There's frequently a challenge associated with scrutinizing Ron Fournier's columns. On the one hand, his commentary is often emblematic of a misguided train of thought that warrants a serious rebuttal, lest others take his analysis seriously.
On the other hand, my fear is the political world's near-constant exasperation with the rigid ideologue becomes self-defeating -- people criticize Fournier's persistently disappointing work, which draws attention to Fournier's work, which leads to clicks and pageviews, which leads the editors and publishers at National Journal to think Fournier is doing a terrific job driving a spirited public conversation.
Indeed, though I can't be sure, I often wonder if the political columnist himself realizes at a certain level that that the more tedious his work is, the more attention he receives. It creates an unfortunate cycle: by highlighting Fournier's errors of fact and logic, we indirectly encourage Fournier to make more errors of fact and logic through a twisted system of incentives and rewards.
Having said all of that, let's grudgingly consider his latest column
, "The Extraordinary Smallness of Washington," which includes what Matt Yglesias referred to
as "the worst two paragraphs about American politics you'll read today."
On health care, we needed a market-driven plan that decreases the percentage of uninsured Americans without convoluting the U.S. health care system. Just such a plan sprang out of conservative think tanks and was tested by a GOP governor in Massachusetts, Mitt Romney. Instead of a bipartisan agreement to bring that plan to scale, we got more partisan warfare. The GOP resisted, Obama surrendered his mantle of bipartisanship, and Democrats muscled through a one-sided law that has never been popular with a majority of the public.
This is a classic of the genre. For Fournier, bipartisanship is always right, even when it's wrong, and both sides are always to blame, even when blaming both sides is incoherent given reality.
In the case of health care, Fournier believes the nation needed a plan patterned after Mitt Romney's Massachusetts model, springing from Heritage Foundation research. We know, of course, that Fournier is describing the Affordable Care Act almost exactly. In effect, Fournier is both endorsing "Obamacare," describing it as the kind of plan Americans needed, while simultaneously dismissing the same law and those who "muscled through" the legislation.
It is true that we did not get a bipartisan agreement. It is true that the GOP resisted. It is true that the law is unpopular. But Obama didn't surrender his mantle of bipartisanship. The GOP took it away from him. They took it away from his as part of a deliberate strategy. They knew, as Fournier says right in this very column, that a big bipartisan health reform would be more popular than a big partisan health reform. So since Republicans didn't want Obama to be popular, they had every incentive to refuse to reach a bipartisan agreement. And thus no agreement was reached. But regardless of the process used to get there, Obama and congressional Democrats delivered exactly the kind of reform Fournier says America needed. Shouldn't they be congratulated?
Apparently not. Creating sound and effective public policy is nice, but bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship is even better. Sure, the White House may have pleaded with Republicans to work cooperatively with him, but since GOP lawmakers refused as part of a broader, deliberate strategy, this necessarily means, in Ron Fournier World, that the president "surrendered his mantle of bipartisanship," even as Obama remained committed to bipartisanship.
It's worth emphasizing that the rest of Fournier's column continues along these lines. The Beltway pundit describes what's needed on immigration policy, energy policy, fiscal policy, and economic policy, effectively endorses an Obama-like vision, then wraps up with the obligatory "blame both sides" paragraph.
"Is the GOP responsible for the extraordinary smallness of Washington? How about the Democrats? The answer is, yes -- both are. While I would personally place a majority of the onus on a hardened GOP base, parsing the blame doesn't solve the problem."
Actually, accountability and responsibility from respected journalists does help solve the problem, at least insofar as the public gains a better appreciation for what's ailing the political system that seems to disgust nearly everyone. In order to cure a disease, we must understand the symptoms and the cause. Dismissing the details as unimportant moves us further from meaningful results.
Indeed, the irony of the "blame both sides" trope is that it encourages the very dysfunction it condemns. As Yglesias concluded, "It's precisely because of columns like this one that it made narrow political sense for the GOP to abjure compromise. Why bargain if any failure to reach agreement will be blamed on the president?"