Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


New Kid on the Block

By Shawn Healy
A feature story on White House adviser David Axelrod's personal ties to his adopted home town. An investigative piece on a private firm's profits from the City of Chicago's controversial parking meeting sell-off. A lengthy lament about the Chicago Bears long slide from the Super Bowl Shuffle of 1985. All part of a quick perusal of today's Chicago Tribune, right? Well then, you must be speaking of the Sun-Times! Wrong again.

There's a new kid on the local journalism block known as the Chicago News Cooperative. The entity debuted this month by producing a biweekly local insert for the New York Times, and promises a content-rich web site available on a subscription basis next year. Led by former Tribune and Los Angeles Times editor Jim O'Shea, the CNC boasts a staff of 13, with heavy representation by fellow Tribune expatriates. They include Jim Warren, another past Tribune managing editor and current publisher of the weekly Chicago Reader, city hall reporter Dan Mihalopoulos, and business columnist David Greising.

The CNC is paid by the New York Times for their services, but also received seed money from the MacArthur Foundation and Chicago Community Trust. They anticipate being self-sustaining in 5 years, financed largely through subscription-based fees totaling an estimated $2 per week. The fee will provide more than web access to CNC material, offering to organize networking groups, soliciting original content, and assisting with op-ed drafting and placement.

The Times is interested in winning back disaffected readers, but O'Shea and company, many who left the Tribune on less than amicable terms, must be bent on sticking it to their former employers, correct? O'Shea dismisses the notion outright, according to a November 23 Times article: "I would be doing this even if I had never worked fro them, and I saw a need. We've got to figure out how to do serious journalism and pay for it, that's what's motivating me."

Warren, a CNC reporter, was less reserved in his motivations: "In (the Tribune's) mind, they've made it a more populist, utilitarian paper, and I think they've made it narrower, more lightweight, fueled by reflexive suspicion of the traditional ideas of traditional journalism."

Two weeks in, this casual observer is both impressed with the CNC's contributions to local reporting, but skeptical that their two-page insert represents the death knell for the Tribune or the Sun-Times. Count the latter's Laura Washington among the cynics.

As I've said repeatedly in previous posts, my contention is that there is no panacea for the broken economic model of traditional journalism. Efforts like the CNC to plug holes and break new ground should be commended, and better yet, funded.

Democracy wins when serious public affairs reporting flourishes. In my mind, two newspaper towns are inherently better than a one horse show, mostly because competition forces dailies to take risks and carve out their own independent niches. With both the Tribune and Sun-Times emerging from bankruptcy, and the potential peril this entails, not to mention the lighter menu of stories both now offer, there is certainly room on local readers' plates for more hard-hitting content.

Tribune managing editor Gerould Kern welcomes the challenge: "There's more competition every day, all the time, from every direction. So our view is, we will compete with anyone, any time, any place, and we believe we will win."

Gerry, we root for your success, and recognize that a rising tide lifts all readers.


Senate Sextet

By Shawn Healy

On Saturday, the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate brought health care reform to the floor of the body with a strict party line vote, 60-39, the bare minimum to stave off a Republican-led filibuster. Unlike the House, a supermajority is often required to pass legislation in the Senate to invoke cloture and prevent the opposition’s stalling tactics, igniting floor debate and often a roll call vote. Democrats hold a firm 58 seats in the current Senate, with two independents also joining their caucus for a fragile filibuster-proof majority. Any fracture to this coalition requires bi-partisan support, a difficult proposition in what has become an intensely polarized body.

Political scientist Keith Krehbiel developed the “pivotal politics” model more than a decade ago in a quest to examine the problem of legislative gridlock that rose to the common vernacular during the Reagan-Bush era. Clinton’s election in 1992, coupled with the Democratic Party’s hold on Congress, stirred excitement that gridlock would end with the return of unified control. To these proponents’ chagrin, however, little changed, and divided government returned shortly thereafter with the G.O.P.’s 1994 takeover of Congress. Something was amiss, and Krehbiel sought a more simplistic explanation for gridlock that transcended party control. Enter the “pivotal politics” model.

The model centers on the median voter in Congress, but also accounts for presidential preferences, institutional features like the filibuster in the Senate, and the veto pen wielded by the President. The pivotal players in Congress are the median voter, those near the sixty vote margin necessary to end extended debate in the Senate through cloture, and those near the two-thirds threshold necessary to override a presidential veto. All of these preferences are placed on a unidimensional line, thus the simplicity of the model. Elections are the dynamic force where these preferences can shift along the line.

