Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker is a talented journalist who has produced good stuff on a myriad of political topics and candidates, ranging from President Obama to Chris Christie to Rand Paul. Yet twice in the last month, Lizza has overreacted or misrepresented Jeb Bush for rhetorically-clumsy remarks that were rather lucid. These reactions should be a gigantic neon sign for Republican elites about Jeb’s prospects as a nominee.
In the aftermath of the Roseburg shooting, Jeb Bush delivered remarks where he essentially argued that a government response to school shootings is not the best course of action. Ryan Lizza characterized it as follows:
In Greenville, South Carolina, Jeb Bush, arguing against calls for gun control after major tragedy, says, “stuff happens.”
— Ryan Lizza (@RyanLizza) October 2, 2015
Ninety minutes later, long after the quotation went viral, Lizza posted the full remarks:
Judge for yourself what Jeb was trying to say. Context is warning about passing gun laws in the wake of a tragedy. pic.twitter.com/0k8yxuEDF8
— Ryan Lizza (@RyanLizza) October 2, 2015
Mollie Hemingway of the Federalist did a very good job of critiquing Lizza’s misunderstanding here, getting at the heart of a disagreement between liberals and conservatives on human nature:
Obama wants to talk about gun control again. Bush is saying that the federal government can’t prevent tragedy and certainly can’t prevent it without violating our liberty.
This is a really substantive difference of opinion, one that the media should highlight at this very moment. Bush articulated the common conservative understanding that evil exists in the heart of every man and that this human condition isn’t fixed but in fact can be exacerbated by a large centralized government.
Yes, it’s a very different view than the views held by most reporters and most progressives. But outside of newsrooms and Democratic clubs, it’s a view that is downright common in American life.
Hemingway’s point is that Jeb was really speaking in opposition to what the piece calls the Left’s “theodicy of the federal government”–the “belief that the federal government can somehow prevent bad things from happening to people.” But instead of representing it as a critique of liberal assumptions and argumentation, Lizza portrayed it as mere indifference or heartlessness, the equivalent of Jeb having said “there’s no use crying over spilled milk” or something. Lizza is influential, and so his partial quotation of Jeb made its way to a presidential press conference (where it was more fully quoted, though not in its entirety). It dominated a news cycle.
Recession in DC
A mere two weeks later, Jeb was back at it. In an interview on Sean Hannity’s show, Bush argued that this time arguing that the nation’s capital needs a “little bit of a recession.” Lizza was all over it:
Good grief, this is the craziest thing Jeb Bush has said in this campaign: he wants an economic recession in DC! http://t.co/kBP1meCJBH
— Ryan Lizza (@RyanLizza) October 16, 2015
When Jeb Bush says he wants a recession in DC, he is reiterating the widely-held Republican belief that DC has been living high-on-the-hog since the George W. Bush years, to the detriment of the rest of the country.
Republicans do not see DC as a productive engine of the economy. They see DC as extracting rents from the broader economy while sapping the rest of the country’s dynamism.
Any substantial reduction in government spending over a short period of time will likely focus on reducing the use of contractors by federal agencies. Government agencies will be slashing deals with contractors, first and foremost, because they are so much easier to cut than unionized government workers. Contractors mostly make good money, and their salaries get reinvested in the local economy. This is a boon to local businesses, certainly, but if the public is not getting a good return on investment on those workers, DC is prospering at the rest of the country’s expense.
If a bunch of contractors and public sector workers with high salaries in expensive houses in Falls Church and Silver Spring start losing their jobs because government shrinks, then they will stop channeling money into those local businesses. In other words, yes, the economic health of the capital region will decline. If this is done to the extent that the Republicans want, then there may well be some quarters of negative GDP growth in the mid-Atlantic. That’s a recession. Bush is speaking about the reality here: if DC does not see some sort of economic decline, then government spending isn’t being reduced sufficiently. To Lizza, this was the “craziest thing” Jeb Bush has said in a campaign, crazier even than “stuff happens.”
So Jeb took two rather pedestrian Republican ideas–that government is not the solution for all of society’s ills, and that Washington DC has something of a parasitic relationship with the broader economy–and presented them, albeit awkwardly. A leading journalist ran with both as massive, consequential “gaffes.” In essence, Bush has campaigned as the opposite of Carly Fiorina; while Fiorina has been able at times to control discussions in her longshot campaign, Bush is a “frontrunner” who keeps talking himself into fields of rakes.
Certainly, one can criticize Lizza for misrepresentation, or at the very least a failure to engage with an opposing worldview. But that Republican candidates deal with a mass media that is largely opposed to their worldview is almost fundamental to American politics. One can whine, or one can accept the reality and attempt to mitigate its negative consequences. How much of this is Bush’s fault or Lizza’s fault is ultimately irrelevant, but the fact that Lizza is on hair-trigger alert with Jeb specifically implies to me that Jeb is starting from a negative position by virtue of his brother’s tenure. Neither of Bush’s recent comments were substantively all that controversial, if you pay attention to Republican argumentation, and yet they set off a tempest. (In fairness, if Jeb’s last name were not Bush, given how poorly he has performed, he would likely be out of the race by now. So his last name cuts both ways a little bit.)
I imagine that a differently-named candidate would get at least a little more slack from Lizza and his contemporaries. But Bush’s words are clunky, and he gets the full fury of the press backlash. These incidents should serve as a useful reminder that Republicans would be silly to subject themselves to this sort of constant drumbeat in 2016. Jeb is not rhetorically adroit enough to extinguish these constant firestorms, and the party has better options; this isn’t 2012. Fewer than a few months ago, but Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and even Carly Fiorina would get the establishment much of what they want without the fuss.
Politics is not fair. Deal with it, and stop throwing bad money after good.