Media framing matters part II, why legislators aren't bought off by special interests, and more notes
My weekly roundup
A quick note on the timing of my columns: I endeavor to get them out weekly. But sometimes it takes a few extra days, either because of my workload or because I don’t think I have sufficient material to write good, interesting notes on enough topics to provide bonus content for paying subscribers. This week was a confluence of all of the above and my priority is always quality over all else. I want to give my subscribers the best insight possible, and if that takes an extra few days, so be it…
I’ve said this before, but I don’t particularly like ragging on mainstream journalists, especially over headlines and tweets. My sense is they are buffeted on both sides ideologically, and can’t possibly please everyone. And most complaints about tweets and headlines miss that they are designed to generate clicks because if media doesn’t get clicks, a company isn’t going to be around very long. And yet, just like last week, I’m going to make an exception to that general rule, because I think a tweet from the New York Times lends itself to analysis in an important way.
This tweet from the New York Times politics account jumped out to me, because it adopted such an obviously Republican frame. Now, I understand the underlying point of the reporting: to analyze how politics has changed for Democrats from past moments when they confronted divided government, and Republicans started their push for spending cuts to address the deficit and the debt.
Yet, the language chosen adopts a Republican way of understanding the issue on multiple levels.
First, it assumes that the deficit must be addressed. Now, I’m a liberal who also thinks that getting closer to a balanced budget is good. The more deficit spending we do, the more money we spend every year on interest. It’s not a good thing. But set that aside for a second.
It’s been obvious for decades that very few politicians actually care about the deficit and balancing the budget. It was the priority for the Eisenhower/Ford/Bush 41/Dole wing of the GOP, but in the late 1970s, the rise of supply sided economics and the realization that Americans liked politicians who promised them stuff — instead of calling for sacrifice and belt tightening — led to the GOP abandoning this economic orthodoxy in exchange for a gospel of low taxes and tax cuts.
Supply sided proponents claimed that you could dramatically cut taxes without actually reducing government revenue because the economy was being choked by taxes and regulation. Tax cuts would unleash the economy to such a degree that the federal government would see an upsurge in revenue.
There were roughly three camps within the GOP/the conservative movement on this claim. First, were the true believers who saw this as political manna from heaven. They could promise voters a tax cut, and avoid having to call for pesky, unpopular spending cuts. Second were those adherents to traditional conservative economics who figured they’d support the supply siders’ signature tax cuts (known as the Kemp/Roth tax cut, which later became the centerpiece of Ronald Reagan’s economic agenda), because eventually tax cuts would force spending cuts by starving the government of revenue. Finally, there was a third camp that wasn’t sure if the supply sided promises would work, but advocated for the tax cuts anyway.
This last camp embodied what has become the GOP norm for the past four decades. Their motivation and thinking were best explained by Irving Kristol, a leading neoconservative intellectual and columnist and champion of the Reagan tax cuts. “And what if the traditional-conservatives are right and a Kemp-Roth tax cut, without corresponding cuts in expenditures, also leaves us with a fiscal problem? The neoconservative is willing to leave those problems to be coped with by liberal interregnums. He wants to shape the future, and will leave it to his opponents to tidy up afterwards.”
And that’s basically what Republicans have done for four decades. They’ve relentlessly cut taxes and raised military spending, with little concern for deficits. Then when Democrats hold the White House and want to enact new programs and spending, the GOP starts sounding the alarm about deficits. The only exception came with George H.W. Bush’s bipartisan budget deal in 1990, and Bush was from the earlier generation of Republican thinking — he famously called supply sided economics, “voodoo economics,” during the 1980 primary.
We saw this pattern with Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich in the mid-90s (eventually there was a bipartisan balanced budget agreement, albeit one with new tax cuts), and then after 2010 when Republicans insisted on spending cuts to raise the debt ceiling during Barack Obama’s presidency. Now they’re resurrecting the same tactic.