A particularly compelling element is its ability to explain the productivity that usually accompanies the presidential honeymoon, the inevitable decline, even the lame duck status at the end of the second term. Presidents typically have coattails (Clinton and George W. Bush, excepted) and thus have favorable ideological alignments behind their programs upon entering office. The first hundred days is a natural outgrowth of this arrangement. The inevitable decline centers on this initial movement away from the status quo, leaving less to accomplish other than nibbling at the margins. Midterm losses are typically inevitable for the party of the President, and his productivity is thus undermined by the new ideological arrangement in Congress that emerges. Lame duck status is thus the logical outcome.

Krehbiel rejects party-based explanations for maintenance of the status quo or gridlock. While refusing to dismiss their significance entirely, he suggests that they are not integral to a “good theory of lawmaking.” Gridlock is instead a product of an ideologically moderate status quo, supermajority requirements in Congress, and the heterogeneous preferences of legislators.

How does Kriebel’s model illuminate the contemporary debate? Given that the House has already passed a reform bill, all eyes are on the Senate. The President made health care reform the centerpiece of his agenda, so the threat of a veto is non-existent, his signature on anything remotely smelling of reform inevtitable. The pivot is centrally located at the filibuster, or the sixtieth vote. By my calculation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can count on 56 votes for the legislation as it now stands, sufficient for passage assuming the opposition does not filibuster. Given the stakes involved, I find a truce unlikely.

Those 56 votes exclude three Democrats and one independent, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson and Lieberman are both adamantly opposed to the public option, a staple of the current legislation. Arkansas Democratic Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mary Landrieu of Arkansas and Louisiana, respectively, also have major concerns about the bill as it stands. All four are moderates and stand near the 60-vote threshold of the Senate’s ideological continuum. Any attrition from this group would require Reid to reach across the aisle, and likely the filibuster pivot, to recruit one or more moderate Republicans. Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are perhaps the only two possibilities, so Democratic defection greater than two equals defeat.

Given the concerns voiced by Snowe for one about the public option as it now stands, her vote can only be won through a change to a state-based trigger mechanism instead of an opt-out as it now stands. Nelson and Lieberman seek its removal altogether, a deal-breaker for the more liberal members of the party and its voting base. For legislation to pass before Christmas or prior to the President’s State of the Union speech in January, I predict either a further neutered public option or a 56-44 vote with the four Democratic caucus members voting against the bill, but also in favor of cloture.

Through it all, keep your eyes on the pivot, for a sextet of Senators hold the keys to the fate of health care reform in America.


Democratic Debate Times Two

By Shawn Healy
Last month, I attended and reported on the Republican Gubernatorial Debate at the Union League Club. Yesterday, I had the privilege of sitting in on a smaller discussion of their Democratic counterparts who are in a pierced battle for one of the more difficult leadership positions in the country. Incumbent Governor Pat Quinn and State Comptroller Dan Hynes went head-to-head for more than an hour in a debate moderated by ULC Public Affairs Committee member Chris Robling. A recap follows, including an issue-by-issue comparison of these two Springfield titans.

Quinn was sworn in as governor on January 29 of this year, but has a long resume in Illinois politics, serving previously as Lieutenant Governor, Treasurer, and also as a Commissioner on the Cook County Board of Tax Appeals, and as the City of Chicago's revenue director. He acknowledged at the outset that he assumed office under "unusual" circumstances, but has since presided over a "year of reform" that includes a commitment to "strong, touch ethics laws," "grass roots democracy," and to "strengthen the integrity of Illinois state government." He touted his previous service as state treasurer during similarly tough economic times, and his work across the aisle with former Republican Governor Jim Edgar.

Hynes is in the midst of his third term as State Comptroller. He has worked on consumer and taxpayer advocacy, government accountability, and long-term budget reform. The state's Rainy Day Fund is the most prominent example of the former. Hynes admitted up front that he is neither electrifying, charismatic, nor dynamic, yet labeled this election not a coronation, but a choice. Neither man was elected to the position, and he said the state's budget crisis demands immediate solutions that will not harm the middle class.

