Arguments

Nicholas Kristof's Mysterious Blame Game

Republicans broke Washington, but let's never say so in public.

By Nathan Pippenger

There’s a lot of brow-furrowing these days about the decline of authoritative media sources, and to some extent that concern is justified. But at the same time, one of the key achievements of the liberal blogosphere—over its first decade or so, since the early 2000s—has been to exhaustively document the elite political media’s cultish devotion to a centrist mythology in which “both sides” are to blame for every problem. The usual term for these Beltway pundits is “Very Serious People,” and the spread of that term has helped advance a key argument about even supposedly liberal outlets: They are at least as devoted to maintaining a certain position, tone, and self-image as they are to liberal policy goals. So ingrained are their self-mythologizing and intellectual habits that, when tempted by the facts to an indecorous opinion, they instinctively self-correct.

At least, that’s the only way I can make sense of Nicholas Kristof’s confusing midterm reaction piece in the Times. Kristof is upset that young people “have given up on political paths to change,” citing an exit poll showing “that a majority of voters disapproved of Republicans and Democrats alike, and only 20 percent trust Washington to do what’s right most or all the time.” This is a disheartening situation. What’s absent from the rest of the column is any attempt to grapple with the people responsible for bringing it about.

One of the best political cartoons I have ever seen was drawn by The Washington Post’s Tom Toles. It appeared during the 2010 midterm campaigns, depicting an elephant driving a wrecking ball away from the demolished Capitol building and declaring: “My 2010 campaign is simple: Washington is broken.” Toles needed just one panel to express a point that Kristof can’t bring himself to make in 700 words. Kristof repeatedly approaches the obvious conclusion, only to back away at the last minute.

About halfway through his column, Kristof approvingly repeats this silly yet ubiquitous advice for Obama: “Critics are right that he should try harder to schmooze with legislators.” Yet in the very same sentence, he proceeds to admit that “I’m skeptical that Republicans are that charmable,” since “some polls have shown more than a third in the Republican Party said he was born abroad and about one-fifth suspected that he could be the antichrist.”

That doesn’t sound like a very reasonable opposition—and indeed, Kristof then cites research showing that political polarization is at its highest point in over 130 years, “mostly because Republicans have become more conservative — indeed, more conservative than at any time since 1879.” Another data point indicting the GOP. Then there’s recent history: “After Obama took office, Republicans assiduously tried to block him, even shutting down the federal government. Republican governors prevented their own citizens from getting health insurance through federally financed Medicaid.”

All in all, this is a concise overview of the GOP’s obstructionism and bad faith—as much as can reasonably be expected in the space of a newspaper column. And that’s what makes Kristof’s conclusions so strange. The public is disillusioned because Washington is broken, and it’s Republicans who have broken it. Yet the only specific advice that Kristof has—for anyone!—is reserved for Obama: he should “shake up his staff, reach out beyond his insular circle of longtime aides.” When it comes to placing blame, Kristof offers lame condemnations of “politicians,” who play to their base, denounce rivals, and have no “incentive for compromise” because they “are more vulnerable in a primary than in a general election.” If that reminds you of one party in particular, Kristof isn’t singling anybody out: the offenders have no party affiliation. There’s another vague complaint that “incentives today militate against bipartisan cooperation,” wrongly implying that the failure of bipartisan cooperation is a bipartisan responsibility. Later, Kristof vaguely begins a sentence, “So even if politicians are stalemated…”

What makes this reluctance especially bizarre is that Kristof, like every adult American, recently lived through an era when Barack Obama was president and Republicans didn’t control either house of Congress. It was astonishingly productive! Washington passed important laws that improved Americans’ lives, many of which included, or were even partly modeled on, conservative ideas. Relatively speaking, this was a pretty good (and substantively bipartisan) time for American politics, and congressional Republicans brought it to a screeching halt the moment they came to power. Kristof, like a number of elite pundits, obviously understands this to be the case. What on Earth is keeping him from saying so?

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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