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Media Spin Ridiculously False Tale Of Johnson’s Ukraine ‘Compromise’

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It’s propaganda for the media to carry on as though silly Republicans are doing Putin’s bidding or taking vapid stances to please an unreasonably inflexible base.

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Journalists are uncritically spreading the talking points of House and Senate leadership, insisting foolish conservative hardliners thwarted a border deal that left them with nothing in return when Speaker Johnson finally passed a package of foreign aid bills last week. This is convenient for the Beltway, but it’s absurd to cast conservatives as hapless rubes and partisan hacks for rejecting unpopular policies designed to undercut the will of their constituents.

Their option was to take a terrible deal and pretend it was great, or push for something — anything — to meet the basic and reasonable will of their voters. Johnson decided to demand the former of his conference.

Take this post from Sahil Kapur of NBC News. Purporting to report “HOW IT HAPPENED,” Kapur claims Democrats “cave[d]” by working on a border deal with Sen. James Lankford and that Republicans rejected it because former President Trump wants to run on the border crisis. This is not remotely neutral reporting, but it’s also not accurate.

Democrats made some small concessions in the Lankford-Schumer deal, but the legislation was peppered intentionally with exemptions to those concessions, ultimately allowing President Biden to continue with business as usual at the border. Even if Trump did say the bill needed to be killed for the sake of his election, Freedom Caucus members and their allies would have rejected the bill. If Trump had told them to support it, they still would have rejected it. (Here’s why you also shouldn’t buy the popular argument that the bill must have been tough because the Border Patrol union supported it.)

A bill that allowed for thousands of people to pour into the U.S. every day, if properly reported on by the press, would not be supported by the public, let alone the constituents of Republican members elected to be “representative” of their desires. Democrats did not “cave,” Republican leadership did.

This is also true of Ukraine funding. In The New York Times, GOP consultant Brendan Buck argued the Freedom Caucus is counterproductively undermining its fellow conservatives. Buck, an aide to previous Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, wrote, “In the past year, the House has averted a catastrophic debt default, passed foreign military aid when it seemed hopeless and funded the government when a shutdown seemed all but inevitable. Should we expect more from Congress? Of course. But the critical items are getting done in a more bipartisan manner than would seem possible in this era of negative partisanship.”

Republican voters did not support any of this. Buck is celebrating the establishment’s decision to ignore the will of their constituents. Kapur, for his part, is swallowing whole cloth leadership’s spin meant to fool voters into thinking they did their best. That’s a perfectly fine argument for Mike Johnson’s office to make, but it’s not true, and it’s certainly not a neutral rendering of the process. It’s propaganda.

Johnson, for instance, could have held the line to make Democrats blink on Ukraine funding and a serious border bill, as he said he would do. (Or on FISA reauthorization!) He could have pushed to the brink of a shutdown. He could have lent moral support to the members of his conference who were representing the perfectly reasonable and constitutionally valid views of their constituents. Instead, he walked back his previous positions and fell in line. He opened fire on HFC and its allies.

It’s entirely true, as Trump argued, that Johnson has a slim majority, a Democratic Senate, and very little leverage. It’s true threatening a shutdown never goes well for Republicans nationally (partially because of the hostile media). It’s true this may all have turned out the same. But amid a surge of pressures from media and powerful interests, Johnson barely tried to get more, and that’s why Republicans are upset.

Trump, for his part, should consider that when Buck and Republicans held the House, Senate, and presidency, they failed even to “repeal and replace” the legislation GOP candidates ran on eliminating for a decade. They failed to get our taxes onto a postcard. Democrats, with only the House, impeached Trump in 2019.

On the speaker’s Ukraine aid victory, Buck added, “As a result, Mr. Johnson now waits for Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the anti-Ukraine Freedom Caucus member from Georgia, to follow through on threats to force a vote to remove him from the speakership.”

It’s remarkable that neither Buck nor The New York Times realizes Greene is very publicly not a member of the Freedom Caucus, nor is Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who’s alluded to in the piece’s condemnation of conservatives on the Rules Committee. Journalists, consultants, and lobbyists instinctively view populist lawmakers and voters as unserious and unreasonable, so they simply believe what they’re told by their friends on Capitol Hill.

The result is a false history, one that benefits powerbrokers at the expense of the broader public. Leadership is always made up of the “adults in the room.” The members who try to hit pause — for good causes and bad ones — are necessarily clowns, even if the public is on their side and even by the self-appointed guardians of “democracy.”

Polling on Ukraine is all over the map, but it’s increasingly clear a majority of Republican voters believe the U.S. is spending too much on the conflict. Here’s a Gallup poll from two weeks ago and a CBS poll from April 15. The Associated Press found similar results last month. All the way back in November, Fox News found only 35 percent of Republicans supported continuing aid to Ukraine.

A poll of swing-state voters conducted this month by the Heritage Foundation and RMG Research found “three-quarters of all moderate Americans in swing states would oppose a proposal that sent more funding to Ukraine and did not include funding to secure the southern border,” a “majority of moderates (56%) think the $113 billion the U.S. has already spent helping Ukraine is too much, and “a similar proportion (54%) think the U.S. should spend more to secure the southern border than help Ukraine.”

And that’s just a poll of moderates in swing states, not even hardcore Republicans in red states and districts represented by many of Congress’s populists. A CNN poll ahead of the debt ceiling deal last May found, “Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, a matching 73% say they are more concerned that Republicans will give up too much and government spending will continue at its current level than that Republicans will fail to compromise and the government will not be able to pay its existing debts, with 27% more concerned about default.”

A Yahoo/YouGov poll in March found high levels of support for the Lankford-Schumer bill, but only when presented with an egregiously biased description of it, as Andrew R. Arthur explained at length.

Echoing Buck, McConnell openly admitted on Tuesday to ignoring most of his conference on key votes because if he didn’t, “[W]e wouldn’t raise the debt ceiling and we wouldn’t fund the government,” he told reporters. The Senate is inherently anti-democratic, as the founders intended, and McConnell takes comfort in this. Even so, this is no defense for Johnson or the press corps.

If McConnell insists on sharing more in common on key topics with Democrats than his GOP colleagues and their constituents, he’s welcome to enjoy some short-lived plaudits from the highly compensated chattering class. But when senators like Mike Lee and J.D. Vance try to throw a wrench in the well-oiled Beltway machine — as their colleagues in the House did — it’s propaganda for the media to carry on as though silly Republican ideologues are doing Putin’s bidding or taking vapid stances for the sake of pleasing an unreasonably inflexible base.

To the extent HFC and other House conservatives deserve the blame, it’s probably true Kevin McCarthy would have gotten a slightly better deal at the end of the day, given his defter ability to navigate the dynamics of his own conference. Publicly, McCarthy was also much more sympathetic to his right flank, which is somewhat remarkable given that Johnson was previously accused of being too close with the HFC.

Regardless, the bipartisan coalition of centrists was always going to either force Republicans into a shutdown or force Republicans to cave. The fault lies not with conservatives, who are more in line with their voters, but with GOP centrists and recalcitrant Democrats who can afford not to come to the table meaningfully on anything precisely because they know they can broker nonsense compromise bills and downplay the border crisis, and the media will obediently regurgitate their spin.


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