Quinn and Hynes on the issues (in the order they addressed the audience):

  • Hynes: Highlighted the need to raise more revenue immediately. In the short term, he would raise cigarette taxes and close corporate income tax loopholes. Down the road, he would move toward a progressive income tax (Illinois is one of seven states with a flat tax), but nix tax increases on families that make less than $200,000 annually.
  • Quinn: Echoes each of Hynes on each of these points, but criticized him for being a late comer to progressive taxation, citing his opposition as recently as 2004.
Budget Cuts
  • Quinn: Claims to have made more budget cuts than any governor in Illinois history.
  • Hynes: Suggests that Quinn's cuts are laden with gimmicks, including delayed spending and borrowing.
Free Transit Fares for Seniors
  • Hynes: Open to means testing seniors for free fares; laments the annual Chicago Transit Authority funding crisis and touts the need for a comprehensive solution to this broader problem.
  • Quinn: Free rides should stay; negotiated a short-term solution to this year's installment of the transit crisis last week.
Furloughs for State Employees
  • Quinn: Implemented 12 days of layoffs for state employees this year as a means of avoiding layoffs. Turned to public pensions, and suggested a "two-tier" plan for incoming employees, presumptively at less lucrative levels of compensation.
  • Hynes: Promised to fund pensions properly; highlighted that fact that it was done via borrowing this year.
  • Hynes: Scolded its underfunding by billions and the fact that doctors are fleeing the state as a result.
  • Quinn: Providers have been reimbursed since he was elevated to governor, and as a sign of his commitment to universal health care, he walked the state a decade ago in support of legislation sponsored by former State Senator Barack Obama.
Guantanamo Detainees in Thomson, IL
  • Hynes: Supports Obama's efforts to close Guantanamo, and open to the use of the Thomson facility, a maximum security facility.
  • Quinn: Also supportive, but acknowledges public safety concerns and urges that terrorists be punished for their actions.
Education Funding
  • Quinn: Proper funding with accountability; jobs with follow brainpower; the state income tax should fund our schools and simultaneously provide property tax relief.
  • Hynes: Echoes the excessive reliance on property taxes; cements the notion that we invest in schools for pre-K through college.
School District Consolidation
  • Hynes: Open to the process, but emphasizes the need to create a comprehensive solution through consultation with local leaders.
  • Quinn: Need more consolidation: too many inefficiencies given the large number of single-school districts.
Campaign Finance Reform
  • Quinn: Lifelong commitment to issue; will soon sign historic bill that will continue this mission.
  • Hynes: Began movement to end pay-to-play through state contracts four years ago.
Negative Ads
  • Hynes: His ads are about the central issue of this campaign--the budget, and the taxes to close the operating deficit.
  • Quinn: 85% of Hynes' ads are negative attack ads, and Quinn has a duty to defend himself, for he "can't have folks on the sideline sniping."
Relationship to Blagojevich
  • Quinn: Testified against gross receipts tax and trumpeted the recall amendment, both Blagojevich prerogatives.
  • Hynes: Quinn refused to take on his two-time running mate until they were re-elected; Hynes stood up to Blagojevich during his first term for reckless spending ("Some stood silent, others stood up").
Relationship to Speaker Michael Madigan
  • Hynes: Need to build consensus, but take on tough fights when necessary; any idea with merit can make it through the General Assembly, but credibility and consistent leadership is pivotal.
  • Quinn: Need to get along; Quinn has a record of productivity with the legislature.
Death Penalty
  • Quinn: Keep for heinous crimes; need for reform and to measure its impact; lift moratorium later.
  • Hynes: Essentially an identical position.
As these issue exchanges attest, the differences between Quinn and Hynes are at the margins. Instead, this is a contrast of personalities and political skills. From the sheer perspective of debate performance, Hynes claimed at least a narrow victory. His responses were clear and to the point, and his opening closing statements were well-prepared and smoothly delivered. Quinn, on the other hand, showed less focus and often drifted from the questions posed. Both place forth formidable qualifications for office, and either man will be a worthy opponent for whoever emerges from the crowded field of Republican contenders.

Eleven weeks remain until the February 2nd primary, and Quinn and Hynes will likely ring in the holiday season with continued broadsides and head-on collisions like yesterday's standoff. It is clear from this casual observer that there is no love lost between the two. Perhaps a Christmas truce will soon be in order.


