Something’s Very Wrong with the Times

Copies of the New York Times sit for sale in a rack July 23, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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October 1, 2021 10:12 a.m.

I see myself as a friendly critic of The New York Times. It has all its shortcomings, which are many. But it also produces day in and day so much that, were it not to exist, we would be deeply impoverished as readers, as a country. Here though is an article which is so comically wrong in its basic understanding of events that I really do have to wonder what’s wrong with the publication’s DC bureau. Something there and really in the whole operation right up to the top is seriously wrong for this piece to have been published.

Let me republish the first three grafs …

President Biden’s trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure plan suffered a significant setback late Thursday night when House Democratic leaders, short of support amid a liberal revolt, put off a planned vote on a crucial plank of their domestic agenda.

Democratic leaders and supporters of the bill insisted the postponement was only a temporary setback. The infrastructure vote was rescheduled for Friday, giving them more time to reach agreement on an expansive climate change and social safety net bill that would bring liberals along.

But such a deal appeared far off, and the delay was a humiliating blow to Mr. Biden and Democrats, who had spent days toiling to broker a deal between their party’s feuding factions and corral the votes needed to pass the infrastructure bill. The president has staked his reputation as a deal-maker on the success of both the public works package and a far more ambitious social policy bill, whose fates are now uncertain in a Congress buffeted by partisan divides and internal Democratic strife.

The note of profound pessimism about the future of Biden’s agenda is one I do not share. But I don’t want to dwell on that because that’s a subjective read of a future none of us can see. The week has been filled with bleak moments and there’s been enough reversals of fortune that I won’t gainsay anyone’s pessimism.

But look at just the factual analysis here. The president’s goal throughout has been both bills. They both have to pass. The last week has appeared to be on a steady course toward decoupling the two bills, passing the BIF bill and then facing negotiations over a reconciliation bill with no leverage at all over the two Senate holdouts who seem increasingly happy to let the reconciliation bill die on the vine. This is far from over. But what really happened is that the threat to kill the BIF bill got the two holdouts or at least Joe Manchin to actually start negotiating. What the Times calls a “significant setback” and a “humiliating blow” is actually the two bills being recoupled which has been the White House’s aim literally for the entire time.

Reporters often overstate the importance of self-imposed deadlines. In this case, blowing this deadline is perfectly fine on all counts. But the confusion or willful confusion runs much much deeper.

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Again, I want to be clear. I’m not saying everything is perfect here for the Democrats or the White House. Far from it. It’s not a great thing to be so far over the barrel that simply getting the opposite side to agree to negotiate is a big win. But the outcome of yesterday is that first good news supporters of the President’s agenda have gotten in days. Not seeing that means having a profoundly distorted understanding of the most basic dynamics at play here.

There’s another point that is critical to understand. It’s one I’ve stressed several times over recent days. The House leadership was not whipping the BIF vote. Jim Clyburn, Majority Whip, made that clear again and again. The White House made clear that coupling the two bills was their policy and that they and the House Progressive Caucus were on the same side. In other words, the White House wasn’t whipping the votes for the BIF either. Please tell me this tells you something!

You can’t ‘revolt’ by doing something no one in authority ever told you not to do.

The White House and the leadership definitely want the BIF to pass. They want it to pass both because they want it to pass for policy reasons but also because it’s key to the passage of the reconciliation bill. The reconciliation bill is not going to be $3.5 trillion. Once there’s a global deal on what it will be there’s going to be some hard conversations to get everyone to vote for both given that the reconciliation number is less than many wanted. But that’s not where we were last night.

The problem was that the Senate hold outs weren’t negotiating at all. Last night wasn’t a setback at all. The deadline for the BIF vote was never something that House leadership or the White House wanted in the first place. It was forced on them. The threat to kill the BIF got the Senate hold outs to the negotiating table. That’s not a “humiliating” setback. That’s things actually getting back on track.

This is all a pretty serious misunderstanding about what the President’s agenda even is apparently, who the factions are in the President’s party and how they relate to each other. The author of the Times piece seems to have the idea that the President is trying to mediate between his party’s ‘moderates’ and ‘progressives’ and things got off track because the ‘progressives’ rebelled. As we’ve discussed a hundred times, that’s not what’s happening. Virtually the entire party is united on a plan and a couple senators and a handful of reps are holding out. The key drama of the past week was that the rest of the party was saying, ‘Fine, you won’t accept $3.5 trillion. Tell us what your counter is. Then we’ll discuss.’ The answer they were getting was. ‘No. Just pass our bill. Then we’ll see what happens.’

This has been a harrowing week. It will continue being harrowing. But last night was the first good news in a while. We can see here that official Washington, the establishment publications have a very skewed understanding of what’s actually happening and investments that incentive them to have such understandings. The city and its native press remain wired for Republicans.

LATE UPDATE: Remarkable additional data point here. This is from another article, this time from David Leonhardt who does a lot of great writing and reporting for the Times. Look at this passage …

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had been insisting throughout the day that the vote would happen. It was one of the few times in her almost two decades as the leader of House Democrats that she did not appear to be in control of her caucus, reminiscent of the chaos that has instead tended to surround House Republicans this century.

“It’s a serious setback,” Carl Hulse, The Times’s chief Washington correspondent, told me, “but I don’t think it’s the end of the effort.”

Perhaps the most surprising part of last night’s developments is that many analysts believe that congressional Democrats have made progress toward a deal over the past 24 hours — even if they are not there yet, and the talks could still collapse.

Note here the same storyline: a terrible setback for the Democrats, a loss of control, etc. Then tacked at the bottom they note – apparently paradoxically – that even while the walls crash down around the Democrats they’re making progress on a deal. You expect a light to go off in which the authors realize that the two things are related – that the refusal to pass the BIF, which the party leaders were at least passively backing, lead to the progress of negotiations. You’d expect but your expectation, alas, would be in vain.

If only …
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