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THE 84 PERCENT ALLEGATION! Obama failed to answer Ryan–unless you watched Keith and Rachel: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 3, 2010

Covering Saint McCain’s flip: Yesterday, in a New Hampshire town hall session, Obama got some good solid laughs as he (quite effectively) described the latest Republican flip-flop. Let’s give Dana Milbank some love! He described this Republican conduct in Sunday’s Washington Post, although he probably overstated the urgency of our debt problem.

“A month ago, a bipartisan group of senators asked Obama for his ‘strong support’ for a commission to solve the national debt crisis,” Milbank noted. (Is there a crisis? Most likely, no.) “Obama heeded the letter writers' advice and backed the commission.” But uh-oh! Readers, hold onto your scripts! Here’s what happened next:

MILBANK (1/31/10): Obama heeded the letter writers' advice and backed the commission. But when the proposal came to a vote on the Senate floor Tuesday, four of the Republican signers...voted no. So did three other Republican senators who had also been co-sponsors of the legislation—2008 presidential nominee John McCain (Ariz.), Sam Brownback (Kan.) and John Ensign (Nev.). An eighth co-sponsor, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), didn't vote.

Thanks to these defections, the commission legislation fell seven votes shortand with it went any hope of tackling the debt crisis anytime soon. Even by recent standards, this may be a new level of legislative fecklessness.

They were for the commission till Obama endorsed it! Then, they voted no!

The most notable name in that Gang of 7 belongs to a secular saint.

Since the 1980s, the Washington press corps has novelized McCain as a straight-talking straight-shooting maverick truth-teller—as a genuine war hero authentic, a virtual secular saint. For that reason, his recent flip should perhaps attract special interest.

But almost surely, it won’t. Even now, this most fallen of all secular saints tends to get a free ride from his former believers. Whatever one thinks of our problem with debt—whatever one thinks of the proposal to have a commission—McCain’s flip-flop is really quite striking. To Milbank, the Republicans’ flip “wrote a startling new entry in the Annals of Obstruction.” According to Milbank, this “fecklessness” is so extreme thatwe've pretty much reached rock bottom.”

Our question: After pimping McCain for decades, will our big news orgs examine his flip? (It’s the latest of several.) Ask him why he did such a thing? Examine the answer he gives? As best we can tell from the Nexis archives, this is the full extent to which the New York Times has so far examined his conduct:

HULSE (1/29/10): At least six Republicans who had previously supported the plan voted against it, as did others who have backed the idea in concept. Some of those who voted against the plan suggested they did so because they did not want to give Democrats political cover by joining with them in a deficit reduction effort.

“It was stacked,” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, told reporters in explaining his rationale for switching from a supporter to an opponent of the commission.

We have no idea what that explanation might mean, but it was good enough for the Times. In its own news reporting, the Washington Post doesn’t seem to have discussed the GOP flip-flop at all. In this column, “debt crisis” hawk Fred Hiatt joined Milbank in slamming the GOP flippers. But he focused on Mitch McConnell, whackng McCain only once.

As usual, the ways of the mainstream press are strange. This morning, McCain gets slammed for a flip by Maureen Dowd. But this alleged flip involves gays in the military, where McCain’s flip is less clear-cut, where his staff’s explanation is less murky. And sure enough! To help her narrative move along, Dowd (what else?) authors a very loose paraphrase of a past statement by John.

Yesterday, Obama got some very good laughs describing the latest GOP flip. But surely, a secular saint must be first among equals when it comes to such wanton behavior. The press corps sanctified this straight-shooting straight-talker for years. And as they did so, they were rewarded. He rode them around in his big white bus; told them wild tales about stripper ex-girl friends; and gave them piles of free gooey donuts. Often, he’d say they were smart.

A secular saint has reached “rock bottom.” Do journos ask saints to explain?

