By Joe Conason
Someday the Democrats may learn an important lesson about the collective wisdom of the media in the nation’s capital: On important questions of policy and politics, the Washington press corps is almost always wrong. They are full of firm opinions about everything from clothing, haircuts and marital problems to political tactics, but the safest course is to ignore their advice.
At the moment, the most popular line among the certified pundits is that the congressional Democrats are too zealous in probing Bush administration corruption—and specifically the apparent politicization of the federal law-enforcement system by the White House and the Justice Department.
On television and in print, Washington’s wise folk warn that if the Democrats insist on dragging Bush deputy Karl Rove up to Capitol Hill to testify about the purging of eight United States attorneys, the public will turn on them. These finger-wagging journalists insist that Democrats must “legislate” rather than “investigate.”
On “The Chris Matthews Show” of March 25, for instance, host and guests agreed that the Democrats were demanding Rove’s testimony only to punish him. Time magazine managing editor Richard Stengel dismissed the unfolding scandal as “small-bore politics” and declared himself annoyed: “I am so uninterested in the Democrats wanting Karl Rove, because it is so bad for them. Because it shows business as usual, tit-for-tat vengeance. ... That’s not what voters want to see.” MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell chimed in: “The Democrats have to be very careful that they look like they’re not the party of investigation rather than legislation in trying to change things.”
None of those insights were original, as nearly identical warnings were issued by the likes of David Broder of The Washington Post and John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal. According to Broder—the “dean” of the Washington press corps, whose magnificently consistent wrongness dates back to the Nixon era—Democrats should beware of “tearing down an already discredited Republican administration with more investigations, such as the current attack on the Justice Department and White House over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.” Adam Nagourney informed New York Times readers that “the biggest question is, how far can Democrats go in opposing this president? The biggest risk is going so far that they feel the sting of a backlash—of being transformed from the fresh new face of change to the latest cast of Washington players enmeshed in partisan wrangling.”
How far the Democrats can go in opposing President Bush is assuredly not the “biggest question” in the U.S. attorneys scandal. The biggest questions at the moment revolve around the Fifth Amendment claim of Monica Goodling, a top aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who served as the liaison between him and his masters in the White House. Her fear of incriminating herself before the Senate Judiciary Committee should be embarrassing news for the pundits and editors who have dismissed this burgeoning crisis.
But then the Washington punditry has been reliably wrong about everything of consequence for many years, from Whitewater to weapons of mass destruction. For any sane politician, the “biggest risk” is listening to these people.
Since the substantive issues raised by the U.S. attorney purge—such as the political abuse of law enforcement by the White House and the false testimony of Attorney General Gonzales, among others—are of such scant interest to so many commentators, let’s focus instead on public opinion.
Every poll shows that American voters want Congress to fulfill its constitutional mandate to oversee the executive branch, which ran amok under the flaccid reign of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Most Americans are sick of this unaccountable presidency and show no signs of impatience with Democratic efforts to rein in the White House.
While the cable sages were castigating the Democrats for trying to “flog” Mr. Rove, the pollsters at CNN-USA Today were questioning voters. Their answers were decisive: By a margin of three to one, the respondents supported the issuance of those supposedly controversial subpoenas. Polls taken by other media organizations show that support for the president, Gonzales and, indeed, the Republican Party as an institution, are very, very low.
The Washington press corps is just as remote from American views and values as when it was howling for President Clinton’s head. By now, the Democrats should know that when these soothsayers warn against your present course, it is best to keep going straight ahead. And when they complain that you’re barking up the wrong tree, it is time to bark louder.
Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer
© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.