There’s a bizarre moment in John Cassidy’s short New Yorker item on Paul Ryan. It’s not when Cassidy likens Ryan to Michele Bachmann or even when he claims that, by choosing Ryan, Romney “has thrown in his lot with the most ideological wing of his party.” That’s just Cassidy’s analysis, and while I’d argue that it’s not quite right, those of us who love the New Yorker do so in spite of its political opinions. The weirdness comes when Cassidy abandons even the pretense of fairness by describing the shop where Paul Ryan began his Washington career, Empower America, as a “pressure group.”
Because that’s not what Empower America was.
Empower America was a think tank. Washington is full of them and they come in all flavors. On the right there’s the American Enterprise Institute; on the left there’s the New America Foundation. On a giant island in the squishy left center is the Brookings Institution. Empower America was formed in January 1993—the first media mentions of it came the week before Bill Clinton was sworn in. It had Vin Weber as president, the triumvirate of Bill Bennett, Jack Kemp, and Jeane Kirkpatrick as principals, and was billed from the start at a think-tank/activist organization. Of course Empower America had a side—like nearly every other think tank in town.
But there is a difference between think tanks and “pressure groups.” To put it in politically neutral terms: Mothers Against Drunk Driving is a pressure group focused on a single goal; the Guttmacher Institute is a think tank because even though it’s affiliated with Planned Parenthood and has an agenda, it does research which contributes to the public square.
On the other hand, Cassidy’s characterization is so odd that in the thousands and thousands of times Empower America has been mentioned in media accounts on Nexis, it’s been referred to as a “pressure group” just nine times—and only twice in American media sources. (In 1996 an editorialist in the Chicago Tribune used the descriptor, as did a columnist in a 2003 edition of the Indianapolis Star.) Even liberal sources such as the American Prospect, the New Republic, and New York Magazine call it a “think tank.”
The characterization is misleading even by the New Yorker’s own standards: In the August 6 issue, Ryan Lizza described Empower America much more fairly (and accurately) as “an organization then in the vanguard of making policy for supply-side conservatives who were pushing Republicans rightward in their views on taxes and the size of government.” Isn’t that easy?
As it turns out, the only places I’ve been able to find that describes Empower America as a “pressure group” are fringe lefty web sites such as the lefty web wiki RightWeb, which has as its motto, “Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. policy.”
This may all seem like a mountain grafted onto a mole hill—it’s just one phrase in one small piece. But on the other hand, this is the New Yorker and some of us still love the book.
And while we don’t expect eminences at the New Yorker to vote for, admire, or even like conservatives, we do hope that they’ll at least wear the mask of fairness. Even during election season.