Thursday, January 20, 2005

The promise of four more years

The second-term curse is a much-remarked-upon phenomenon, and there are many good reasons for it: the loss of tyro zeal; the fact that any candidate's biggest items are almost inevitably launched in the first term (just in case he doesn't get a second); the tension between the President's lame-duck status and the continuing political ambitions of members of Congress; the hubris of having had one's first term's accomplishments at least on some level affirmed by the electorate; and, finally, the sheer exhaustion factor.

To some extent, all of these factors apply to the Bush regime. But one underremarked-upon dimension of secondtermitis (which was critical in the plight of the Johnson and Clinton administrations in particular, and which there is every reason to believe will apply with equal force in for the Bush regime), is the steady erosion of deference on the part of the media to the President. (This feature is underremarked-upon not just because for the media to remark on it would appear self-regarding, but also because members of the media don't like to admit what this dynamic says about their relationship with power.) Brand-new presidents are given the benefit of the doubt by most reporters, the proverbial honeymoon; second terms have no such honeymoon, in part because the media has gotten used to a certain dynamic with President, and more and more realize that the President's interests do not align with their own. There's every reason to believe that this factor will be greatly magnified for Bush; indeed, we're already seeing it with the reception of his New Deal rollback proposals. In Bush's first term, the press gave Bush a double honeymoon (some might call it a free pass): first the traditional honeymoon, where most criticism of him was mainly over his apparently rudderless agenda; and then a second, magnificent honeymoon in the wake of 9-11 up to and including the coverage of the invasion of Iraq. During these two years, the American media all but completely abandoned the usual journalistic best practice of subjecting a sitting government's statements to skeptical scrutiny. The New York Times, in particular, has lambasted itself publicly for the dereliction of its critical responsibilities in the run-up to the Iraq war, when it (like the rest of the American mass media) accepted, more or less at face value, the statements of the administration regarding the threat posed by Saddam's Iraq.

It is safe to say that this deference is highly unlikely to recur for the Bush regime in its second term. In part, this is because reporters have become fully aware of the contemptuous nature with which the Bushies regard them. The Bush regime views the media's self-conception as a fourth estate, responsible for both framing political debate and also for actual advocacy on the issues, as at best an absurd pretension and at worst vaguely antidemocratic. Instead, the Bushies view the media as profit-seeking scandalmongers, who in terms of their "framing duties" seek nothing more than to manufacture controversy, while in terms of their "advocacy duties" promote the viewpoints of those imfamously overeducated and morally feeble "cultural elites."

Regardless of whether this is an accurate representation of what the media do (and I must say that it's not a completely unfair representation of what organizations like ABC and CBS do), this perception is bound to fuel a more combative relationship between the media and the regime. The desire of reporters to dig up dirt will now be motivated not just by the desire for profitable controversy or liberal sentiments, but also by professional hostility. Likewise, we should expect the media to be much quicker to doubt what the President's says, to seek for contradiction, to look to expose weakness, to frankly depict failures and flip-flops. That Washington will be far less aligned with the President's own political goals will make it easier for reporters to tap into leaks. And finally, that the Democrats seem to finally be waking up to the reality of being an opposition party means it won't be hard to find Democrats (like Sen. Barbara Boxer during the Rice confirmation hearing) willing to take hard stands against almost anything the regime wants to accomplish, thus giving reporters a "hook" on which to hang anti-Bush stories.

And that's bad news for the Bushies, because once the reporters decide to really start digging, it shouldn't be hard to find serious dirt. Kerry's instincts were right on when he described these guys as "the most crooked, you know, lying group of people I've ever seen." Just get 'em to talk under oath and it's amusing how much vaguer they suddenly become....

Update: For example, what are the chances that four or even two years ago the Washington Post would have written this critique of the hypocrisy embedded in Bush's address yesterday? The gloves are already off, and one should only expect the pummelling to be relentless.

No comments: