March 4, 2012 · 1 Comments
By Marie Burns:
As I write, I am imagining myself on the 13th floor of the New York Times building, standing in a tight triangle with Frank Bruni and Joe Nocera. I have a hand on the scruff of each of their necks, and I am knocking their blockheads together. It is a satisfying image, and in a just world it would come to pass. But there is little justice, and less sense, in this world, so we have two New York Times columnists, each writing Tom Friedman knockoffs on the beauty of bipartisanship, as magnificently represented in the person of Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).
In a column also published in today’s New York Times eXaminer, I addressed Nocera’s fanciful notions of bipartisan extremism, and his “poignant” remembrances of Sen. Snowe, a “casualty” of extremism, “whose dilemma” was that she was “caught all too often between her moderate beliefs and pressure from the party to vote the ‘right’ way.” Boo-hoo-hoo. Now we will take a quick look at Frank Bruni’s “poignant” remembrances of the Model of Bipartisanship and the ne’er-do-wells of both parties who have stymied her efforts at comity and cooperation.
Bruni is much enthralled with the Both-Sides-Do-It Mantra, even to the point that if he can’t find an example of Democrats behaving badly, he makes one up and prognosticates that they will behave badly. Just you wait. He also has a soft spot for politicians who pay him attentions, his favorite being Dubya, whom Bruni covered for the Times during the 2000 campaign. As Eric Alterman wrote of Bruni’s relationship with Bush, “Frequently, Bruni sounded like a man who had fallen in love with someone he knew lacked the qualities he wished for him, but could not allow himself to admit that he had been so wrong for so long.” Unlike George W. Bush, Olympia Snowe has the qualities Bruni wishes for her. He writes in today’s column,
Back in 1999, when I covered Congress, I had a kind of crush on Olympia Snowe. Many of us in the Senate press gallery did. She moved, dressed and treated people – even reporters, and even when we hounded her through the hallways of the Capitol – with an unforced, uncommon graciousness. She spoke with intelligence and almost never with vitriol.
Then Bruni gets really mushy. He extends his admiration for Snowe to the junior Senator from Maine, Susan Collins,
… also a Republican and also one of our heroes. Snowe and Collins offered proof and reassurance: just because you identified yourself principally with one side in the ceaseless fight, wearing an R or a D, it didn’t mean you signed on automatically to everything it championed, to each plank in its sprawling (and often suffocating) platform. These two senators validated the fact that a person’s values, philosophy and priorities are more complex than a political tribe’s often tyrannical orthodoxy. And that the tribe’s package of positions isn’t necessarily coherent, each fitting naturally with the others. Snowe and Collins made human sense. Their peers usually didn’t. Those dutiful foot soldiers marched in dreary lock step with their given generals, infrequently demonstrating any real individuality, any rebel spunk.
Spunk! They sound great! If only the Ladies of Maine did “make human sense.” Matt Yglesias of Slate recently took a look at Snowe’s bipartisan contributions to President Obama’s stimulus package in 2009. Yglesias wrote,
Snowe held a decisive position in the bargaining…. She chose to use her influence to trim down the spending side of the package, with a particular focus on reducing federal financial assistance to state and local governments…. The policy logic behind the Obama stimulus clearly dictated a bigger rather than a smaller package of aid to state and local government, but if Snowe rejected the policy logic behind the Obama stimulus she could have simply rejected the whole idea…. Opinions on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are sharply divided, but approximately zero people believe the Snowe/Collins/Specter/Nelson compromise version of ARRA was the right thing to do. That’s not because of ‘polarization’; it’s because their position didn’t make any sense on the merits and just reflected a mindless less is better than more mentality.
As Jonathan Chait of New York magazine writes, “If a Gingrich administration proposed spending a trillion dollars to erect a 100- foot-tall solid-gold Winston Churchill statue on Mars, Snowe would no doubt decide, after careful deliberation, that the wise course was to trim the height down to 90 feet and perhaps use a cheaper bronze alloy in the base.”
