signs of improvement but that “just over half of those surveyed said they were less confident about the economy as a result of the budget negotiations.” The Journal article quoted Bill McInturff, one of the pollsters, as saying, “This is now Washington’s economy. The problem in Washington is …contributing to a very negative sense of what’s going to happen in the economy.”
So there you go. It looks like Friedman also buys McInturff’s spin that it’s both parties fault equally, and not particularly the GOP’s.
Well, no, not exactly. Buried deep within Friedman’s piece is a classic “of course it is also true that…..” disclaimer. This is the strategy that commentators always use to cover their…um…er….tracks.
At one point he concedes:
To be sure, the G.O.P.’s lurch to the far right has been more responsible for this [current] paralysis than the Democrats.
And at another point:
The G.O.P. is split between the sane conservatives and the certifiable crazies
Now an ordinary person who reads this might reasonably expect that if a writer sincerely and genuinely holds these two very clear views, then he or she might also feel the need to suggest that the GOP ought to make some major changes in their approach and some major concessions — and that a commentator like Friedman who presents himself as objective would feel obligated to emphatically call upon them to do so.
But quite the contrary, the only specific first steps that Friedman suggests are two new concessions that – believe it or not — OBAMA, and not the GOP, should make:
He [Obama] has to lead with his chin and put a concrete, comprehensive package on the table.
The president has to show he is ready to take on some of his base.
Set aside for a moment the amusing but irrelevant fact that Friedman seems to think that the utterly contemptuous and dismissive boxing term “lead with his chin” denotes bravery on the part of a boxer rather than utter incompetence and pathetic amateurism. The more important question is just how in the blazes does Friedman get from the two opinions about the GOP he expresses to laying the burden of change and compromise on Obama?
Well, step one is to pepper the column with no less than seven different uses of terms that all imply that “both sides are equally at fault.” In fact, let’s do an exact count here. We have “Washington” four times, “Government” four times and one use of the phrase “our political house.”
Wow. That’s no less than nine euphemisms for the notion that both sides are equally at fault. As a result, by the end of the piece the GOP turns out to be no longer any “more responsible” then the Democrats for the problems of dysfunction and paralysis, even though Friedman explicitly said that they were just a few paragraphs before.
And moreover, if the two parties are equally at fault, shouldn’t they at least be called upon to compromise equally? Well, no, not exactly. Here’s what Friedman says:
“Barack Obama is president. He wants to succeed. The country needs him to succeed. Therefore, he owes it to himself and to the country to make one more good shot at a Grand Bargain”
So, despite the pro-forma disclaimers that the GOP has “lurched to the far right” and is “split between the sane and the “crazies,” Friedman ends up with the conclusion that it is up to Obama, and not the GOP, to show good faith and make initial concessions. Why? Because Friedman, like Cillizza and McInturff, is basically promoting the notion that the real problem is some amorphous thing variously called “Washington,” “our political house,” “The federal government” or “the leaders of both parties” and — oh my good heavens, perish the thought — certainly not just or mainly the GOP.
You almost have to admire the sheer audacity of this rhetorical con-game. The leading opinion polls say that most Americans blame the GOP more than Obama for the gridlock in Washington but by the journalistic equivalent of a stage magician’s sleight of hand we end up with America’s two most important daily newspapers both publishing commentaries that suggest that the American people should actually blame both sides equally for the problem. One of those commentaries even insists that it is Obama, and not the GOP, who should make major new concessions to fix it.
Boy, now isn’t that something. If David Copperfield is no longer performing his show over at the Bellagio in Vegas these days, these commentators really ought to go and apply for his job. After all, they can do exactly the same trick that made Copperfield a famous household name. With a wave of their hand both of them can make really big and really smelly elephants completely disappear.