The spokesperson’s tale: Mike Allen pretty much jump-started this story, with this short report in Politico. He quoted a McCain spokesperson, who explained the straight-shooter’s flip. But alas! Just the facts! Allen made no earthly attempt to evaluate the spokesperson’s tale.

Special report: Dumb like us!

PART 3—THE 84 PERCENT ALLEGATION (permalink): Just how well did Obama do in last Friday’s meeting with House Republicans?

On Friday night, the cheerleading was general over cable, on Fox as well as on MSNBC. In part for that reason, it’s a bit hard to be sure. Just consider the first two questions Obama was asked that day. (For the White House transcript of the full session, click here.) Then, consider the way Obama’s answers were treated on MSNBC’s special Friday night broadcast, in which Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews spent two hours reviewing the day’s Qs and As.

The day’s first question, from Rep. Mike Pence, was arguably the world’s biggest softball. (As stated by Pence, in its second iteration: “Mr. President, will you consider supporting across-the-board tax relief, as President Kennedy did?”) There was nothing “wrong” with Obama’s wide-ranging answer, in which he challenged a good deal of recent Republican conduct. But for any major Democrat, this is an utterly easy question. Except on MSNBC, that is, where Matthews railed against how “unfair” the question was (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/2/10).

The sheer absurdity of Matthews’ response showed where this evening was going.

For the rest of the evening, MSNBC viewers heard a lot of cheerleading for Obama—and they got very little clarification of what Obama and the House members said. Consider the absurd reaction on this program to the day’s second exchange, in which Obama responded to a question from Rep. Paul Ryan.

Ryan is a big deal in the House GOP caucus, though Matthews didn’t seem to know who he was as he clowned on that afternoon’s Hardball (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/1/10). For our money, Ryan’s question—it had two parts—was extremely hard to understand and evaluate. The more important part of the question dealt with a very hot recent issue—Obama’s proposal for a three-year freeze on domestic discretionary spending.

Ryan’s question simply begged for clarification and analysis. This is what the gentleman asked, just as it was presented that night on MSNBC’s special program:

RYAN (1/29/10): I serve as a ranking member of the Budget Committee. so I want to talk budget, if you don’t mind. The spending bills that you’ve signed into law, the domestic discretionary spending has been increased by 84 percent. You now want to freeze spending at this elevated level beginning next year. This means that total spending in your budget would grow at three-hundredths of one percent less than otherwise. I would simply submit that we could do more and start now.

You’ve also said you want to take a scalpel to the budget and go through it line by line. We want to give you that scalpel. I have a proposal with my home state senator, Russ Feingold, bipartisan proposal, to create a constitutional version of the line-item veto. Problem is, we can’t even get a vote on the proposal. So my question is, Why not start freezing spending now? And would you support a line-item veto and helping us get a vote on it in the House?

Let’s review the first of Ryan’s two questions. Let’s review the presentation he made, and the question he asked, about the spending freeze.

Ryan made a striking claim in that presentation. (It’s a type of claim Fox viewers have heard with some frequency in the past week.) According to Ryan, Obama’s previous spending bills have massively increased domestic discretionary spending—have done so by 84 percent. According to Ryan, Obama’s “spending freeze” would therefore freeze domestic spending at a vastly “elevated level.” How big a deal would the spending freeze be? According to Ryan, “total spending in [Obama’s] budget would grow at three-hundredths of one percent less than otherwise.” On the basis of this presentation, Ryan said we could do much more.

Ryan made a striking presentation. But was his presentation accurate? In part, his presentation was a bit murky: When he said that “domestic discretionary spending has been increased by 84 percent,” he didn’t say it had been increased by that amount as compared to what. Ryan’s statistical claim was a bit murky, but the gist of his statement was perfectly clear: According to Ryan, Obama has raised discretionary domestic spending by a large amount, and so the announced “spending freeze” would actually lock such spending at an unusually high amount.

