Nov 1 1994

David Broder and the Limits of Mainstream Liberalism

Several years ago, a Central America activist asked the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer: Who on his opinion page was the leftist who offset his regular offerings of George Will and Charles Krauthammer? David Broder, the editor replied.

Broder himself would quite properly deny this designation of “leftist.” But it is true that in the spectrum of opinion of leading syndicated columnists he is on the left.

In Sound and Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics, Eric Alterman points out that “Broder is the only non-right-wing pundit who begins to challenge the circulation numbers of the likes of Will, [James J.] Kilpatrick and [Patrick] Buchanan,” and that in the print media “the ‘responsible’ political dialogue on the Great Issues of the Day is thus often perceived to fall between Will on the one hand and Broder on the other.” How critical and how far left does the dialogue go with Broder as the limit?

Lazy Insider

David Broder has been a successful columnist partly because he writes in a readable style on topics of current interest, partly because he seldom offends or threatens anybody. He flatters the public, the media, leading politicians and the established order in general, while occasionally chiding each of these.

One of Broder’s favorite themes is the danger of reporters getting too close to their sources, and he congratulates the press (12/4/88) for “its determination to keep its distance from government, not only to avoid censorship, but to avoid co-optation.” He clearly puts himself in the class of outsiders who are “inquisitive, impudent, incorrigibly independent,” who “hold [government officials’] feet to the fire and devil them with questions and make them, if they can, explain and justify what they do.”

But Broder is describing somebody like the late I.F. Stone, or Robert Parry, who broke much of the Iran-Contra story while working for Associated Press–surely not himself. Broder’s columns never display a serious investigative effort. Nor does he seek out independent, critical sources: In his numerous articles on economics, for example, he never cites Ralph Nader, Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute, Robert McIntyre or Citizens for Tax Justice, or representatives of the Center for Defense Information.

Instead, he quotes spokespersons for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Hoover Institution, the Cato Institute, the Democratic Leadership Council’s Progressive Policy Institute and other conservative think tanks. The farthest left Broder goes in tapping policy institute sources is Brookings, now run by former Republican officials and safely in the establishment fold.

Broder relies heavily on government officials. He reports on interviews with Bush, Richard Cheney, Daniel Moynihan, William Gray, Lee Hamilton, Les Aspin, Colin Powell and William Bennett, and he cites many other officials. He never questions their motives, and with rare exceptions takes what they say at face value. On Reagan’s bombing of Libya in 1986, Broder assured his readers (4/20/86) that “Reagan has been insistent that every possible step be taken to spare the innocent,” an unverifiable claim of no value except as official propaganda.

Avoiding Issues

Unlike conservative counterparts such as Will, Krauthammer and William Safire, Broder has no agenda of issues that he presses. Instead, he shifts from topic to topic like a butterfly, touching lightly on a point of current interest and moving quickly on.

But he avoids many of the tough issues that the conservatives repeatedly address. He has dealt infrequently and gingerly with abortion, gender and sexual orientation issues. He had no column on civil rights during the Reagan years, when civil rights laws were gutted. Only one Reagan-era article devoted even a few paragraphs to environmental policy (7/25/82), criticizing the “environmental extremism of the Carter administration.”

He has had only passing phrases on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has been entirely silent on Guatemala and Chile. South Africa was also ignored by Broder in the Reagan/Bush years. He never discussed the apartheid system, South Africa’s assaults on its neighbors, Reagan’s policy of “constructive engagement” or U.S.-backed Angolan guerrilla Jonas Savimbi.

During the 1980s, Broder several times noted in passing that he opposed the Contra war in Nicaragua, but his only full column on the subject (8/19/87)lauded Reagan for finally “turning to diplomacy” and working on “a sounder premise than the maintenance of a mercenary army of ‘Contras.'” (In fact,Reagan’s “diplomacy” was seen in Central America as trying to undercut the efforts of regional governments to stop the war.)

Patting Republican Backs

Also unlike his conservative counterparts in their treatment of Democrats, Broder doesn’t attack or try to discredit Republican leaders; he leans over backwards to pat them on the back. Thus, Lee Atwater, the organizer of the Willie Horton campaign of 1988 is “tough and effective” (11/25/90); George Bush, ultimately responsible for the Horton ploy, did this despite a “life-long history of tolerance and decency in racial matters” (6/9/91).

