Mar 11 2011

Remembering David Broder

Despite non-ideological reputation, he pushed political culture to the right

Washington Post columnist and political reporter David Broder died on Wednesday, March 9. Broder was an enormously influential figure in Beltway media circles–“the best political reporter of his generations,” wrote his Post colleague Dan Balz (3/10/11). ABC‘s George Stephanopoulos declared (3/9/11) that “for generations of policy makers, journalists and political junkies, Broder was the gold standard.”

Broder’s work was frequently criticized, something that the Washington Post actually noted in an editorial honoring him (3/10/11):

Mr. Broder was often called “the Dean,” a position that is now likely to go unfilled in the Washington press corps. His detractors used the term sarcastically; they came mostly from the political left and found him much too moderate.

The Post suggested Broder’s worldview was probably due to “his temperamental aversion to ideology.” The Associated Press (3/10/11) wrote that his “even-handed treatment of Democrats and Republicans set him apart from the ideological warriors on U.S. opinion pages.” In the Los Angeles Times (3/10/11), Paul West wrote that in recent years “it became fashionable to disdain Broder’s centrist instincts and wariness of extreme political outsiders.”

The notion that Broder’s moderate “centrism” was not an ideology in itself is a common view in the media–and is totally mistaken. Broder expressed a strong point of view on a range of issues. The fact that such views are portrayed as an absence of ideology speaks volumes about the prevailing ideology of the mainstream media.

On U.S. wars

Broder was a consistent supporter of U.S. military attacks. From Extra! (11-12/94):

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).

A profile of Broder (Extra!, 7-8/98) noted that he praised Reagan/Bush Republicans because they “did not let America’s armed might wither away” (Washington Post, 1/17/93). A FAIR press release on post-9/11 punditry (9/17/01) noted that Broder issued a call for “new realism–and steel–in America’s national security policy”:

For far too long, we have been queasy about responding to terrorism. Two decades ago, when those with real or imagined grievances against the United States began picking off Americans overseas on military or diplomatic assignments or on business, singly or in groups, we delivered pinprick retaliations or none at all.

During the debate over escalating the Afghan War, Broder wrote, under the headline “Enough Afghan Debate” (11/15/09):

It is evident from the length of this deliberative process and from the flood of leaks that have emerged from Kabul and Washington that the perfect course of action does not exist. Given that reality, the urgent necessity is to make a decision–whether or not it is right.

And in an October 31, 2010 column, Broder wrote about threatening a war on Iran as an economic and domestic political strategy:

With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran’s ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve.I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected. But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history.


On Democrats

As a pundit so closely identified with centrism, Broder generally directed his criticism at Democrats who veered too far away from where he defined the “center”–which, in practical terms, amounts to calling for Democrats to move to the right. Broder (5/8/08) once maligned Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton for “playing a drag version of Dennis Kucinich, a beer-drinking populist.”

As Extra! (7-8/98) noted:

The paragon of establishment centrism, Broder has no attachment to the causes of the left and devotes much of his energy to making sure the Democrats don’t stray from the middle of the road. He criticized the “environmental extremism of the Carter administration” (Washington Post, 7/25/82), tarred Democrats who attacked the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork as “quick-lip liberals” who “pop off in opposition” (Washington Post, 8/14/87) and called Jerry Brown a “loud-voiced protest candidate” offering “phony salvation” (Washington Post, 2/26/92).

Writing about Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign (Extra!, 11-12/00), Broder accused him (11/5/00) of having “muddled its central message of economic prosperity with a shrill populist attack on corporate greed…. It allowed a man with a genuine history as a New Democrat to appear, at times, an old-fashioned liberal.”

Broder criticized Democratic presidential candidates who expressed any opposition to the Iraq War. Under the headline “Candidates Lacking a Real-World Clue,” Broder (6/7/07) lamented that they “brushed aside concerns about the impact of their votes to cut off funding for the troops in Iraq or the larger implications of a precipitous withdrawal from that country.” He went on to argue that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had been pushed left by “four long-shots” and John Edwards, and “have abandoned their cautious advocacy of a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces and now are defending votes to cut off support for troops fighting insurgents in Iraq.”

The constant advice for Democrats to move to the right continued during the Obama administration, as when Broder advised (11/4/10) Obama in the wake of the 2010 midterms to

return to his original design for governing, which emphasized outreach to Republicans and subordination of party-oriented strategies. The voters have in effect liberated him from his confining alliances with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and put him in a position where he can and must negotiate with a much wider range of legislators, including Republicans.

Sometimes Broder’s antipathy was more personal than political–as when Broder (8/19/98) explained that Bill Clinton was worse that Richard Nixon:

Clinton’s behavior is truly Nixonian. And it is worse in one way. Nixon’s actions, however neurotic and criminal, were motivated by and connected to the exercise of presidential power. He knew the place he occupied, and he was determined not to give it up to those he regarded as “enemies.” Clinton acted–and still, even in his supposed mea culpa, acts–as if he does not recognize what it means to be president of the United States.

