Daily Howler logo
A GOOD TALK SPOILED (PART 1)! Why are voters confused about Social Security? Maybe they watch Meet the Press! // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2005

A GOOD TALK SPOILED (PART 1): Is any Republican statement so dumb that tough-guy Tim Russert will challenge it? On February 6, he engaged in this Q-and-A with Don Rumsfeld. Try to believe Rummy said it:
RUSSERT (2/6/05): When John Kerry calls for your resignation and says he has 800,000 signatures on his Internet, John McCain says he has no confidence, Trent Lott says he's not a fan, what does that do to your ability to be Secretary of Defense?

RUMSFELD: Well, you know, we were in a political campaign, and there are people always running for president, and that goes with the territory. We've never had a war in this country where there haven't been critics. They were calling for George Washington's resignation. In the Civil War, they were constantly calling for resignations. In the—World War I, in World War II, in Korea—there's never been a war or a war president or a war secretary of state who has not been criticized by critics, and particularly during a political campaign or by political people who are running for president. So that's life.

Why did Lott and McCain, a pair of Republicans, say they had no faith in Rumsfeld? Easy! Because of the presidential election! You could hardly imagine a stupider answer—but go ahead, just read through the transcript! Russert, the ballyhooed Buffalo bulldog, gazed away like a Nantucket poodle. As we’ve noted, that barking dog can get very still when GOP stars come around.

Yes, Russert’s steady disintegration has been a real sight to behold. Consider yesterday’s show, for example. Why is the public so confused and so misinformed about Social Security? Yesterday, an answer came to our minds: Maybe they watch Meet the Press! Russert invited Republican Chuck Grassley and Democrat Charlie Rangel to discuss the vexing issue—and just like that, he played poodle again. Here was Russert’s odd first question, asked of Republican Grassley:

RUSSERT (2/13/05): I've heard the president talk about private personal accounts. I have not heard him talk about benefit reductions or tax increases. Does he understand the true problem of Social Security?
Say what? Russert “has not heard the president talk about tax increases?” On what planet has he been listening? In fact, Bush talks about tax increases all the time; he says he’s taken them off the table in any discussion of Social Security. But incredibly, Russert’s viewers would never learn that elementary fact this day. What follows is Q-and-A number 2. As with Rumsfeld the week before, Grassley’s answer produced no reaction:
RUSSERT: So you're confident that if you put together legislation that includes private and personal accounts but also includes some benefit reductions and tax increases for the next generation, the president would sign that bill?

GRASSLEY: The answer is yes.

“The answer is yes?” Repeatedly, Bush has said that he won’t sign a bill that involves tax increases. But so what? Russert showed no sign of surprise at Grassley’s statement, and Rangel never said a word either. (Likely explanation: Dems don’t want to discuss tax hikes.) At any rate, if you watched the entire twenty-minute segment, you never heard that President Bush has ruled out payroll tax increases. Later, Russert even challenged Rangel about the Grassley statement:
RUSSERT: Senator Grassley said, Congressman Rangel, that a package of some form of personal private accounts plus benefits cuts plus tax increases is something the president would sign. Is that something you can embrace?
Why is the public so confused about Social Security? Maybe it’s because of meandering, disorganized, fact-free discussions like the one Russert staged on this day.

Of course, Russert has two questioning styles, as we’ve often seen in the past. With Republican guests, he sits and stares, no matter how foolish the answers might be (re-read Rummy’s answer above). But with Democrat guests, he takes a new tack; he dredges up some dusty old quote with which he can hammer his guest. And yes, that’s just how he started with Rangel. As he posed his first question for Charlie, the fearless old bulldog was yapping again—and he was yanking a three-year-old quote out of any recognizable context:

RUSSERT: Congressman Rangel, you said that you “vowed to make Republicans back down from their current effort to distance ‘privatization’ from Social Security reform plans many of them embrace. ‘We're going to wrap it around their neck until they come to the floor and say they didn't mean what they said. Every time they say ‘Social Security,’ we'll say ‘privatization.’” Is that your plan?
Wow! It almost sounded like Charlie Rangel was pledging to be an obstructionist! “I don't remember saying that, but it sure sounds like me,” the Dem said. But in this case, there happened to be a very good reason why Rangel may not have remembered his statement (full text below); the statement was almost three years old, and he had been discussing a narrow issue when he made it (although there was no way to know that from Russert’s absurd presentation). What had Rangel been talking about in May 2002, when he made the obscure statement Russert now quoted? He had been discussing the GOP’s new attempt to drop the naughty word “privatization” from any discussion of Social Security. Yep! Rangel’s statement was three years old, and it involved a narrow issue—an issue Russert didn’t mention. But then, that’s a good example of Russert’s style when he starts throwing questions at Dems. Dems get pointless old quotes which sound embarrassing—irrelevant quotes stripped of all context. Republicans get softballs dropped in their lap—by a host who stares into air, no matter what answer they give.