Which is a very long-winded of saying (I’m a historian. I’m pretty sure I’m required by law to give you some history in my columns.) that even making it seem as if addressing the deficit is a must is adopting a Republican frame — one born out of decades of hypocrisy and the purely political motive of stifling Democratic priorities. The demands that President Biden agree to spending cuts to raise the debt ceiling have little to do with economic necessity, and everything do with constricting Biden’s agenda.
The Times tweet also goes further: it seems to imply that Biden is doing something irresponsible — ducking making the choices that are necessary, but tough to swallow.
The problem is the same set of respective positions by the two parties could very well be framed from the opposite direction: “Republicans are refusing to raise taxes on the wealthy to address the deficit after decades of cutting them. Instead they want to dramatically slash programs helping poor Americans.” Or it could be framed neutrally as, “Republicans & Democrats are at loggerheads on how to reduce the deficit. President Biden doesn’t want to cut social spending, while Republicans won’t raise taxes on the wealthy.”
I raise the issue in part because most of us, myself included, accept that most mainstream journalists lean left. Especially on social and cultural issues like abortion, this orientation affects what stories get reported on, what questions journalists ask, and how they frame things. But this tweet is a reminder that that is not the case nearly as often when it comes to economic issues. Routinely, we see framing like this or the example I touched on last week.
While it’s hard to condense full pieces into tweets and headlines that will generate clicks without distorting substance, and there will be flubs, it’s crucial that journalists understand framing, why it matters, and how these sorts of choices shape Americans’ political understandings and perceptions of the parties and politicians. This is not meaningless linguistic semantics. In very real ways, if the media adopts this GOP frame, they’re going to shape how Americans understand the economic brinkmanship between the parties this summer…
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I have a pet peeve that people on the left most often run afoul of. Leftists (and some conservatives as well) love to argue that politicians are bought off by campaign contributions and favor “special interests” over their constituents.
The latest example of this has arisen over the failure of Silicon Valley Bank — the story of last week. Many, including President Biden, have asserted that the relaxation of banking regulations in 2018 helped contribute to the collapse. Personally, I think it’s unclear whether that is true or not yet. We’re going to need an investigation to find out. Many of the champions of the 2018 law say that the problem wasn’t deregulation, it was inattentiveness by regulators to dangerous behavior by SVB executives. And without digging into what precisely happened, I don’t think any of us can know which argument is right with any reasonable degree of certainty.
But despite the hazy picture, the idea that the deregulatory bill fueled this meltdown has offered a tantalizing opportunity to attack those who voted for the legislation (Republicans and a smaller, but significant cadre of Democrats). Enter Rep. Ruben Gallergo (D-Ariz.). He’s excoriating Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I) — whose Senate seat he’s running for — for her vote on the deregulation bill. Gallego insinuated that Sinema’s vote had something to do with $8,000 in contributions she received from lobbyists who worked for SVB and other financial interests between the time when the Senate passed the deregulation bill and when the House (Sinema was in the House and running for the Senate at the time) voted on it. “When we were presented with the same information, I voted to protect Arizonans,” said Gallego. “She voted to give the banks free rein.”
But here’s the reality: Sinema raised $21,267,486.11 for her 2018 Senate campaign (she was a Democrat at the time). That means the $8,000 in contributions comes to .0037% of the money she raised for the campaign (assuming that your humble narrator is interpreting the decimal places on his calculator correctly — it’s a struggle to figure out the percentage with that many zeroes). It’s miniscule. Like a few pennies for you or I.
This basic reality is one reason that study evidence indicates that lobbying has a lot less impact than people think it does. There is simply too much money in politics — much of it from turbocharged, small dollar fundraising — for any politician to be “bought off” by campaign contributions in 2023 (things were far different in the mid-20th century). Now, there are obviously still cases of corruption where a politician takes bribes, but that’s a wholly different thing. Lobbyists and special interests really can’t contribute enough to ensure that a politician will vote with them on a bill. They can and do buy access, which gives them a chance to make their case on the merits, but that provides no guarantee that a politician will buy their arguments. Mostly, I think ideology and protecting their electoral prospects guide politicians in 2023.
