Political scientist Brendan Nyhan says the roots of the shutdown aren’t so much in a failure of leadership from John Boehner or Harry Reid or President Obama. Rather, he tells Bob, all three men are at the mercy of an increasingly polarized political landscape that makes compromise extremely difficult.
BOB GARFIELD: So the press initially did a lousy job explaining that John Boehner, like little Dorothy, had the power all along to end this shutdown. The media still haven't done a good job giving a sophisticated explanation for why he won't take action. Instead, they quote politician after politician, assigning blame. Texas Senator Ted Cruz blamed Majority Leader Harry Reid.
SENATOR TED CRUZ: This is Harry Reid’s shutdown, and, and it is the perfect example of liberal arrogance.
BOB GARFIELD: Harry Reid blamed the Tea Party.
MAJORITY LEADER HARRY REID: These people who are elected to represent the country are representing the Tea Party, the anarchists of the country.
BOB GARFIELD: And we all blamed the current political class. People – and by people, I mean mainly MSNBC's Chris Matthews - love to mythologize the relationship between late House Speaker Tip O'Neill and President Ronald Reagan. “They argued mightily,” Matthews wrote, “each man belting out his separate deeply cherished political philosophy, but then they both, together, bowed to the country's judgment. Decisions were made, action taken, outcomes achieved.”
But does that standard apply to the current circumstances? Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan says that the press needs to explain that the leaders of 2013 are playing a different game, with different rules, including the rules by which they are elected to office.
BRENDAN NYHAN: If you think about Reagan having the opportunity to reach across the aisle to the more centrist members of the Democratic Party who, in a lot of cases, were from the South, those folks are no longer in Congress. Lyndon Baines Johnson, we think of LBJ as a master wheeler dealer, but he enjoyed significant partisan majorities in Congress and very unusually internally diverse parties, which made it easier for him to build big coalitions.
BOB GARFIELD: I have just seen so little that looks into the, the political infrastructure of this impasse, beginning with gerrymandering and safe seats. That civics lesson seems to be missing, you say more on the local level than the national one.
BRENDAN NYHAN: We do see more safe seats, more representatives representing districts where the, the main threat to reelection is a primary rather than a general election. What we need are state and local reporters to go out there and help us understand the political constraints that those members face, because even if the national polls suggest that the current shutdown isn’t playing especially well for Republicans, that may not be true in the districts of the members who are driving this current standoff.
BOB GARFIELD: What can local reporters do to, to help us understand how this gridlock has evolved?
BRENDAN NYHAN: There are different things you could do. I mean, one is to actually reach out to those activists and local politicians who might support a potential challenger in a primary who are, in some ways, the most important constituency for a member in a safe seat. Those are the folks you’d want to consult with first.
Another thing would be to give people some historical perspective on how the local congressional delegations, in terms of the representation of moderates, the proportion of safe seats, basic electoral facts about how the map has, has changed that could help people understand why they are represented by someone who has a district that went Romney 65-35, or vice versa on the Democratic side.
BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me that one of the problems is a lot of reporting is based on very carefully contrived sound bites from the politicians in the middle of this.
BRENDAN NYHAN: These aren’t just sound bites. These are unusually vitriolic sound bites, and reporters love that, right, leaders squabbling in public in a way that they rarely do.
BOB GARFIELD: Certainly, no politician is going to say, I don’t so much blame Harry Reid and John Boehner as a long-term trend driven by demographics and gerrymandering that has pushed Democrats and Republicans on opposite sides the yawning ideological Canyon.
We’re not going to hear that from, you know, some Republican in the House. So is the press talking to the wrong suspects?
BRENDAN NYHAN: The national outlets standing around the capital tend to focus on who said what yesterday, what happened yesterday. And that's essentially the equivalent of zooming way too far in on your microscope. Pulling out might give your readers better perspective because there are some bigger questions we have to think about - How does our government work in a highly polarized era? And some of the institutions of American government aren’t especially well adapted to that. Better coverage could help members of the public see where those problems are.
BOB GARFIELD: Brendan, thank you very much.
BRENDAN NYHAN: Thanks again.
BOB GARFIELD: Brendan Nyhan is a professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College.