If Snowe was senseless on the stimulus, she was downright deceitful in her dealings on the Affordable Care Act. Although Snowe told the SEIU she supported the public option, she worked in committee to defeat it, first proposing a trigger (suggested by big Pharma and insurance companies) – a trigger that would never fire – then finally nixing the public option altogether. In exchange for Demoncrats’ dropping the public option, Snowe voted for the bill in committee, then started complaining about “process and technical issues” and eventually voted against the bill. Although she did not object to the individual mandate in the nearly two years she dragged out the “process,” Snowe wrote in a statement to a Maine Tea Party group in February 2011 that the ACA was an “’egregious assault on individual freedom and the free-market system,’ particularly the individual mandate.” In August 2011, Igor Volsky of Think Progress wrote, Snowe “inviting people to send a ‘thank you’ note to the 11th Circuit Court of appeals for deeming the individual mandate unconstitutional…, conveniently omitting the fact that Snowe was the only Republican to vote in favor of the mandate.” Not coincidentally, all of Snowe’s opposition to the ACA came after the 2010 election, when Tea Party fools rushed in.
As if to prove it is possible to be more inconsistent that Snowe, Susan Collins takes Olympic gold for her agile flip-flops. Her position on women’s access to contraceptive health coverage is a case in point. Flip. In 2001, she and Snowe were among the co-sponsors of a bill that would have required all group insurance plans that covered prescription drugs to include contraceptive coverage. The bill, which did not pass, “offered no opt-out clause for religious groups who opposed contraception.” Flop. When the Obama administration issued its recent ruling that all insurance plans must cover birth control methods, Collins, along with Snowe, opposed the measure. Flip. However, both Collins and Snowe accepted the Obama compromise plan and issued a joint statement in support of it. Flop. But, hey, that was way two weeks ago. Last week Collins voted for the Blunt Amendment, which not only would have overridden the Obama administration’s new contraception coverage rule – the one Collins supported – it would have allowed all employers to deny coverage of any kind of healthcare service they found “morally objectionable.” Collins’ “reasoning”? –
I feel I have to vote for the Blunt amendment with the hope that its scope will be further narrowed and refined as the legislative process proceeds. I do this with a lot of conflict, because I think the amendment does have its flaws, but when the administration cannot even assure me that self-insured faith-based organizations’ religious freedom is protected, I feel I have no choice.
Bruni’s boss, Times editorial page editor Andy Rosenthal, called Collins’ explanation
… one of the lamer excuses I’ve heard from a politician to explain a bad vote…. So let me see if I got that. Instead of working to refine a vague health care rule, she voted to approve an even vaguer rule, because she figured it wouldn’t go into effect the way it was written, and that someone would refine it? Like who, for example? Certainly not Senator Collins.
Maybe Bruni should read his boss’s stuff before he starts churning out nonsense about Snowe’s and Collins’ complex values, philosophies and priorities. Ironically, Bruni undermines his entire premise that Snowe is an independent source of light when he acknowledges that Snowe’s “approval rating from the American Conservative Union, which had been below 50 in 2009, was above that mark in each of the last two years, and the frequency with which she votes against members of her party has decreased of late.” Why on earth was that? Oh, I know. Until she wasn’t running for re-election, she was. As Public Policy Polling reported a year ago,
It’s been clear for a long time now that Maine Republicans want to swap out Olympia Snowe for someone more conservative. Our newest poll in the state finds that hasn’t changed: only 33% of primary voters in the state say they would support Snowe next year to 58% who prefer a generic ‘more conservative candidate.’ … Most GOP voters don’t really think Snowe belongs in their party….
That’s what caused her to veer right. Way right. Here’s a little gem she wrote to the Maine Tea Party group: “’I would strongly oppose any and all attempts to apply Sharia law in the United States,’ then lists some of the worst aspects of the islamic legal system, such as amputations and stoning….” Very complex and philosophical. And principled!