Fox viewers have heard variants of this claim for the past week or so. But is the claim accurate? By Friday night, MSNBC’s cheerleading squad had had many hours to marshal their facts. (Obama’s session started at noon. Their program started at 8 PM.) If published reports cane be believed, they command $11 million in annual salaries; among them, they direct three separate staffs. But before we show you the fruits of their labors as they fact-checked Friday’s session, let’s review Obama’s answer to this striking-but-murky question. How did Obama respond to the claim that he will freeze domestic spending at a highly elevated level?

Fox viewers have heard this claim for weeks. This is what Obama said to Ryan, exactly as presented on MSNBC’s special broadcast. We’ll only include the part of Obama’s statement which dealt with the spending freeze:

OBAMA (continuing directly): Let me respond to the two specific questions, but I want to push back a little bit on the underlying premise about us increasing spending by 84 percent. Now, look— I talked to Peter Orszag right before I came here, because I suspect I’d be hearing this argument.

The fact of the matter is that most of the increases in this year’s budget—this past year’s budget—were not as a consequence of policies that we initiated, but instead were built in as a consequence of the automatic stabilizers that kick in because of this enormous recession. So the increase in the budget for this past year was actually predicted before I was even sworn into office and had initiated any policies. Whoever was in there, Paul—and I don’t think you’ll dispute that—whoever was in there would have seen those same increases because of, on the one hand, huge drops in revenue, but, at the same time, people were hurting and needed help. And a lot of these things happened automatically.

Now, the reason that I’m not proposing the discretionary freeze taking into effect this year—we prepared a budget for 2010 that`s now going forward—is again, I am just listening to the consensus among people who know the economy best. And what they will say is that, if you either increased taxes or significantly lowered spending when the economy remains somewhat fragile, that that would have a de-stimulative effect and potentially, you’d see a lot of folks losing business, more folks potentially losing jobs. That would be a mistake when the economy has not fully taken off. That’s why I proposed to do it for the next fiscal year. So that’s point number two.

With respect to the line-item veto...

Obama made a lot of accurate statements in that part of his answer. But Ryan had made a claim about jumps in discretionary spending. After assuring Ryan that he had prepared for this question, Obama proceeded to answer a different question—a question he hadn’t been asked. Making a series of accurate statements, he described rises in automatic spending which had kicked in because of the recession. Just a guess: Obama really wasn’t prepared to address Ryan’s specific statistic. Just a guess: He’d probably never heard it before. He probably hadn’t been prepared for Ryan’s presentation.

Everything Obama said was accurate. But Ryan had made a striking claim—a claim about something else.

Again: Was Ryan’s claim accurate? We don’t have the slightest idea. You see, Obama didn’t address his claim—and then, hours later, neither did Maddow or Olbermann! Instead of addressing the heart of this question, they did handstands, cartwheels and flips. As we showed you yesterday, this what the three cheerleaders said about Obama’s answer to Ryan. We’re sorry, but this is utterly foolish. It’s cheerleading, pure and simple—and it just doesn’t help:

OLBERMANN: Rachel, you and I in October, and Chris more recently, have had this experience that I think people—certainly Republicans did today, and I think people watching are getting. This is what it is like to be in the room with the president of the United States. You pick your topic, and are left wondering whether or not you know as much about it as he does.

MADDOW: So much for the he always needs a teleprompter attack. This is unscripted, no notes, no teleprompter, no nothing. “You’ve brought a pet issue here, Congressman”—who is the ranking member of the Budget Committee. “Let me tell you 400,000 things about it, and invite you to continue the discussion with me later.” This is actually very Clintonian, I thought.

OLBERMANN: Chris, it begs the question, why does the president ever give a speech? Why doesn’t he just say maybe a minutes worth of opening remarks, and then say, “Any questions?” A lot of people can give good speeches, but this thing that we see on almost any topic you can throw at this man is singular, at least this year, or the last few years, I think.