Reagan himself was repeatedly lauded for his “presidential” qualities and “national leadership of a high order,” e.g., on Grenada and in pushing through his economic program (11/4/84), and any shortcomings were “overshadowed by the grace with which he functions as chief of state in moments of national tragedy and triumph” (12/22/85).

Broder is more severe on Democrats, except those hard to distinguish from Republicans (so-called “New Democrats”). For Broder (8/14/87), those who attacked the Bork appointment were “quick-lip liberals” who “pop off in opposition.” Jerry Brown, campaigning in 1992, was attacked (2/26/92) as a “loud-voiced protest candidate” offering left-wing populism and “phony salvation.”

Republicrat Policy Agenda

On issues where Broder is willing to stick his neck out, his differences with the Republicans are largely matters of style. On welfare and “family values,” Broder joined the Republican/New Democrat throng by trumpeting “the centrality of values like family stability, personal responsibility and work” — while downplaying economic conditions and racism (3/24/93). Broder strongly favored NAFTA on the ground that it represented society’s “winners” and would enlarge U.S. markets.

Broder was also extremely kind to the Reagan/Bush court appointees of the past decade, and raised no objection to the resultant ideological restructuring of the courts. Souter, for example, was “a superb choice–both substantively and politically” (7/27/90)–despite “grumbles from the political extremes.”

Except for the low-intensity Nicaraguan and Salvadoran conflicts, Broder got onto the war bandwagons of the Reagan/Bush era with enthusiasm. The Grenada invasion he found entirely justifiable based on our natural imperial rights (11/2/83): “We are old-fashioned enough to think that, even in a nuclear age, there are such things as spheres of influence and geographical areas of vital interest.”

Broder was equally keen on the Panama invasion of 1989. He criticized (1/14/90) an open letter to President Bush that called attention to the invasion’s violations of the U.N. Charter and OAS agreement, signed by “69 left-wing politicians and activists” (including former Sen. J.W. Fulbright). Broder dismissed it as “nonsense” and simply “static on the left.”

During the Gulf War, Broder exceeded himself in patriotic ardor, complaining of the Democrats’ “usual spectacle of disarray” in failing to give Bush immediate authority to fight (1/11/91), and accepting without question the administration’s false claim of an interest in a diplomatic solution to the crisis (8/19/90, 1/18/91, 4/10/91).

Independent Moments

Broder’s most independent moments were his attacks on Reagan’s economic program in the years 1981-84, in which he assailed Reagan (and the supportive Democrats) for a damaging policy mix that promised dire consequences. Over succeeding years, however, Broder’s focus was increasingly on the deficit and its threat alone, and the menace of “runaway entitlement spending” (1/2/94).

He also was initially ambivalent about Reagan’s military buildup, and occasionally hinted that its rate was excessive. But in the end he accepted the level of military outlays, and never spoke of a “runaway” military budget. Broder even lauded Reagan in retrospect for his military buildup, which made us ready for the Gulf War, and he expressed worry lest we shortchange our military establishment (8/29/90). The Republicans, wrote Broder in a final accolade to the Reagan/Bush years (1/17/93), “did not let America’s armed might wither away.”

Keeping Debate Within Bounds

David Broder has prospered as a syndicated columnist because, while a decent person, he never threatens the larger special interests — the “winners” whom he advises the Democrats to heed in contests like NAFTA. When his better instincts would lead to opposition, as in the case of the Contra war against Nicaragua, he remains exceedingly quiet and his tiny forays have no weight.

On most foreign and economic policy issues, Broder lines up with the conservatives. He relies heavily on official and conservative institutional sources, engages in minimal independent research, and rarely asks hard questions.

He even helps keep debates within proper bounds by castigating those who challenge establishment premises as extremists, or by simply ignoring them. In sum, David Broder is an ideal “leftist” for a media and political establishment that can’t even abide a serious liberal challenge.

Edward S. Herman is senior editor of Lies of Our Times and co-author with Noam Chomsky of Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the MassMedia. He is indebted to Adam Horowitz for research help on this project.