Finally, Bruni launches into his Both-Sides-Do-It charade. Here’s his beef about Democrats:
Rare is the Democrat of plausible national ambition who tangles in a tough, meaningful way with labor unions or environmentalists, groups that President Obama has been loath to cross. Disappointing them jeopardizes the campaign infantry and financial contributions they provide, and as the sway of interest groups rises, the fealty of politicians to the ones in their corner grows with it.
President Obama may be loath to cross unions and environmentalists, but he is certainly that “rare Democrat” who has done so. As Eleanor Clift wrote in the Daily Beast,
About the only thing labor and Obama can agree on is the need to defeat the Tea Party…. Labor’s top priority is the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to unionize workers. But it wasn’t high on the White House agenda and has languished on Capitol Hill…. What bothers labor leaders more than legislative lapses is Obama’s failure to step up when he’s needed with words of encouragement. Except for one brief statement in support of unions in Wisconsin, Obama kept his distance from the demonstrations that roiled the state capitol for weeks over Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to slash employee benefits.
Or there’s this ABC News headline: Teachers’ union endorses Obama despite hating his policies.” ABC News’ Amy Bingham wrote,
Two days before endorsing the president, the NEA passed a resolution outlining 13 areas where the union adamantly disagrees with the policies of Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan…. This year’s endorsement passed by one of the narrowest margins … in years, he said, with 28 percent of the assembly voting against supporting the president.
And so on.
As for Obama’s being “loath to cross environmentalists,” can Bruni really not recall the outcry that arose after President Obama nixed the EPA’s new ozone standards last September? Obama blindsided not only environmentalists but his own EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. Justin Ruben of MoveOn.org said that “Many MoveOn members are wondering today how they can ever work for President Obama’s reelection, or make the case for him to their neighbors, when he does something like this…. This is a decision we’d expect from George W. Bush.” Public health and conservation groups, including the American Lung Association, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Appalachian Mountain Club, soon filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration for rejecting the EPA’s recommended ozone standards. Another suit followed that.
Or what about Obama’s decision to expand oil and gas drilling shortly before the disastrous BP spill? Bryan Walsh of Time wrote,
… environmental groups responded with outrage to Obama’s decision, fearing that drilling would damage sensitive marine environments, especially in the vulnerable Alaskan Arctic, a region over which greens have been fighting oil companies for years. ‘Today’s announcement is unfortunately all too typical of what we have seen so far from President Obama – promises of change, a year of deliberation, and ultimately, adoption of flawed and outdated Bush policies,’ said Brendan Cummings [of] … the Center for Biological Diversity….
And so forth.
Bruni goes on to complain about Republicans “kowtowing to religious conservatives.” Yeah, that they do.
Bruni’s assertion that Senators Snowe and Collins are nice, principled ladies is an opinion not supported by the facts. Bruni doesn’t present any facts to convince the reader of his premise – other than his observations that Snowe was gracious and dressed well. Evidently Bruni thinks that whatever he feels about someone’s style and manners is a good enough basis for judging her “values and principles.” “She seems so nice” is a ridiculous basis for political analysis, but at least it’s something.
Snowe may indeed be stylish and gracious, but Bruni’s portrait of Democrats is flat-out false. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he is just remarkably ignorant. Perhaps he is too lazy to do extensive in-depth research – like Googling “obama unions.” I do think it’s possible Bruni is so benighted that he does not know the difference between fact and opinion. Or maybe when Rosenthal told him he would be writing an “opinion column,” Bruni thought that meant he could ignore facts: “I’m writing opinion pieces, not an encyclopedia, for Pete’s sake!” Whatever the reason for his fundamental lapses, his signature fact-free blather is unacceptable. I would expect better from whoever writes copy for the Weekly Shopper. Frank Bruni’s vapid, untethered opinions have no place in the New York Times.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com