Covering Saint McCains 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. Lets give Dana Milbank some love! He described this Republican conduct in Sundays 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! Heres 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 legislation2008 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-telleras a genuine war hero authentic, a virtual secular saint. For that reason, his recent flip should perhaps attract special interest.
But almost surely, it wont. 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 debtwhatever one thinks of the proposal to have a commissionMcCains 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 that we've pretty much reached rock bottom.
Our question: After pimping McCain for decades, will our big news orgs examine his flip? (Its 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 doesnt 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 McCains flip is less clear-cut, where his staffs 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, hed say they were smart.
A secular saint has reached rock bottom. Do journos ask saints to explain?
The spokespersons tale: Mike Allen pretty much jump-started this story, with this short report in Politico. He quoted a McCain spokesperson, who explained the straight-shooters flip. But alas! Just the facts! Allen made no earthly attempt to evaluate the spokespersons tale.
Special report: Dumb like us!
PART 3THE 84 PERCENT ALLEGATION (permalink): Just how well did Obama do in last Fridays 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, its 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 Obamas answers were treated on MSNBCs special Friday night broadcast, in which Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews spent two hours reviewing the days Qs and As.
The days first question, from Rep. Mike Pence, was arguably the worlds 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 Obamas 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 Obamaand they got very little clarification of what Obama and the House members said. Consider the absurd reaction on this program to the days 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 didnt seem to know who he was as he clowned on that afternoons Hardball (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/1/10). For our money, Ryans questionit had two partswas extremely hard to understand and evaluate. The more important part of the question dealt with a very hot recent issueObamas proposal for a three-year freeze on domestic discretionary spending.
Ryans question simply begged for clarification and analysis. This is what the gentleman asked, just as it was presented that night on MSNBCs special program:
RYAN (1/29/10): I serve as a ranking member of the Budget Committee. so I want to talk budget, if you dont mind. The spending bills that youve 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.
Youve 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 cant 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?
Lets review the first of Ryans two questions. Lets review the presentation he made, and the question he asked, about the spending freeze.
Ryan made a striking claim in that presentation. (Its a type of claim Fox viewers have heard with some frequency in the past week.) According to Ryan, Obamas previous spending bills have massively increased domestic discretionary spendinghave done so by 84 percent. According to Ryan, Obamas 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 [Obamas] 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 didnt say it had been increased by that amount as compared to what. Ryans 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, MSNBCs cheerleading squad had had many hours to marshal their facts. (Obamas 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 Fridays session, lets review Obamas 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 MSNBCs special broadcast. Well only include the part of Obamas 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 Id be hearing this argument.
The fact of the matter is that most of the increases in this years budgetthis past years budgetwere 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, Pauland I dont think youll dispute thatwhoever 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 Im not proposing the discretionary freeze taking into effect this yearwe prepared a budget for 2010 that`s now going forwardis 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, youd 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. Thats why I proposed to do it for the next fiscal year. So thats 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 questiona question he hadnt 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 wasnt prepared to address Ryans specific statistic. Just a guess: Hed probably never heard it before. He probably hadnt been prepared for Ryans presentation.
Everything Obama said was accurate. But Ryan had made a striking claima claim about something else.
Again: Was Ryans claim accurate? We dont have the slightest idea. You see, Obama didnt address his claimand 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 Obamas answer to Ryan. Were sorry, but this is utterly foolish. Its cheerleading, pure and simpleand it just doesnt help:
OLBERMANN: Rachel, you and I in October, and Chris more recently, have had this experience that I think peoplecertainly 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. Youve brought a pet issue here, Congressmanwho 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 doesnt 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 roundtheatrically 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 presidents 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, thats ridiculous. Ryan had in fact brought a pet issue hereand Obama had failed to address it. But so what? The cheerleaders described an alternate worlda world in which Obama had somehow left Ryan wondering if he knew as much about his topic as the genius Obama. In Maddows 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 Obamas session with Ryan:
RYAN: I would simply say that automatic stabilizer spending is mandatory spending. The discretionary spendingthe bills that Congress signs, that you sign into lawthat has increased 84 percent.
OBAMA: Well have a, well 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 Ryans claim, only saying that the two could have a longer debate at some other time. We wouldnt fault Obama for that, but he clearly side-stepped Ryans 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 presidents 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 thats not controllable, the unemployment statistic, unemployment benefits and things like that. I think he pulled a fast one on that guy, and hes 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 youre 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 wouldnt you know it? Eight hours after the session occurred, our three cheerleaders had no idea if Ryans 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 happyand dumb.
Lets say it again: We wouldnt necessarily fault Obama for his answer to Ryan. We would guess he had no idea where Ryans statistic came from. We do find fault with millionaire stars who brainlessly pimp the tribal line. Weve seen Hannity do this for years. The phony practice is no less dumb when its done by our tribes 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, well look at some of the things theyve 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 Bosniaget divided along immutable tribal lines.
Young liberals felt good after watching that show. Theyd also been played, for two hours.
Tomorrowpart 4: No way to respond.