Broder’s New York Times obituary (3/10/11) opened with the assessment that Broder “skillfully straddled the line between commentary and reportage.” Many paragraphs later, the Times noted:

During the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, he wrote critically of the president and later expressed his personal disdain for him in an interview. The Post curtailed his news reporting on the story.

On Republicans

Broder’s standard for Republicans often seemed very different. He applauded a Sarah Palin speech (2/11/10) for its “pitch-perfect populism.” He wrote of Newt Gingrich (9/20/07), ” if there is any politician of the current generation who has earned the label ‘visionary,’ it is probably the Georgia Republican and former speaker of the House.”

Like many in the corporate press, he was very fond of Sen. John McCain. He once wrote (4/24/08): “In an age of deep cynicism about politicians of both parties, McCain is the rare exception who is not assumed to be willing to sacrifice personal credibility to prevail in any contest.”

Two years later, Broder still had trouble letting go (FAIR Blog, 8/26/10). Under the headline “John McCain, Your Country Is Calling,” he explained that he wasn’t “bothered by the doctrinal compromises the senator made to convince Arizona voters that he was, in fact, a conservative. McCain has always been a realist, doing what was necessary to survive a North Vietnamese prison camp or a tough political trap.” So much for unwillingness to sacrifice personal credibility.

Broder often expressed fondness for George W. Bush (FAIR Media Advisory, 5/20/04), explaining that Bush “will not be deflected from his chosen course by criticism or evidence of public doubts about the wisdom of his policies.” This could be a good thing, since “this idealism forms an image of resolute leadership.”

Broder actually predicted two Bush “comebacks,” one right after Hurricane Katrina (9/4/05):

We cannot yet calculate the political fallout from Hurricane Katrina and its devastating human and economic consequences, but one thing seems certain: It makes the previous signs of political weakness for Bush, measured in record-low job approval ratings, instantly irrelevant and opens new opportunities for him to regain his standing with the public.

Shortly thereafter, under the headline “Bush Regains His Footing,” Broder wrote (2/16/07):

It may seem perverse to suggest that, at the very moment the House of Representatives is repudiating his policy in Iraq, President Bush is poised for a political comeback. But don’t be astonished if that is the case.

After Bush administration officials left office, Broder expressed alarm at the idea that they might be held accountable (Extra!, 11/09). While claiming that he supported “accountability for illegal acts and for serious breaches of trust by government officials,” Broder (9/3/09) argued that Attorney General Eric Holder’s appointment of a special prosecutor gave him pause, because “it is the first step on a legal trail that could lead to trials.” Broder asked: “Ultimately, do we want to see Cheney, who backed these actions and still does, standing in the dock?” The answer was no: “The cost to the country would simply be too great.”

On Economics

Broder’s “centrism” was often expressed in the form of attacking Democrats who drifted leftward on economic issues. Those who were critical of NAFTA-style trade pacts were “irresponsible” (8/12/07), for example.

Consistent with his frequent calls for greater bipartisanship, Broder called on Obama and the Democrats to make the stimulus bill more Republican-friendly. Broder (2/1/09) wrote that it was “really important for Obama to take the time to negotiate for more than token Republican support in the Senate…. Nothing was more central to his victory last fall than his claim that he could break the partisan gridlock in Washington.”

And Broder (10/24/10) expressed hope that right-wing austerity economics in the U.K could be adopted in the U.S. As noted in Extra! (1/11):

Broder praised Britain’s coalition government, led by Conservative prime minister David Cameron, for “boldly” enacting a “painful” austerity agenda and “brushing aside the warnings of economists that the sudden, severe medicine could cut short Britain’s economic recovery.” (He’s not exaggerating; economists–see Paul Krugman, New York Times, 10/22/10, or Dean Baker, Guardian, 10/25/10–indeed affirm that Britain’s plan to slash spending and raise taxes in the midst of a deep downturn is a recipe for economic disaster.)
Broder expressed hope that a Republican victory in November would allow a similar “breakthrough” to happen in the U.S.:

If Republicans emerge next month with sufficient leverage in the House and Senate to approach Obama with a proposition, they could insist that he “do a Cameron” when it comes to federal spending: a radical rollback now in the welfare state in return for a two-year truce on such policy questions as repeal of the healthcare law.The vehicle could well be Obama’s strong endorsement of the December 1 report from his fiscal responsibility commission, which is expected to emphasize spending discipline over raising revenue. This would offer major gains to both parties, and set the stage for another experiment in the British model.

Looking back on Broder’s work, it’s clear that he did indeed have ideologically based opinions on many issues, generally inclined toward pushing our political culture to the right. That Broder succeeded in getting people to think of this ideology as a non-ideology is perhaps his most impressive accomplishment as a writer.