In fairness, Russert occasionally challenged Grassley, but generally, he did so incoherently, in line with the bulk of his work this day (more—much mnore—tomorrow). Were Russert’s biases showing on Sunday? More significant was his abject failure to frame a coherent discussion. His guests wandered aimlessly all through the land, with their host failing to frame a tight focus. How unfocused did the talk get? By the end, Rangel and Grassley were deep in the weeds, debating their Senate “thrift account.” Of one thing you can be perfectly sure: No one watching the show had the slightest idea what the two men were talking about:

RANGEL: The reason privatization doesn't work is as soon as they move from the wage index, as you were talking about earlier, your benefits are reduced by 40 to 50 percent. If you're successful in the market, then they reduce your benefits by the increase in the market. If you want to have a separate account, like we're supposed to have in the thrift account, you don't take anything away from the Social Security Trust Fund, you don't reduce the benefits of the people, you still have disability insurance and survivor benefits. Put me in. I hope the senator will join me.
Say what? Trust us—no one knew what Rangel was saying (and yes, this was the day’s first reference to that Senate “thrift account”). But so what? Russert had long since lost control, and Grassley just kept on going:
GRASSLEY (continuing directly): But the reason they trust Wall Street is because it's their own money and they're determining the destiny of the own money and they don't trust political leaders in Washington who have screwed up the Social Security system so many times that you get the bill passed in 1977 that's supposed to solve the problem for the next 50 years, and we're, in 1984 we're back solving it again, and here we are right now talking about the need for an additional solution. We ought to fix it once and for all, Charlie, and we've got that opportunity now. We need to seize the opportunity. Thank God the president's leading the debate, and we'll get it done.
RANGEL: Doesn't the government select the stocks that can be invested with the president's program? And you can't pull your money out as you can with the thrift plan.

GRASSLEY: It'll be exactly the same way—

RANGEL: It would not be!

GRASSLEY: —that it is for the thrift plan.

RANGEL: We can take withdrawals out of our thrift. You can't do it then. You take your money out—

GRASSLEY: Well, you can't take your money out of Social Security now unless you retire.

RANGEL: But you're talking about being in charge of your own destiny.

GRASSLEY: Oh, you are in charge of it. You get a chance—

RANGEL: With the thrift account, you bet your life I am!

RUSSERT: To be continued. We're going to continue covering this debate and I hope both of you will come back.

“To be continued,” the hapless host said. Surely, viewers joined us in asking the obvious question: Was that a threat or a promise?

The discussion ended in total confusion, with the guests debating an unexplained “thrift account.” But then, it had started with Russert pretending that Bush is open to tax increases! Why is the public so confused, so misinformed on SS? Maybe because they watch Meet the Press! Tomorrow, we look at the utter confusion as Russert tries to limn Bush’s plan.

TOMORROW: Part 2! Challenging Grassley

HOW TO FRAG A DEM WITH A QUOTE: Russert found his pointless old quote in National Journal’s CongressDaily (May 15, 2002). What had Rangel been talking about? Simple—the GOP was making an effort to eliminate the familiar word “privatization,” a word which doesn’t poll very well. It was an extremely narrow issue, and it was a three-year-old quote. But Russert didn’t bother explaining. That’s how this slick man proceeds:

NATIONAL JOURNAL (5/15/02): House Ways and Means ranking member Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., vowed to make Republicans back down from their current effort to distance “privatization” from the Social Security reform plans many of them embrace. "We're going to wrap it around their neck until they come to floor and say they didn't mean what they said," Rangel promised during an interview with CongressDaily. "Every time they say Social Security, we'll say privatization." Rangel dismissed recent GOP efforts to convince people that GOP-backed reform plans would not privatize the system. He observed that the GOP mantra for years has been to provide vouchers for individuals and create a greater role for the private sector so that people will no longer look to government for help. "It is a great theory Republicans believe in for each and every area—except as it related to farmers," he quipped, referring to the $190 billion farm bill that became law Tuesday.

Rangel said Democrats would show how dozens of organizations that have studied the issue and individuals who support private accounts have used the term privatization for years. Those groups range from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the Urban Institute to the Federal Reserve Board, and individual legislators including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and House Rules Chairman Dreier.

