David Coates

Washington Woes and the Problem of the Parrot

In the famous Monty Python parrot sketch, John Cleese’s understandable outrage at being sold a Norwegian Blue that was actually “stone dead” as he put it, does not get him a new bird. What it does get him – from the Michael Palin character who originally sold it to him – is a barrage of obfuscating re-specifications of the bird’s condition. No matter that the bird by this point “has passed on….is no more…has ceased to be” – is, in fact, “AN EX-PARROT;” and no matter that its current capacity to stay upright is entirely due to the foresight shown by Michael Palin in nailing it to its perch. The new owner is simply told that the bird, far from being dead, is “resting,” “stunned,”  “prefers kipping on its back,” and – my favorite – “pining for the fjords.”

The sketch works, of course, only because both Palin and Cleese had access to a thesaurus. The humor comes from the play on words. Well, a thesaurus is working overtime in Washington D.C. right now, though its use is making nobody laugh. There is obfuscation aplenty, and it is thickening: which is why I recommend “pining for the fjords” to any of you who, like me, are growing increasingly outraged by our mainstream media’s inability to “tell it as it is.”

Two obfuscations in particular stand out as particularly galling and worthy of immediate challenge. The first is that what is going on in Washington D.C. right now is a product of intransigence by both parties.[1] The second is that the policy positions advocated by the Tea Party wing of the Republican House caucus are in any way sensible. The reality is actually otherwise. Intransigence in Washington is heavily one-sided. Conservative demands now blocking the emergence of a bipartisan deal will compound our crisis rather than cure it.[2] Yet the limitations of those demands, and the intransigence with which they are currently being pursued, is largely lost on the rest of us because of the manner of their reporting. We are told one thing when we should be told another.

So let us do some reporting of our own – on the issue of political balance, and on the question of economic sanity.


There is no balance in the battle between factions in Washington DC right now. The political theatre being played out there is not one driven by equal volumes of inflexibility on the extreme wings of both political parties. It is rather one of a limited set of Tea Party –inspired Republican House members holding the rest of their colleagues – and us – to ransom, with their Democratic political opponents making concession after concession in some hopeless attempt to be met half-way. So many concessions in fact that the package of cuts proposed by Harry Reid after John Boehner walked away from bipartisan discussions last Sunday contained no new tax revenues of any kind. None! Indeed the impact of his cuts was costed by the CBO as actually deeper than those initially proposed by the Republican Speaker of the House. Not, of course, that calculations of this kind made them acceptable to the conservative wing of the Republican House caucus. Far from it: the blockage is with them. And yet the mainstream media (and even the President himself, in his Friday public address from the White House[3]) continues to characterize the impasse as the product of the way “politics is done in this town,” as the result of “politics as usual.” “Holding our economy captive to Washington politics once again” was how the President put it on Friday.


Framing is absolutely vital here; and when put that way, the impasse is presented as the product of partisanship by both sides – and by implication both sides equally – and so invites a general alienation from all politicians and from the use of Washington for political ends. But the reality behind this particular impasse is not one of equal intransigence, and the impasse is quite definitely not the product of politics as usual. This particular impasse is the artificial product of unprecedented intransigence by a new crop of Republican lawmakers determined to exploit what is normally a simple technical vote – to raise the debt ceiling – to pursue their own deeply-held fiscal and social agenda.[4] Framed in that more accurate way, the impasse invites an alienation from ideologues of the Right but not from politics in general.  I can see why Fox News does not want to adopt this more accurate presentation. Conservative media outlets can only welcome the way in which “the GOP has been empowered by an establishment media obsessed with debts and deficits.”[5] But I am at a loss to know why more mainstream news outlets do not. Are they so much the camp followers of whosoever controls the House of Representatives that they cannot tell it as it is – conservative folly putting the nation’s economic reputation (and recovery) in dire peril?