Illinois Civic Health Index

By Shawn Healy
The political climate in Illinois is nothing less than a national embarrassment. Last January, we impeached and removed our sitting Governor from office. Come next June, he will face trial on charges that will likely lead to imprisonment, making him the 4th of the last 7 Illinois governors to go from the executive mansion to the jailhouse. Our state faces a $10 billion structural deficit, and generations have grown up alongside a pay-to-play culture perpetuated by systemic corruption. It therefore comes as little surprise that our citizens look elsewhere for political leadership or withdraw from the public arena altogether. A new report released today by the National Conference on Citizenship (NCOC) confirms these ugly facts.

The NCOC has published the National Civic Health Index since 2006, and began releasing select state supplements last year in Florida, Ohio, and California. Today, with funding from the McCormick Foundation and the skill and expertise of the Freedom Project, the NCOC releases its first Illinois Civic Health Index.

Among the lowlights:
  • Trust in Illinois state government is at a serious low. Only 15% of Illinoisians said they believed the state government did the right thing most of the time, compared to 27% nationally.
  • Illinoisans have been cutting back on civic engagement for years, and at a faster pace that the rest of the country. In 2006, state residents were more likely to volunteer than the national average. These trends flipped to less likely in 2009, with 24.9% volunteering statewide, and 26.5% nationally. From 2003 to 2006 alone, there was a 22% reduction in Illinoisans' volunteer hours.
  • In 2009, state residents cut back volunteering by 76%, higher than the 72% national average.
  • Illinois Millennials (ages 15-29) also showed lower levels of engagement than their national peers. 77% reveal cutbacks since 2008 as opposed to 71% nationally.
  • Not only do Illinois Millennials volunteer at a lower rate than their generational cohorts (39%), Gen-Xers (47%) and Seniors (48%), they also trail their peers nationally.
  • In fact, Millennials lead the way in terms of volunteerism nationally (43% participation).
At play are two dual forces that are catastrophic for citizens of the Land of Lincoln. One, the deepest recession in a generation has forced Americans to focus inward, and Illinois has been disproportionally affected by these devastating economic forces. Two, endemic corruption punctuated by scandals at all levels of government in Illinois (city, county, and state), have bred apathy and widespread disengagement. Why participate in a system fixed for the powerful few?

This dearth of depressing information considered, there were a few bright spots that emerged from the gloomy data. While citizens have lost faith in Springfield, they are willing to ask Washington to rectify our civic health deficit.
  • 75% of Illinoisans support a policy that would require all state high school students to complete community service.
  • 72% endorse a requirement for all high school students to pass a new government or civics test.
  • 89% back a proposal to provide college tuition assistance for service.
I might humbly suggest that the answer to our deficit lies closer to home. The obvious policy solutions have already been pursued, some of them enacted, and others on the verge. They include greater transparency in the business of state government, a strengthened Freedom of Information Act, and campaign finance reform, but are by no means a panacea. We must also find a way to bring young people back into the system, and a renewed commitment to civic education is the preferred course.

The Illinois Civic Blueprint, a product of the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition and the Freedom Project, provides a framework to restore of state's schools to their original purpose: to prepare young people for their roles as citizens in self-government. It marries civic education providers with school districts across the state, offering professional development for teachers and civic learning opportunities for students. It features schools across the state who are already leading the way. It puts forth a process, a "civic audit," by which school teams can assess the degree to which civics is incorporated across the curriculum based on six promising approaches, identifying deficiencies along the way and providing the resources to rectify them. Finally, it elevates exemplary institutions with "Democracy School" recognition.

The question to Illinois citizens and their elected officials is this: Are you sick and tired of the morass that has blanketed this formerly proud state on account of leaders who have continually failed and flaunted the public trust? We provide the answers today when we encounter these grim details, tomorrow when we take civic action, and next year when we flock to the polls, and I am hopeful that the next measurement of our civic health is the first indicator of a welcome and long-awaited renewal.



By Shawn Healy
For the political animals amongst us, Washington, DC epitomizes the pinnacle of the profession. There's something mystical about our nation's capital, from the Capitol Rotunda to the monuments by moonlight to the White House rose garden. Each of us remembers our first glance at the Executive Mansion, how small we felt next to Lincoln's statue as we reread the Gettysburg Address we memorized in grade school, and being baffled by L'Enfant's layout of streets by number, letter, and state.