On Meet the Press, Rangel said he didn’t remember the quote. Indeed, the quote was so old and so obscure—and so denuded of any context—we’d even guess he was telling the truth! But so what? Russert took this hazy old quote—and it became his first question to Charlie.

PLAYING JON STEWART: On Friday, we reviewed Joe Klein’s ludicrous column in last week’s Time, the one which slammed “the incredible shrinking Dems” for their “boorish,” “churlish” reaction to Bush and his glorious Social Security plan. Four days after the State of the Union, Klein was in love with that speech:

KLEIN (in Time; released 2/6/05): [Bush’s] speech last week was striking, and not just for that memorable hug. It could easily have been delivered by a New Democrat, with the exceptions of his empty call for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage—a congressional nonstarter, but a sop to religious conservatives—and his continued refusal to support federal funding for new stem-cell-research lines. No doubt, neither Bill Clinton nor Al Gore would have invaded Iraq unilaterally or lowered taxes on the rich, but this wasn't a speech about that. It celebrated democracy abroad and proposed a reformed bureaucracy at home. Clinton was moving, before Monica Lewinsky derailed him, toward significant changes in Social Security and Medicare—especially Medicare, for which he was ready to support a market-oriented approach but retreated at the behest of congressional liberals who supported him during the impeachment fiasco. Clinton or Gore might have talked, as Bush did, about the impact of HIV/AIDS on the African-American community, and the need to make defense lawyers more familiar with DNA testing, and might even have proposed that the First Lady lead an antigang initiative.
You’d never know there was anything wrong with Bush’s plan for Social Security—the one which “proposed a reformed bureaucracy.” But luckily, a whimsical reader sent us the transcript of Joe’s remarks on The Daily Show, remarks delivered just three nights earlier. Does Joe Klein even know who he is? On TDS, he played his host by trashing every part of Bush’s plan:
KLEIN (on The Daily Show, 2/3/05): What were we talking about? Oh—Social Security! Here’s the cool thing about Social Security. Yesterday, before the speech, the White House explains it to reporters—the private investment accounts—and here’s the way it works. You put your money in your own private investment account and then, when it’s time for you to retire you give a whole lot of it back to the government so that they can dribble out little benefits to you that are the equivalent of Social Security as it now stands.

STEWART: That’s really what this plan is?

KLEIN: If you make more than a designated amount you might get to keep a little bit extra. Yes.

STEWART: That’s it?

KLEIN: It’s an annuity!

STEWART: But here’s what I don’t understand, how does that—

KLEIN: It’s really remarkable.

STEWART: But how does that save Social Security because it’s still, the government still has to dish out the same amount of money, no?

KLEIN: Uh, well, they’re going to lower our benefits is what they’re actually going to do and the president said he would last night. By the way, this plan, the plan that the President has laid out—

STEWART: Right.

KLEIN: I read through the briefing like three times. It’s more complicated than Hillary’s health-care plan.

STEWART: Really?

KLEIN: It’s really amazing when you actually see it.

STEWART: Can I tell you something that I think solves it?

KLEIN: What?

STEWART: Soylent Green, we take the old people…

To watch this interview, just click here.

The biggest problems with Klein’s Time column remain the ones we cited last week. He trashed those “boorish” Dems for an innocuous statement by Ron Reagan—a TV pundit who isn’t a Democrat. He called Harry Reid a “demagogue” for daring to make an obvious observation about the outlines of Bush’s plan. Worst of all, he baldly misstated the part of Bush’s speech which provoked derision from congressional Dems, pretending that Dems had tried to reject a perfectly accurate statement by Bush. But will the real Joe Klein stand up? On The Daily Show, he trashed Bush’s “amazing” plan, calling it Even-Worse-Than-Hillary! Four days later, his column appeared. Assignment: Read the transcript, then read the column. Then try to stitch them together.

Oh yes—one last point. Note Klein’s statement to Stewart: “Well, they’re going to lower our benefits...and the president said he would last night.” Four days later, he called Reid a “demagogue” for making this same observation.

JUST LIKE BILL AND AL: In his spare time, Jon could have some real fun with Joe’s column. According to Joe, Bush’s speech could have come from Clinton or Gore! Well—except for:

1) the ban on gay marriage
2) the stem-cell refusal
3) the war in Iraq
4) the tax cuts for the rich
In Time, Joe skipped the other flaw with Bush’s speech—the Rube Goldberg-like plan for your Social Security. Aside than that—and the other four items—it was just like something Gore would have said!