For what we have here is not two equally sensible recovery packages between which discerning voters need carefully to choose. What we have are two packages, neither of which will rapidly restore our general and personal economic health, but one of which will do far more damage than the other.[6] What we have is a Democratic package stripped of its progressive content in a vain search for conservative support, up against a conservative package which if implemented will likely tip an already weak economy back into recession (as the implementation of its equivalent in the UK visibly demonstrates[7]). The Republican counter-arguments to the Obama call for a balanced package of deficit-cutting measures rests on a string of dubious assumptions and assertions that are rarely challenged by any major political journalist. Take, for example, the content of John Boehner’s rebuttal to the President’s address to the nation last Monday. In it we were told that “tax increases will destroy jobs,” that excessive government spending was a cause of the weak recovery, and that “the crisis atmosphere” now affecting the U.S. economy was one that the President – and by clear implication the President alone – had created. We were also told that government programs could be heavily cut without damage to the incomes of the poor, the elderly and the military – what else in the present climate were we to understand from Boehner’s insistence that “the bigger the government, the smaller the people,” and that “right now, we have a government so big and so expensive it’s sapping the drive of our people and keeping our economy from running at full capacity.”[8] Clever stuff, but hardly accurate. Just part of what Maya Rockeymoore correctly saw as the Republicans attempt “to peddle at least two major myths: that their party had no role in creating the nation’s current debt crisis and that the wealthy have no role in helping to solve it.”[9]


With the Republicans visibly trying to shift responsibility for a crisis they themselves created,[10] where is the mainstream journalistic challenge to any/all of that? Why was Boehner not immediately called to explain to the American people why job growth under the Clinton tax regime was so much greater than job growth after the Bush II tax cuts? Where were the mainstream journalists grilling him on the impact of already existing cuts on the employment numbers of teachers, police officers and firefighters at state and local level? Where were the mainstream journalists pointing to the role that government spending and debt played in lifting the economy out of a deep recession caused by the very deregulation and CEO income excesses for which Republicans now actively campaign? Tucked away in the quarantined quarters of MSNBC and the Comedy Channel, such questions abound: but they rarely cross the lips of White House correspondents on the mainstream channels, loyal as they remain to the view that Republican Party talking points, regardless of their veracity, have to be given the same weight and credence as those coming from the other side of the aisle – and from the White House itself.

If the general American public is left with the view that this debt ceiling crisis – and any adverse economic fall-out affecting their living standards and job security – was and is a product of Washington politics-as-usual, then the Right will already have won, no matter the detail of any compromise that is struck. For if Washington doesn’t work, why bother to vote? Why bother to challenge the libertarian view that our problem is rooted in an excess of political interference rather than in an excess of economic privilege. If the political parrot is dead, why shop at all? No. That view must not be allowed to prevail. We are in crisis now because of the idiocy and intransigence of the Republican Right, and because of political infighting between factions within the Republican leadership. We need to say that over and over again. Then in 2012 it might still be possible to campaign successfully for the election of a better set of birds, and go flying again.



[1] On this see Ari Melber, Media Blows Debt Crisis Coverage With Balance Bias, posted on The Huffington Post July 28 2011 and available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ari-melber/media-blows-debt-crisis-c_b_911649.html



[2] On this, see Paul Krugman, “Getting to Crazy,” The New York Times, July 14 2011, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/15/opinion/15krugman.html


[4] See Robert Sheer, Debt Madness Was Always About Killing Social Security, posted on The Huffington Post July 27 2011 and available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-scheer/debt-madness-was-always-a_b_910543.html


[5] The Nation, editorial, ‘Debt Ceiling Illusions”, August1/8 2011: available at http://www.thenation.com/article/162001/debt-ceiling-delusions

[6] See Jamelle Bouie, Reid Plan? Boehner Plan? Either Way, the Right Wins, posted on TAPPED July 27 2011 and available at http://prospect.org/csnc/blogs/tapped_archive?month=07&year=2011&base_name=reid_plan_boehner_plan_either


[7] Details at Larry Elliott, “GDP figures are so cause for celebration,” The Guardian July 26 2011: available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/jul/26/gdp-figures-analysis


[9] Maya Rockeymoore, Washington’s Unfair War On America, posted July 26 2011 and available at http://globalpolicy.tv/contributors/jacqueline-marcell/item/164-washingtons-unfair-war-on-america


[10] See Seth Hanlon, Misleading America About the Debt Limit, posted on the Center for American Progress, July 27 2011, and available at http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/07/boehner_misleads_america.html


David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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