Which brings us to the second part of my critique.
It’s far too simple to look at a politician voting with industry and assert they’ve sold out their constituents in favor of a special interest. The Independent Community Bankers Association pressed hard for Congress to relax the regulations on smaller and mid-size banks in 2018. And the ICBA had 5,700 members at the time, according to leading banking scholar Mehrsa Baradaran. Now obviously, these banks are not evenly spread throughout the 50 states, but even just dividing the total number of these banks by 50, you’d have 114 in each state (and given the relative size of Arizona vs. some other states, it’s logical to assume it had more than that). Furthermore, it turns out that Silicon Valley Bank has some sort of headquarters in Arizona where they have hundreds of workers. So, we’re talking about institutions who were employers in Sinema’s state, as well as drivers of other economic activity (through the loans they made). Indeed, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), another supporter of the bill, cited the economic benefits of the deregulatory bill for his state to Punchbowl News last week when explaining his vote. ‘“We were losing capital in rural America’ before the 2018 bill became law.” Montana’s small banks ‘“were getting [eaten] up.”’
So there was a policy rationale for the bill, or an argument that voting for it could help institutions that were pivotal in Arizona.
That’s not to say the vote was a good one. I tend to think bank deregulation is bad. Every time we’ve done it, the result has been some sort of collapse because of risky mistakes made by financial institutions taking advantage of newly relaxed regulations. Sometimes it takes a decade or two, but the end result is some sort of disaster — one that usually costs taxpayers dearly.
Yet, the classic idea of Senator X or Representative Y selling out his constituents or getting bought by banking interests is oversimplified. Usually, legislators’ motives have more to do with institutions that are key economic drivers in their districts and states than any contributions made by lobbyists. Where lobbyists may have an impact is in convincing lawmakers that voting for something is good for their states or districts, especially if they can marshal local forces (like, say, bankers) to make the case.
But while legislators might be casting bad votes — with significant consequences — their motives are tied to the overall good of the people and places they represent as they understand it or to protecting their own electoral fortunes, not doing the bidding of businesses…
This must be pet peeve week at the World According to Brian. Because Puck’s Tara Palmeri — one of my favorite reporters — ran afoul of another longstanding pet peeve of mine in a column last week. Similar to the claims about bought off politicians, the issue revolves around clarity and trying to best explain and inform people about politics.
Palmeri wrote, “Of course, it’s hard to envision these moderate-ish Republicans winning over the same G.O.P. primary voters who nominated the unelectable Kari Lake in Arizona or Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, especially when they’ll be splitting the electoral pie.” The politicians she mentioned in the previous paragraph were former Vice President Mike Pence, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
Now I get where Palmeri is coming from. Sununu could be legitimately described as more moderate, given that he’s pro-choice, pro-internationalism, etc. And by the standards of today’s GOP, Pence and Youngkin are less far to the right than election and reality denying Christian nationalist types like Mastriano and Lake — especially in terms of their tone/approach to politics.
But we’ve got a major nomenclature issue that is distorting our understanding of politics (the problem is systemic — Palmeri didn’t make a mistake so much as we need to rethink how we describe various factions).
There are exceedingly few moderate Republicans in elected office in 2023. A few governors, a handful of House members and Senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins is about it above the state legislative level. And even those moderates are to the right of the moderates of 20 years ago, who were themselves to the right of the liberal and moderate Republicans of 50 years ago.
Just to give you an idea: using the scholarly DW Nominate metric (which rates legislators on a scale of -1 to 1, with -1 being the most liberal, 0 being in the middle, and 1 being the most conservative) there are 4 current Republican senators with a score below .3. By contrast, in the 105th Congress (between 1997-1999), there were 15 such senators, while in the 92nd Congress (between 1971-1973), there were 4 Republican senators with negative scores (i.e. they were left of center) and then another 23 Republican senators between 0 and .3. Amazingly then, that means 27 of 44 (61 percent) Republican senators in 1971 scored below .3 vs. only 4 of 49 today (8 percent).
