For concerned Americans, one of the more infuriating aspects of the current debt ceiling negotiations is the fact that they are filtered through the media lens prior to being made public. Considering the overall slant of the mainstream media, it thus becomes possible to portray Republicans, far more than Democrats, as the intransigent party to these negotiations. Are they? There is certainly an easy way to find out. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) has proposed an obvious solution. “We might as well stake it out publicly to see what the disagreements are,” said Sessions in an interview with The Hill on June 24th. Mr. Sessions is absolutely right. It’s time to broadcast the debt ceiling talks on C-SPAN and allow the public to see what’s really going on.
This is not to say that all negotiations among government officials should be made public. But a government of, by and for the people should have no qualms about letting the people see who wants to do what their taxes — along with the taxes of their children and grandchildren. In fact, the president himself, after a reportedly contentious session butting heads with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), promised to take his case “to the American people.” Mr. Cantor claimed the president became “agitated” during the exchange. Yet that version of the story was immediately disputed by Democrats. “The president could not have been more gracious. I have never seen a president spend so much time with the leadership of Congress day in and day out, respectful of their concerns,” said Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
Who’s telling the truth? Publicly aired negotiations would allow the American people to decide. Just as publicly aired negotiations would eliminate the ongoing media charade that the only one making substantive policy proposals is the president himself. This particular media meme was revealed for the kind of slanted reporting it truly is in an exchange on PBS’s “Inside Washington” broadcast last Friday night. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer accused a “completely compliant, pliant, supine press [of] accepting every leak out of the White House” with respect to the $4 trillion “grand bargain” that the president has ostensibly offered. When NPR’s Nina Totenberg rose to the president’s defense, Mr. Krauthammer challenged her and other members of the show’s panel to name “a single item in it that you can enunciate.” No one offered anything, and Mr. Krauthammer made the ultimate point. “Well then how does he expect America to accept something in which he explains nothing?” he asked.
The answer to that question is obvious. The president and most of his colleagues fully expect a compliant, supine press to spin these negotiations in their favor. And such spin need not be errors of commission. Downplaying important stories is equally effective. For example, do a majority of Americans know that for the first time since 1974, when the Budget Act was passed to modernize the process, a Democratically-controlled Congress failed to enact a national budget in 2010? Does a majority know it’s been over 800 days since the Senate passed one? Do they know House Republicans passed a budget in April already cutting $4.4 trillion in spending over the next decade, only to see it mothballed in the Senate? Do they know the only budget proposed by the president with an actual number attached to it was a $3.7 trillion debacle so onerous, it was defeated by a unanimous 97-0 vote in the Senate?
The answer, with respect to a majority of Americans, is no. Furthermore, it is expected that the public will remain largely in the dark. This sentiment was best expressed by White House political advisor David Plouffe immediately following the release of June’s dismal employment numbers in which only 18,000 jobs were added to the economy, well below the 90,000 predicted by most economists. “The average American does not view the economy through the prism of GDP or unemployment rates or even monthly jobs numbers,” Plouffe said. “People won’t vote based on the unemployment rate; they’re going to vote based on: ‘How do I feel about my own situation? Do I believe the president makes decisions based on me and my family?'”
Once again, if the budget negotiations were out in the open, Americans could decide for themselves if the president has their collective backs. Such talks would be far superior to the current process, described by the Associated Press as one which “seems to be yielding even more leaks and spin than usual.” The AP also noted that the White House “attempts to limit on-the-record coverage of the meetings,” and that they allow “a small group of reporters to attend the beginning of such meetings, but that only happened in three of the six debt talk meetings.” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the limitations were necessary to prevent a “circus” atmosphere, like the one last Monday where members of the press were shouting out questions.
Yet Jim Manley, former top spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, (D-NV), conceded that such control was next to impossible. “I have been involved in these kinds of meetings during the last two administrations and have never seen such a torrent of leaks from supposed private conversations as I have this time around. It shows that neither side really trusts the other,” he said.
Who do Americans themselves trust? The most accurate answer is neither side. A Quinnipiac University poll seems schizophrenic. By a 56-38 percent margin, Americans disapprove of the way the president is running the economy, even as they trust him to handle it better than Republicans by 45-38 percent. They would also blame Republicans more than the president for failing to reach a debt ceiling deal, 48 percent to 34 percent. And while 67 percent are in favor of “taxing the rich,” including corporations (reflecting the reality that most Americans don’t know corporate taxes get passed on to the consumer), 57 percent of those surveyed think any tax changes would also hurt the middle class.