Matt Latimer went to Washington with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a young conservative as the Republican Party consolidated power for the first time in two generations. His memoir, Speechless: Tales of a White House Survivor, is an account of his early career as a Capitol Hill staffer, campaign manager, and speech writer for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President George W Bush. His tell-all tale is both eye-opening and disillusioning, for he departs DC every bit as defeated as his beleagured party and seeks retrospective clarity in this simultaneously humorous and unfortunate recount of a young man who ascended to the highest thresholds of power.

Latimer was raised in Michigan by two devoutly Democratic parents, but somehow evolved into a rock-ribbed conservative who worshiped all things Republican. Always supportive, they paid his way to attend the 1996 Republican National Convention, his first foray into politics. Among his funny anecdotes were the awkward welcoming committee for nominee Bob Dole as he sailed up to the convention site, his encounter with Mary Matalin when he told her that he read her book five times, and his endless infatuation with Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson.

From San Diego he landed in Washington, working as a staffer for home state Senator Spence Abraham, then a local congressman, and back to the Senate in Jon Kyl's office. He eventually parlays this into a speechwriting job in the Pentagon, and is exposed firsthand to the inner turmoil of the Bush White House and their war operations. Secretary Rumsfeld emerges as a highly competent and sympathetic character who is a fall guy for a badly bungled war. Robert Gates' arrival spurred Latimer to look elsewhere, and the White House was his final destination.

He enters 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue during the final years of the Bush presidency on the heels of the Democratic takeover of Congress and Nixonian approval ratings. He works closely with the President and presents him as a fun-loving and earnest leader, but one who places more emphasis on decisiveness than accuracy and who is surrounded by men and women selected on the basis of loyalty, not competency.

Karl Rove lived up to his "Darth Vader" stereotypes, a scheming, petty "architect" insistent on getting his way even when the facts point the opposite direction. Latimer anticipated learning from this highly regarded guru, but instead was glad to see him go and even skipped Rove's final send-off.

Vice President Cheney, on the other hand, emerges as a down-to-earth, grounded voice of conservative reason. Latimer recalls Cheney waiting in line with the masses in the White House mess, ordering his own cup of coffee, even asking for the cold remnants of the cup he was holding be "nuked."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is held high as an influential voice, second only to Laura Bush. Latimer claims that it was widely known that the First Lady was only nominally a Republican. He left feeling the same way about her husband after a stunning session when Bush claimed ignorance about any association with the conservative movement.

Some of the other inside baseball stories that emerged included the president's take on the 2008 race to replace him. Though Bush failed to take sides in the primary process, Latimer speculated that he and Rove favored former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. He reluctantly sided with John McCain, recognizing that his legacy was tied to the campaign of the Arizona Senator. Bush continually questioned their strategies, from closing a joint Phoenix fundraiser to the public (Latimer claims McCain failed to fill the required number of seats) to insisting on a remote address to the Republican National Convention to the surprise pick of Sarah Palin as VP. Bush repeatly characterized the latter as "interesting" and recognized from the outset that she would struggle with national media exposure once the proverbial "flower fell off."

On the Democratic side, Bush expected Hillary Clinton to win the nomination all along, and repeatly made statements to the effect that he couldn't wait until she seated her fat *** in the Oval Office and faced the real problems he confronted every day. Bush considered Obama ill-prepared for the rigors of the White House, but the rest of course is history.

Latimer ends his political journey in a Virginia voting booth of all places. He detested John McCain, yet considered himself a lifelong Republican and committed conservative. He was sympathetic to the enthusiasm of his young nephew toward Obama, and recalled his mom's crossover vote for Bush 41 in 1992 on his behalf so not to cancel out his first presidential vote. He alternates levers between McCain and Obama, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions after confronting this disconcerting vignette.

My money is on Obama, and Latimer will likely face this question and others during the Freedom Project's program in partnership with the Chicago Young Republicans this coming Thursday at the Cubby Bear. Titled "Reinventing Republicans," Latimer will pair with Reihan Salam of Grand New Party fame to articulate the future of the wounded and diminished party they call home.

In the end, Latimer fell victim to the clash between idealism and political reality. On one level, politics is poetry, the stuff of ideological purity and doctrinal domination. Campaigns embody these qualities now more than ever. In reverse, and often in practice, politics is prose, the hard work and pragmatic attempts to do the nation's business of governing. Latimer was disillusioned by this realization, and his book is a shot of restoring a reasonable balance between the two.


