Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist whose progressive politics and world-weary posture have earned him coveted berths in the Post’s opinion and news pages. The Scrapbook wishes him the best. But The Scrapbook is also worried that, at 44, Milbank is showing signs of early-onset Reston-Broder Syndrome.
This is a mood disorder, primarily confined to members of the press, which manifests itself by repeated assertions that political conditions cannot possibly be worse than they are at present, and that there was once a Golden Age to which the sufferer would like to return.
The syndrome, not yet recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, is named for the late David Broder of the Post, who liked to write about the good old days when Democrats and Republicans appeared to have no political or personal differences, and the late James Reston of the New York Times, who was forever in pursuit of younger, fresher, self-evidently better political leadership.
The Scrapbook remembers its first exposure to Reston-Broder Syndrome in the late 1950s, when Reston would habitually complain to the Times that the political leadership of the West was geriatric, sclerotic, and embarrassing. Of course, it should be remembered that he was talking about such geriatric, sclerotic, and embarrassing leaders as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harold Macmillan, Konrad Adenauer, and Charles de Gaulle—and, presumably, yearning for young John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Beginning in the 1980s, Broder would routinely hark back to those near-perfect days on Capitol Hill (the 1950s?) when Democrats and Republicans would enjoy a whiskey together at the end of the day—and Democrats commanded prohibitive majorities in both House and Senate.
The Scrapbook sensed the telltale signs of Reston-Broder Syndrome last week when Milbank wrote a column in which he lamented the practice of Senate Republicans of dissenting from the views of their Democratic colleagues. After consultation with “senators and veteran Capitol Hill correspondents,” he swiftly realized what ails the Senate: “There are no giants in the chamber today,” he wrote. No Edward Kennedys, no Robert Byrds.
The Scrapbook will refrain from repeating the sordid details of Teddy Kennedy’s public (and private) career, but that Milbank believes the U.S. Senate suffers from the absence of Bobby Byrd suggests that his Reston-Broder symptoms are dangerously advanced. Byrd, who died two summers ago, was an especially unattractive officeholder who began his career as a ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan in his native West Virginia, and ended it (at 93) as the longest-serving senator in history. Between those two landmarks he managed to oppose the two African-American nominees to the Supreme Court, as well as the 1964 Civil Rights Act; and, as longtime chairman of the Appropriations Committee, devoted himself almost exclusively to shipping federal dollars to the aforementioned West Virginia, where innumerable taxpayer-financed structures bear his name.
It is true that the relative age of the Senate is younger than, say, a decade ago, and the chamber is dominated by a new generation. It is also true that nearly half of today’s senators are freshmen. But is this, by any definition, a bad thing? Milbank seems to confuse advanced age and prolonged tenure with distinction, and surely forgets that even Teddy Kennedy and Bobby Byrd were young once.
Indeed, The Scrapbook is reminded of a story Harold Macmillan liked to tell about an ancient parliamentarian who, in Macmillan’s youth, complained to him about the absence of giants in the House of Commons: “They’re all gone now, my boy, all gone . . . Palmerston, Disraeli, Gladstone, Salisbury. . . . All gone. . . . And I’m not feeling so well myself.”
Big Labor’s Big Money
For the last few weeks the Obama campaign has been sending out urgent fundraising appeals highlighting the fact that Mitt Romney outraised them by $30 million last month. “That translates into a
potentially devastating sweep of negative, misleading messaging that’s going to flood the airwaves in swing states,” read the most recent Obama email to land in The Scrapbook’s inbox. (Oddly, the email neglected to mention the Obama campaign has significantly outspent the Romney campaign in swing state advertising.) While the desperation here is real, let’s not kid ourselves: The Obama campaign will not be outspent in this election.
The Obama penury claim can only be made because the conventional ways of monitoring Democratic campaign spending are woefully incomplete. Last week, the Wall Street Journal published a new analysis showing that unions had spent an
astounding $4.4 billion on electioneering since 2005—four times as much money as previously thought. Union political expenditures actually exceed direct donations to candidates. Further, this new information was collected from Department of Labor databases, not the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The Bush administration began requiring unions to report certain categories of political spending to the Labor Department in 2005, and this appears to be the first time any major news organization has tried to quantify the data.
To sum up: Even though Democrats bellyache constantly about money in politics and shadowy GOP super-PACs, their largest campaign contributors don’t report 75 percent of the money they spend to the FEC. Naturally, the union spin on the Wall Street Journal report was at once brazen and disingenuous: “Laurence E. Gold, counsel to the AFL-CIO, said the Labor Department reports show that ‘unions by law are the most transparent institutions about their electoral spending.’ ”
If unions are so proud of their transparency, why is it that Democrats tried and failed to exempt unions from the rules they would impose on corporate political expenditures? In 2010, in the wake of the much demonized Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, Democrats tried to pass the DISCLOSE Act, which would have imposed all sorts of limits on corporate campaign donations—but curiously would have “exempt[ed] from disclosure requirements transfers of cash from dues-funded groups to their affiliates to pay for certain election ads,” according to Politico. Fortunately, the DISCLOSE Act didn’t pass.
