The Great Debt Ceiling Fight of 2023 has begun, as the House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a bill granting $1.5 trillion in new borrowing authority in exchange for holding the growth in new federal spending to just one percent per year over the next decade.
Already, we’re seeing liberal journalists line up with Democrats to oppose using this moment to instill a modicum of fiscal discipline into the federal government’s finances. “The White House has accused House Republicans of trying to hold the nation’s economy hostage,” ABC’s Mary Bruce dutifully reported on Wednesday’s World News Tonight, putting the onus on those proposing restraint and responsibility.
The rhetoric is an echo of what news audiences heard back in 2011, when the media relentlessly harassed Republicans trying to curb spending after the massive increases that marked the Obama administration’s first months in office.
That year, the Treasury Department had calculated that August 2 was the key date for the debt ceiling to be increased in order to keep the government in business. News coverage didn’t begin in earnest until just a few weeks before the deadline, becoming more aggressive as the window for action closed.
A Media Research Center study at the time tallied 202 segments on the debt ceiling on the ABC, CBS and NBC morning, evening and Sunday shows between July 1 and July 22; by a three-to-one margin, the networks blamed budget-cutting Republicans for the impasse.
The media advanced the notion that the solution must be to hike taxes to cover the big increases in baseline spending, lecturing even Obama himself that he wasn’t tough enough. “The $4 trillion deal that you’re talking about, roughly, it seems to be now at about four-to-one spending to taxes; we’re talking about $800 billion in taxes, roughly. That doesn’t seem very fair to some Democrats,” USA Today’s Rich Wolf told the President at a July 11, 2011 press conference.
“Can you have meaningful reform here without increasing revenues in some way?” CBS’s Bob Schieffer lobbied GOP Senator Marco Rubio on Face the Nation July 17.
MSNBC “news” anchor Thomas Roberts sounded like a Leninist pamphleteer. “We haven’t had tax increases over the last ten years,” he fretted on July 15. “Why do you think the top two percent of America has a chokehold on the other 98 percent?”
“Most impartial observers outside of America say that [no new taxes] is crazy, and you have got to change your attitude to this and allow some tax increases,” CNN’s Piers Morgan lectured anti-tax activist Grover Norquist on July 25.
Reporters insulted House Republicans as either too inexperienced, or too stupid, to grasp the idea that they needed to cave to the establishment’s demands. “The problem is this issue with the House Republicans,” NBC’s Chuck Todd grumbled on the June 29 Nightly News.
“Do you think that Republicans — particularly those in the freshman class over in the House — understand just how serious this debt limit crisis is?” CBS’s Schieffer wondered on the July 24 Face the Nation.
The media’s condescension was on full display. “Do you think that members of the Tea Party caucus know how to govern, or are they — do they understand that standing up for a cause is not the same as governing?” Ann Curry asked Tom Brokaw on NBC’s Today on August 1.
“On one side are those kids in the back seat, Tea Party members of Congress and their stay-at-home blogging cheerleaders who either don’t understand or don’t care,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews sneered on the July 14 Hardball. “They’re willing to risk calamity, even embrace it, just to show how dedicated they are to not raising the debt ceiling.”
“The Republican Party may no longer be a normal party,” New York Times “conservative” columnist David Brooks rued on July 5. “Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative. The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms....The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency.”
“I think the Republicans look stupid and mean,” MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski grumped on Morning Joe July 12. “This is stupid. This is a no-brainer in terms of a deal. This is a no-brainer and they look mean and they look difficult and they’re going to lose this.”
“A lot of folks are saying the current, you know, ‘My way or the highway, gotta have it all’ climate in Washington is really unworthy of the USA and makes us look like a banana republic,” CNN’s Brooke Baldwin maintained on July 19.
“Watching the extraordinary polarization in Washington today, many people have pointed the finger at the Tea Party. It’s ideologically extreme, refuses to compromise, and cares more about purity than problem solving,” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria charged on his July 24 GPS.
“This game of chicken, in particular, is deadly and it’s wrong and it’s hostage-taking. And you shouldn’t negotiate with hostage-takers,” Salon’s Joan Walsh slammed on the July 5 Hardball.
On that same show, host Chris Matthews likened the Republicans to an extremist Muslim sect: “The GOP has become the Wahhabis of American government, willing to risk bringing down the whole country in the service of their anti-tax ideology....These people are willing to go right into Armageddon, not face the warning signs. Go right off the cliff...”
The terrorist analogies — crude attempt to put pressure on the GOP side — became more plentiful as the weeks went by. “Wake up to the national security threat. Only it’s not coming from abroad, but from our own domestic extremists....The blunt truth is that the biggest threat to America’s national security this summer doesn’t come from China, Iran or any other foreign power. It comes from budget machinations, and budget maniacs, at home,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof fulminated on July 24.
“If sane Republicans do not stand up to this Hezbollah faction in their midst, the Tea Party will take the GOP on a suicide mission,” the Times’s Tom Friedman agreed in his July 27 column.
“It’s like a form of economic terrorism,” MSNBC economic analyst Steven Rattner argued on the July 29 Morning Joe. “I imagine these Tea Party guys are, like, strapped with dynamite, standing in the middle of Times Square at rush hour and saying, ‘Either you do it my way, or we’re going to blow you up, ourselves up, and the whole country up with us.’”
“There’s a nihilist caucus which is, ‘Listen, we want to burn the place down.’ I mean, they’re not — they’ve strapped explosives to the Capitol and they think they are immune from it,” Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson smeared on that weekend’s Inside Washington.
Even after the two parties agreed on a deal, the media’s trash talk continued: “These last few months, much of the country has watched in horror as the Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people,” New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wrote on August 2. “For now, the Tea Party Republicans can put aside their suicide vests. But rest assured: They’ll have them on again soon enough.”
“Let me finish tonight with this bad experience we’ve all just been through,” Chris Matthews railed that night on Hardball. “What we saw, what I saw at least, was one guy with a knife and the other trying to avoid being cut. It was a thug attacking a victim. It was a mugging. Now, the good news — relief is a better word, I suppose — is that the victim did get through it. The bad news is that the mugger got what he wanted. He got the wallet....The mugging continues, again and again and again. The people who perpetrated this assault on the President will come back to do it again.”
Matthews’ vicious screed sounded like a love letter compared to Maureen Dowd’s New York Times column the next morning: “Tea Party budget-slashers....were like cannibals, eating their own party and leaders alive. They were like vampires, draining the country’s reputation, credit rating and compassion. They were like zombies, relentlessly and mindlessly coming back again and again to assault their unnerved victims, Boehner and President Obama. They were like the metallic beasts in Alien flashing mouths of teeth inside other mouths of teeth, bursting out of Boehner’s stomach every time he came to a bouquet of microphones.”
Twelve years ago, the debt stood at a then-record high of $14.3 trillion; today, it’s at $31.4 trillion, more than double the level of 2011. And the government’s current need for funds is so insatiable, the $1.5 trillion increase that House Republicans just passed would last only until about March 31, 2024.
So when you hear the media hurl insults and invective at those who would curtail, slightly, the gargantuan growth of government, know also that these “watchdogs” don’t have their eyes on the politicians whose spending habits are creating this massive debt. And that tells you everything you need to know about their bias.
For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.