Grand New Party

By Shawn Healy

In the aftermath of successive bludgeonings at the polls in 2006 and 2008, there has been no shortage of post-mortem assessments of what plaques the Republican Party. Some suggest that unified Democratic control of Washington is a product of self-inflicted Republican scandals, the Bush Administration’s incompetence at home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan, an abandonment of the fiscal discipline central to party dogma, and in 2008, a flawed messenger in Senator John McCain.

As the Republican Party clings to the remaining vestiges of its power, namely a regional base in the Deep South, recent debates have centered on whether it should seek to build a “big tent” or retreat to ideological purity. Should they work with a barrier-breaking and popular president of the opposing party or throw a wrench in his agenda when opportunities arise? Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, in their 2008 book Grand New Party (Anchor Books, paperback and updated version in 2009), prefer an alternative strategy, one that seeks to bring working class workers of every racial background into the party’s fold in order to construct a permanent majority.

Their narrative begins with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Douthat and Salam suggest that FDR’s policies were fundamentally pro-family and placed a premium on self-sufficiency and work. The working class was their primary beneficiary, and in the process, the Democratic Party cemented its hold on this demographic for a generation. It wasn’t until Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society pushed policies that the authors argue offered perverse incentives that impeded family formation and individual initiatives, coupled with social turbulence, that working class voters were driven toward Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, a group he called the “Silent Majority.”

Nixon’s passions lied in the realm of foreign policy, and despite some early efforts to address working class concerns through a negative income tax, their demands were largely ignored, their votes taken for granted. This opened the door for Jimmy Carter’s one-time trial in 1976, but Ronald Reagan brought them back into the Republican fold in 1980 and 1984, and allowed his predecessor George HW Bush to win in 1988 on his coattails. Reagan remains the template by which Republicans measure themselves, and their memories of him focus on ideological, doctrinaire purity.

Douthat and Salam claim this hindsight is fundamentally flawed, for Reagan didn’t seek to disassemble the social safety net, but instead oversaw increases in spending, be they scaled back significantly. It was Reagan who signed legislation creating the Earned Income Tax Credit, a scaled back realization of Nixon’s negative income tax, and whose pro-family agenda resonated with working families struggling to make ends meet.

George HW Bush’s country club Republicanism, try as he did, failed to hold blue collar affection, opening the door for Ross Perot in 1992 to siphon away working class votes and deliver the presidency to Bill Clinton. Bob Dole’s 1996 challenge to his incumbency reverted to the tried and true tenets of fiscal and social conservatism, and his party was sentenced to four more years of a president who brilliantly usurped issues in their sweet spot via his “Third Way” agenda.

The authors consider George W Bush’s presidency, more than anything else, as a lost opportunity. His 2000 campaign premised on “compassionate conservatism” showed promise, but he faced an unanticipated challenge on the left from McCain, rather than the right of center attacks he expected from publisher Steve Forbes. They hold No Child Left Behind, warts and all, as the sole working class entreaty, as tax cuts became the all-encompassing mantra, and 9-11 pushed all domestic issues of the table. His failed Social Security privatization planned signaled premature lame duck status.

Though Douthat and Salam wrote in advance of the 2008 presidential outcome, the new preface to the paperback edition to their book addresses lessons from a year ago. They found McCain a failed candidate who never articulated a coherent domestic agenda and ceded a cake walk to his largely untested opponent. They proceed to offer a vision for the future of the Republican Party moving forward, one that forever stops the working class party pinball by pursuing tax policies that reward family creation and child bearing; market-based health care reforms that provide a conservative answer to the public option but address a genuine middle class anxiety; immigration reform that focuses on border control and naturalization policies sensitive to the needs of the labor market; universal school choice coupled with the decentralization of teaching from pre-K through higher ed; and land use policies that utilize a largely untapped frontier for uses (energy, not agriculture) demanded by urbanites.

As the Republican Party celebrates its first dose of good news in five years in the form of separate gubernatorial triumphs by conservative candidates in states that voted for Obama last fall (New Jersey and Virginia), it also likes its wounds from a bloody battle for an open House seat in Upstate New York, where a Democrat won for the first time since the Grant Administration. Governors-elect Bob McDonnell in Virginia, and Chris Christie in New Jersey, while flaunting solid conservative credentials, both campaigned on pocketbook issues, leaving the politics of symbolism to the talk radio punditry. In New York, on the other hand, a moderate Republican candidate was forced from the race in lue of a challenger from the Conservative Party who would go on to lose to the Democrat by a plurality.

