Behind the Curtain

You can never understand national politics without understanding the elite mores of Washington, DC. People toss around the word “elite.” But here I mean it in a more specific sense of the mix of journalists, staffers, elected officials, lobbyists, activists and more who have power in and essentially run the political town of Washington, DC. (The actual place where most of the population lives is a different thing.) As I’ve written in various contexts over the years that strata of the city remains heavily wired for the GOP, even though there are lots of people from that world who certainly aren’t conservatives and by definition many are Democrats. I wanted to flag something to you that kind of captures it.

Yesterday I got two emails from Axios, both of which ran with headlines about the “big story” being Republicans getting ready to take “revenge” against Democrats for subpoenaing Kevin McCarthy and his colleagues. The GOP “plans revenge”; the GOP’s “Jan 6 payback.” This was, as they put it in their argot, the “big story.” Every Axios newsletter yesterday seemed to run with some version of that.

As a factual matter, there’s little question that Republicans will make this and the whole investigation into their new grievance in which they’ve been victimized and now need to even the score. But of course, framing the matter this way and making it the “big story” makes the whole story into a back and forth escalation of tit for tats. One must ask, revenge for what?

The January 6th insurrection did happen. It was a violent assault on the U.S. capital, a seditious conspiracy. McCarthy himself is not even accused of anything. Indeed, his dark secret is that he wasn’t part of it and actually was really pissed about what was happening in real time. He’s being subpoenaed because he’s refused to answer questions as a witness. Jan. 6th happened. It was a violent insurrection. There’s an investigation into it. He refuses to testify. It seems like a rhetorical or inherently partisan question but again, revenge for what?

Defendants often want revenge against the judge. But you don’t usually see news stories headlined: “Oh boy! The judge is sure gonna get it!” The Axios stories on this read a bit like if you had a household newspaper in a home with an abuser: Janey knew dad gets really, really mad before she asked him to stop hitting mommy.

So I was pleasantly surprised that Punchbowl, the latest or still relatively recent entrant in the DC insider newsletter world, had a rather different take: “Yes, it’s unprecedented to subpoena members of Congress in a non-ethics case, there’s no question about that. Or to issue subpoenas to multiple members as part of a group. But you know what else is unprecedented? An insurrection at the Capitol in an effort to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.”

Punchbowl has the rightly respected old pro John Bresnahan as one of the founders. So that probably keeps them a bit more on track. But the Axios perspective is certainly the more dominant one in town, if it is somewhat more egregious than most. It’s an illustration of how these attitudes and viewpoints profoundly shape how news is covered and the assumptions that are baked into it.

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