This strange new respect for transparency is also at odds with the Obama administration’s rollback of Bush administration transparency requirements aimed at exposing corruption and cleaning up union governance. They’ve stopped enforcing the requirement that union bosses disclose whether they’re being paid on the side by companies doing business with the union and stopped reporting what unions do with their strike funds.
Now that this other Bush-era transparency requirement shows that unions are the largest political spenders even though they represent a small minority of Americans, expect the Obama administration to quietly do away with it if the president is reelected. Sure, unions spend more on politics by an order of magnitude than any other interest group, but it’s stepping all over the preferred narrative that the Koch brothers are buying this election. In the meantime, the Obama campaign can tone down the breathless fundraising emails, confident in the knowledge that they won’t be outspent. Republicans can take solace in the fact that of the 63 Democratic House seats they captured in 2010, they were outspent in two-thirds of the races and still won. Money in politics, as in life, isn’t everything.
Get Well Soon
While The Scrapbook is as prone to bouts of Schadenfreude as anyone, we are occasionally reminded of the call to summon the better angels of our nature. Last week American Spectator senior editor and occasional Weekly Standard contributor Quin Hillyer set an example that all in Washington should, but won’t, heed. Faced with the news that Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. had disappeared to receive treatment for an as-yet-unknown personal problem, Hillyer wrote:
Jesse Jackson the elder is one of my least favorite pols, EVER. His son certainly isn’t of the most stellar character either, and he’s a real left winger. But none of that matters. His current problems, whatever they are, sound serious—and they are of the type that call for compassion and sympathy,not scorn. He is a human being who appears to be suffering; I offer a prayer for his recovery.
As it happens, I know of one particular incident, private in nature so I won’t relay any specifics of it (it was told to me by a first-hand witness; I didn’t see it myself), that speaks well of some basic instincts toward personal decency within the heart of the younger Jackson. Suffice it to say that he reached out, supportively, when somebody across the aisle was down. Conservatives should do likewise for Rep. Jackson. May he find solace and health—so we can go back to opposing him politically when he errs in that realm, which is often, but not opposing him personally or meanly.
We freely admit that it wasn’t the initial impulse of The Scrapbook to say this, but upon considering what Hillyer has to say, we also find ourselves wishing Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. a speedy recovery.
Lipstick on a Pig
During the Reagan administration, at a time of undeniable and often rapid economic growth, conservatives began to notice an unusual phenomenon. No matter how good the economy appeared to be, the media would fall all over themselves to explain that, no, things were actually horrible, homelessness was epidemic, poverty rampant—proof of the callous failure of Reaganomics.
Not surprisingly, we are experiencing the opposite effect now that Barack Obama is president. Sure, the economy’s moribund and the president’s spectacularly bad policies have contributed to immiserating the lives of millions of the unemployed and underemployed—but the New York Times is here to explain that it’s really not that bad. “In Latest Data on Economy, Experts See Signs of Pickup,” ran one headline on July 13. We started reading, hoping to find out how we had missed the news that happy days are here again. Well, not so fast. The article is a case study on how journalists go about applying lipstick to a pig. The Scrapbook is selectively quoting here, but we’re fairly representing the essence of the Times piece:
This week, Macroeconomic Advisers, an economic consultancy often cited by policy makers, estimated the annual rate of growth in the second quarter at just 1.2 percent—well below the pace needed to reduce the unemployment rate. . . . “The pace of economic growth is picking up, but not to a rate that is very robust.” . . . Some of the recent headwinds—like a re-escalation of the euro zone crisis, households that are paying down their debt, and a falloff in growth in big emerging markets, like China and Brazil—remain. . . . “The soft patch could easily extend through year-end or almost a full year.” . . . The weaker-than-expected spring data has raised speculation that the Federal Reserve might announce a new round of bond buying this summer to spur growth. . . . Mr. Prakken said the initial unemployment claims “suggest that the labor market has not fallen out of bed.” He added, “There’s been a pause in hiring, a momentary pause in hiring.”
To be fair, the article does note a few minor reasons for optimism, such as lower oil prices and better auto sales. However, even the most optimistic projections in the article—such as Macroeconomic Advisers’ forecast that GDP growth will double from a horrendous 1.2 percent to a dismal 2.4 percent—aren’t exactly reasons to pop the champagne corks. You might think the tone of a headline should reflect what a story actually reports. But so long as Barack Obama is up for reelection, the New York Times is happy to make an in-kind donation to his campaign.
Sentences We Didn’t Finish
‘It was perhaps fitting that Representative Barney Frank met his future husband, Jim Ready, at a political fund-raiser in 2005. ‘I told him I had a crush on him for 20 years,’ said Mr. Ready, recalling that as a teenager . . . ” (New York Times, July 7).