I would suggest that these separate outcomes confirm the central hypothesis of Douthat and Salam. Moreover, I urge caution when reading the tea leaves for 2010 and beyond. Republican campaigns modeled off of McDonnell and Christie can sell even in blue states and swing districts, yet rock-ribbed interventions like those exercised by Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and their likes in New York spell a generation of Democratic dominance. Fiscal restraint, job creation, and balanced budgets register with voters in an era dominated by their antithesis, and those who seek to win on the basis of “God, gays, and guns” are nothing more than a quick path to a long walk in the woods.

Join the Freedom Project and the Chicago Young Republicans next Thursday for a public program featuring Reihan Salam and former White House speech writing Matt Latimer. I will review Latimer’s book, Speech-Less: Tales of a White House Survivor, in advance of next week’s event.


White House vs. Fox News Food Fight

By Timothy J. McNulty
Every president at some point complains about coverage of his policies, his people and his family. Lincoln jailed several editors; Franklin Roosevelt railed against publishers who turned critical; Nixon compiled his infamous enemies list that included many journalists, and George W. Bush insisted a liberal bias pervaded the “media elite.”
So when top President Obama’s aides began chastising the Fox News Channel for being against everything the President does and says, there were only two surprises: the unusually blunt language from political aides known for their carefully chosen words and that such deep antagonism is surfacing so early in the administration.
Describing Fox as a “tool” and communication arm of the Republican Party, White House aides declared it was not a real news outlet and henceforth Fox would be treated as a political opponent. Though his own comments have been veiled, Obama snubbed Fox recently while visiting the other major networks for interviews on health care.
That ratcheted up the controversy and delighted the likes of Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity because it appeals to their audience and audience numbers appeal to advertisers. No surprise that the latest numbers for evening cable television viewers show the CNN news channel well behind red-meat opinionated talk shows on Fox, MSNBC and even HLN, CNN’s sister network, formerly known as Headline News.
There is a larger issue here. When there is breaking news, readers and viewers want reports of the latest developments which CNN and others have done well. In the absence of breaking news stories, there is evidence of an increasing polarization of readers and viewers on the right and on the left throughout the news business. Attribute it to the growth of the cable news programming and especially to the Internet where it is easier to select the kind of information you are most comfortable with or opinions that you approve, and filter out the rest.
Add to that the decline of mass market newspapers—where people traditionally shared not only news reports but a mix of opinion columns. That decline of that medium has accelerated tremendously in the last decade. An audit bureau report a week ago showed large circulation newspapers averaging annual circulation losses of between10-15 percent.
Overall, the media industry is consolidating and television is increasingly preaching to the choir as a way to retain and attract viewers. Even in this tussle, Fox News executive Bill Shine acknowledged to The New York Times the impact of such White House criticism: “Every time they do it, our ratings go up.”
The fight also gives journalists a delightful side-show to talk about the war of words instead of the economy and health care and the real wars. And journalists, truth be told, do love a political food-fight. Everything is messy but, hopefully, no one gets hurt. Bloggers and columnists join in with great satisfaction as both sides lob big fat rounds of invective at each other.
For years, many journalists were rankled that people actually believed the Fox News slogan that it was “fair and balanced” when it was so demonstrably not. Now, in a delightful bit of showmanship, Fox is adding “unafraid” to its tout.
On the other side, the way news was framed on ABC, CBS, NBC and on NPR and in many newspaper articles often displayed a more liberal set of values and was less than “objective,” sometimes even downright slanted.
This fight isn’t new, but the blurring of news and commentary is creating a new wrinkle on what is considered “news” and who represents a legitimate news outlet. We’ll look at that more in a future column.
The Fox network has eagerly developed a group of commentators who feed each other’s dire predictions and question Obama’s patriotism. I suspect they don’t represent the majority of Republicans, or even the majority of conservatives, who may feel their true message has been hijacked by the shouters on the far right. The loudest often get the most attention, think back to the empty paranoia and suspicion that the John Birch Society once spewed.
Still, as entertaining as it can be watching spittle form at the corners of an opponent’s mouth, there is also something worrisome when the attacks go beyond “just politics”.