MATTHEWS: Keith, Bill Clinton was awful good at this. Even when he ran in ’92, we`d watch him up in New Hampshire, in the round—theatrically in the round, even when he was being challenged on things like his draft letter, incredibly personal stuff. He was equally good at this.

I think this president’s sort of mix of charm, poetry and prose is pretty impressive, because he can be witty. I don`t think Bill Clinton was witty. So, he can be witty, smart, informed, poetic, and also very smart about the numbers at the same time.

Truly, that’s ridiculous. Ryan had in fact “brought a pet issue here”—and Obama had failed to address it. But so what? The cheerleaders described an alternate world—a world in which Obama had somehow left Ryan wondering if he knew as much about his topic as the genius Obama. In Maddow’s deeply absurd presentation, Obama had told poor foolish Ryan “400,000 things” about his topic, then had invited the hapless schoolboy to continue the discussion later. Maddow was referring to this exchange, which ended Obama’s session with Ryan:

RYAN: I would simply say that automatic stabilizer spending is mandatory spending. The discretionary spending—the bills that Congress signs, that you sign into law—that has increased 84 percent.

OBAMA: We’ll have a, we’ll have a longer debate on the budget numbers then. All right?

In that closing exchange, Ryan drew the distinction between mandatory and discretionary spending, then reasserted his claim about that 84 percent increase. Once again, Obama failed to respond to Ryan’s claim, only saying that the two could have a longer debate at some other time. We wouldn’t fault Obama for that, but he clearly side-stepped Ryan’s specific claim. Indeed, how obvious was it that this had occurred? As we continue from the cheerleading posted above, even Matthews notes it:

MATTHEWS: I think this president’s sort of mix of charm, poetry and prose is pretty impressive, because he can be witty. I don`t think Bill Clinton was witty. So, he can be witty, smart, informed, poetic, and also very smart about the numbers at the same time.

However, on that point, I think he just pulled a fast one on Ryan, because Ryan was talking about that part of the budget which is controllable, and the president switched over to the part that’s not controllable, the unemployment statistic, unemployment benefits and things like that. I think he pulled a fast one on that guy, and he’s trying to challenge him.

So there you have a president using some showmanship, rather than exactly addressing the point. I think that guy, Ryan, is pretty smart. I think he did ask a good question. Why has spending gone up on your watch and now you’re freezing it?

Even Matthews noticed the switch! But you know the rules! Before Matthews could say that Obama had pulled “a fast one,” he himself praised the president for being “very smart about the numbers.” In this, he followed Olbermann and Maddow, who had openly clowned.

They get paid millions for this?

By the way, is Ryan “pretty smart?” Had he really “asked a good question?” That depends on the accuracy of his presentation, his 84 percent allegation. But wouldn’t you know it? Eight hours after the session occurred, our three cheerleaders had no idea if Ryan’s presentation was accurate. They made no attempt to fact-check his claim. Instead, they turned cartwheels and showed us their flips, praising the brilliant handsome fellow who plays quarterback for our team.

Gimme an A, the cheerleaders cried, keeping us happy—and dumb.

Let’s say it again: We wouldn’t necessarily fault Obama for his answer to Ryan. We would guess he had no idea where Ryan’s statistic came from. We do find fault with millionaire stars who brainlessly pimp the tribal line. We’ve seen Hannity do this for years. The phony practice is no less dumb when it’s done by our tribe’s millionaires.

And by the way: It provides no basis for challenging the various things true believers are hearing on Fox! Over on Fox, the other tribe has heard variants of what Ryan said for the past several week or two. Tomorrow, we’ll look at some of the things they’ve heard. But know this:

After watching that Friday night session, sincere young liberals would have no idea what to say to earnest Fox viewers. This is how nations get turned into Bosnia—get divided along immutable tribal lines.

Young liberals felt good after watching that show. They’d also been played, for two hours.

Tomorrow—part 4: No way to respond.