The picture is similar in the House: in 2023, 20 Republican House members have scores under .3 (one is a non-voting member from Puerto Rico, while 9 others are freshmen who have scant voting records and may prove to be more conservative once they cast more votes). In the 105th Congress, there were 50 such members, while in the 92nd Congress, there were 11 GOP members with negative scores, and a whopping 113 Republicans with scores under .3 (vs. only 61 Republican members with scores over .3).
This data illustrates how over a half century, moderates have gone from being the majority of the GOP to being a barely existent minority.
And as the ideological moderates have dwindled, we’ve increasingly seen media and political observers apply the label “moderate” to mild mannered conservatives or Republicans who depart from orthodoxy on one issue. Perhaps, they’re influenced by those on the right who deride any Republican who dares dissent on anything as a “RINO” — Republican in name only. The term is now even being wielded against anyone who challenges on Donald Trump on anything too.
But this system of labeling is deeply distorted. Being least far right in the GOP ≠ ideological moderation. The fact is, the GOP is an extreme right-wing party in 2023. The spectrum of gravity has moved dramatically to the right over the last 50 years. And calling conservatives moderates misleads voters about both individual politicians and the state of the GOP, however unintentional.
The example that used to rankle me most was former-Sen Pat Toomey (R-PA). Toomey rose to national prominence by almost knocking off veteran Sen. Arlen Specter — a genuine moderate — in a primary in 2004. Toomey attacked Specter for being insufficiently conservative and then went on to head the right wing Club for Growth before running for Senate again in 2010 and winning. During his 12 years in the Senate, Toomey proved himself to be a serious, mild-mannered, policy-oriented legislator — but an arch conservative one. By DW-Nominate, of the 50 Republican senators serving in the last Congress, only 13 compiled more conservative records than Toomey. He accumulated a whopping .624 DW-nominate score. Contrast that with the moderate Specter, who had a .068 score in his 30 years in Congress.
Yet, plenty of the time, Toomey was depicted as a moderate — mainly because on one issue, gun background checks, he departed from the conservative line, and then later because he voted to convict Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial. But especially in a state with a rich lineage of moderate Republicanism, this labeling deceived voters. Toomey wasn’t a moderate in the mold of Specter, John Heinz (.078 DW Nominate score), Tom Ridge (.186 DW Nominate score), Richard Schweiker (.029 DW Nominate score), Hugh Scott (.162 DW Nominate score) and others. His primary challenge to Specter in 2004 and his voting record proved it.
That didn’t mean Toomey was a bad senator. That judgment depends on one’s ideology. But he was a fierce conservative and any other label risked distorting how voters understood their senator.
So we need to rethink how we conceive of the political spectrum, especially in an era with traditional Reagan/Bush conservatives and populist, bomb throwing, Christian nationalist Trump conservatives like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). I don’t know if the labeling ought to be pragmatic conservative or mainstream conservative vs. right winger, or whether there is a better way of conceiving of it. But the label moderate should be reserved for politicians who cross their party’s base a good chunk of the time in terms of how they vote (see Manchin, Joe for a great example). To be a moderate, one needs to work to forge bipartisan compromises, and to hold positions that distinguish them from the majority of their party.
None of that is true of Youngkin or Pence.
In fact, Pence used to be considered a far right type during his tenure in the House (he compiled a .655 DW-Nominate score and in his last Congress only 16 House Republicans were more conservative) and signed a law as governor of Indiana to allow businesses run by religious conservatives to refuse to serve LGBTQ customers. Similarly, despite governing in a blue state, Youngkin has stoked the culture wars, and freely campaigned for candidates on the far right during the 2022 midterm campaigns. Yes, both men are mild mannered, eschewing the incendiary rhetoric en vogue on the right. But I can’t think of a single issue where they really depart from conservative orthodoxy. Both are staunch Reagan conservatives. And we should understand them as such. That’s the only way for voters who are fairly disconnected from politics to have an accurate picture of their elected officials and the GOP…
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