Americans know that even as we cherish First Amendment rights to free speech and a free press, we also share a painful history of dangerous invective, especially when it comes to race-baiting. When Beck claims Obama “hates whites,” and others in the so-called “birther” movement deny his legitimacy (claiming he was not born in the U.S. and not entitled to the presidency), there is fear that such claims could provoke the unhinged to attack him personally.
At anti-administration “tea-party” rallies, promoted by the Fox hosts, some question Obama’s patriotism and call him a Nazi and a communist. During the election campaign, the opposition castigated Obama for transgressions by anyone, such as William Ayers, or any organization, such as ACORN, which supported him in the last election. It is almost certain that whenever some new terrorist attack occurs, that Obama will be blamed for allowing it to happen. The September 11 attack occurred just about this time in the Bush administration.
At the moment, however, the journalists in this food fight are more concerned about themselves.
A couple of weeks ago, Tucker Carlson (yes, the one with the bow tie), a Fox contributor, portrayed Fox as a victim while “the two most senior members of the White House staff attempt to bully a news outlet into silence.” The far right reveled in the feeling of victimhood throughout the eight years of the Bush administration. Now they can imagine the jackboots of government coming down over their throats.
The online Media Matters, a left-of-center watchdog organization, compiled a list of times the GOP and the Bush White House went after news organizations such as NBC, CNN and MSNBC and suggested boycotts by viewers.
Such tiffs are not uncommon especially during the campaign season. For a time, Vice President Cheney excluded New York Times reporters from traveling aboard Air Force Two. Presidential candidate John McCain’s people threatened to throw reporters from Time, Newsweek, and NBC off the campaign plane and two very critical columnists from the New York Times and Time magazine were not allowed on the campaign plane.
Democrats also kick back. Just a year ago, during the final election swing, Obama aides kicked off three reporters from the campaign plane: one from the Washington Times, another from the New York Post and one from the Dallas morning news. All three newspapers had editorially endorsed McCain.
For those who want to see how a conservative watchdog group operates, I would recommend the Media Research Center whose goal is to “fight liberal bias.” There you can find instances of how bias can swing both ways. If you are against bias from one antagonistic group, you should be against bias in all forms.
All parties in this will survive and similar food fights may erupt at any time. Some of Obama’s ardent supporters were getting worried that the government was prepared to cut Fox out from regular administration news briefings. But one lesson Obama learned from this current fight: don’t threaten to cut off a particular news organization’s access because even the competing ones will rally to its defense. There is an unwritten understanding among journalists that if one administration is allowed to cut off access to set of reporters and commentators, the next one administration may go after you. So many voices have been heard on the issue now that it is coming full circle with Mike Madden in complaining that many mainstream media outlets are siding with Fox and attacking Obama.
There is certainly no question that Fox aims to appeal to a very conservative audience and that its commentators such as Beck, O’Reilly and Hannity love to pick apart every presidential utterance and administration effort. Fox executive Shine admits acknowledges that Fox is “the voice of the opposition on some issues.” Fox talk show hosts have been beating up Obama for his health care proposals, for efforts to turn around the economy, and for each decision or anticipated decision involving Iraq and Afghanistan
There is also no question that much of the rest of the media has been supportive of Obama throughout his campaign for the presidency and his first 10 months in office.
The Nobel Committee gave Obama the Nobel Peace Prize basically, I believe, for not being George Bush, and for creating hope around the world that the U.S. is headed in a new direction on everything from climate change to conflict. The media also swooned (O’Reilly called the reporting “rhapsodic”) at Obama’s potential for change. It is fair to say that Obama has been treated with exceptional delicacy.
That could change, of course. Journalists, in general, hate the status quo (it’s boring) and criticism of the President is already rumbling through editorial pages and among even the most liberal political columnists. Many of Obama’s ardent supporters on the left are growing restive because he has not moved fast enough to undo Bush administration policies on Guantanamo. They also complain his Justice Department supports Bush-era court cases that lessen citizen privacy rights.
Last week, the Web site FishbowlDC reported that White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had a meeting with Michael Clemente, a senior vice president at Fox, supposedly to tone down the rhetoric on both sides.
Despite the occasional food fights, it’s better to have a contentious free press than a tame one. While presidents get irritated by opposition voices, they know that ultimately they must live with them; they also believe the bully pulpit of the presidency is louder than any one news organization.


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at