Style Points and the Beltway Pundits' Substance Deficit


For some time now, the beltway media has been faulting President Obama on what he called out as "style points." They charge that his style is inadequate for the political theater that is Washington, DC, and that such "style deficit" is the reason his second term agenda has been stuck in Congress. A piece by Lloyd Grove in The Daily Beast exemplifies the beltways bellyaching about style points, with a typically thick, dumb narrative.
The president’s zigzagging policy on Syria, the Larry Summers nomination debacle, and Monday’s partisan budget speech at the very moment that the nation was reeling from a madman’s shooting spree at the Washington Navy Yard, are only the latest manifestations of a mystifying paradox: Barack Obama, so surefooted when it comes to the politics of campaigning, often seems flatfooted when it comes to the politics of governing.
Oh, right. The president's "zigzagging" on Syria - you know, that thing that got him what he wanted - and what the civilized world wanted - a full disarmament of Syria of its chemical weapons, without having to fire a single shot. A "nomination debacle" where there was no actual nomination. And the president's speech drawing the nation's attention to the fact that a fringe controlling the Republican party is trying extortion by holding hostage the full faith and credit of the United States in order to reach their extremist goals.  Yeah, such flatfooted-ness.

The only paradox here is how seemingly smart people go to the beltway to become self-important village idiots.

Grove anticipates the backlash that would come his way if his were a naked attempt to replace substance with style in the national debate. So he creates a thin veil to cover up the inadequacies of his argument. It depends on what the meaning of 'style' is, he expands:
“Style,” in this case, is shorthand for a flair in manipulating to one’s advantage the unpretty yet necessary process of legislative sausage-making.
The problem in Washington isn't that President Obama is unable to "manipulate" legislative sausage-making, it is the unprecedented obstruction of the Republican party. From the day this president came into office, Republicans have fallen all over themselves to try to oppose everything Obama has been for - including tons of their own ideas.

The individual mandate in health reform was a Republican idea from the 1990s, and yet when Obama adopted it, Republicans found it to be grounds for a constitutional challenge. Six Republican senators voted against their own bill to form a debt commission when President Obama endorsed the idea. More recently, Republican after Republican clamoring for military action in Syria turned swiftly against it when President Obama decided it was the right course, and they flipped right back when he found a way out of it without the use of arms. Right now, the House Republican majority is planning on a 42nd futile vote to dismantle Obamacare.

And it's Obama's fault for not being able to sing and dance with people who'd just as soon knife him in the back if the Secret Service weren't watching?

Grove talks about the Republicans' Obama Derangement Syndrome in the same article, and subsequently goes on to blame the president for the failure to enact gun laws, immigration reform or other second term agenda items.

It is well documented that the Republicans decided, even before the president was sworn in for his first term in office that their strategy would be total, complete, and unwavering opposition to whatever the president does. That changed neither with the Republican triumph of 2010 nor the their punishing defeat of 2012. The Republican party, in good part now controlled by the incredulous right wing fringe that is known as the Tea Party, is either unwilling to compromise with this president, or more likely, incapable of doing so thanks to their own harboring of the racist Right.

Washington gridlock is not the result of President Obama's lack of "style", it is the result of a determined opposition that hates this president more than it loves this country.

The beltway press insists on ignoring this basic truth. After all, if you can just blame the president for not being able to work out Congress' teenager issues (aka the "I hate you" stage), then you have absolved yourself from doing the job that a free press was created to do: find out and investigate the nitty gritty and dysfunction in Congress yourself. But that's a lot of work. Congress has 535 members, thousands of staffers, gazillions of dollars in corporate lobbyist money, and a million different postures. It's too difficult to report on that craptastic maze, and besides, it's much more fun to concentrate fire on the easiest target.

The implications of this is terrifying. What the beltway is really saying is that Congress and it will not only act like petulant children so that the president cannot get anything done, they will then froth at the mouth incessantly that he was unable to herd them. Grove's argument boils down to this: it's up to the president to "manipulate" the process, and members of Congress bear no responsibility to act like grown ups. The press has become a willing accomplice in the dysfunction and intransigence of Congress, and they have decided to cover up for their own impotency by pointing the finger at the only adult in town and giggling.

It's time to give up the notion that it's the president's job to herd the 535 moody cats in Congress. It's time to hold Republicans in Congress (and Democrats, when they go down the same path) accountable for their intransigence, their obstructionism, and their willingness to harm America in order to be a thorn on Obama's side. It's time to insist that members of Congress begin acting like grown ups and earn their keep. And it's time for members of the press to focus this country on the substance of the debates instead of monkeying around about syle points.


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