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Daily Howler: Why did libs bungle the Dan Rather flap? We start with one scribe's Happy Landing
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PROLOGUE—THE LATEST HAPPY LANDING! Why did libs bungle the Dan Rather flap? We start with one scribe’s Happy Landing: // link // print // previous // next //

NOTE: We start with the bungling on yesterday’s Sunday talk shows. The prologue to our Dan Rather series will be found below.

HAGEL CONFUSES WHILE BOB SCHIEFFER SNOOZES: It’s sad when pols with reputations for candor go on TV and bamboozle the public. But on yesterday’s Face the Nation, it took Chuck Hagel all of 35 seconds to make his first groaning misstatement:

HAGEL (3/6/05): Well, first, Bob, thank you for the opportunity to explain my program a little bit. Two facts I think are important for the American people to understand. One: The Social Security Administration has noted that actuarially, the current Social Security program, out over into the next 75 years, is unsustainable. That means that we have $3.7 trillion in unfunded liabilities. That means that we have $3.7 trillion in obligations and commitments to future retirees that we don't have money to pay for. So already we are $3.7 trillion—at least $3.7 trillion—in debt over the next 75 years. Now those are two facts. They're indisputable. [Hagel’s emphasis]
Of course, Hagel’s “indisputable fact” is really a projection—and yes, it’s very much in dispute. Is Social Security “at least $3.7 trillion in debt over the next 75 years?” Hagel is citing the gloomy projection of the Social Security trustees, but the CBO says the shortfall is much smaller—only about $2 trillion. It would have been easy for Hagel’s host, Bob Schieffer, to offer a simple factual challenge in the interest of clarification—but as always, the great man stared into air. Yep—while Hagel was confusin’, Bob Schieffer was snoozin’! It only took seconds for Hagel to misstate—and for Schieffer to let it go, without comment.

And sadly, matters got much worse when Hagel explained how he’d make up that shortfall. Where would he find that $3.7 trillion? Soon, Hagel would engage in complete obfuscation. But he began with a pair of clear statements:

HAGEL (continuing directly): So if that's the case—and it is the case—what do we do?...[W]hat I do to do that over the next 75 years, recognizing what I've just said as the actuarial facts here, is, Number one, I extend in 2023 the full-benefit retirement age from, as you noted, 67 to 68...

Second, what I do is I keep 62 as the early retirement age. Currently you can take an early retirement at 62, but you're penalized early retirement-wise, taking only 70 percent of the benefits. I move those benefits to 63 [percent].

Hagel’s first two points were perfectly clear; he’d raise the retirement age one year, and he’d slightly reduce SS benefits for people who retire at age 62. But yes, you’re right—it doesn’t seem that those minor changes could really wipe out that revenue shortfall. So now, Hagel reached the key part of his plan—and surrendered himself to High Obfuscation. Try to figure out what he said when he described how he would save big money:
HAGEL (continuing directly): And the third thing I do to make the system solvent is put into the wage-based indexing something that has never been done before, and that's life expectancy. You live longer, then you're going to draw more Social Security. So that's how we do it.
Huh? Employing some world-class double-speak, Hagel made it sound like he’d give you more money! “You live longer, then you're going to draw more Social Security. So that's how we do it,” he pleasingly said. And as he said it, this widely-praised man was baldly deceiving Joe Sixpack.

What was Hagel really describing with that bit of double-speak? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t really know; his statement was wholly incoherent, and Schieffer didn’t make any attempt to force him to explain what he meant. But in yesterday morning’s Washington Post, Charles Babington described Hagel’s three-step plan. When it came to Part 3 of that program, Babington wasn’t real clear either. But note the troubling phrase that appeared when he described that part of the plan:

BABINGTON (3/6/05): To strengthen Social Security's long-term financing, starting in 2023 Hagel would: raise the retirement age, now 67, to 68; allow those who retire at 62 to draw 63 percent of full benefits rather than 70 percent; and slow the growth of benefits by accounting for longer life expectancies.
Uh-oh! No, you can’t really tell from Babington’s piece how that third part of the program would work. But Babington does say that Part 3 of the plan would “slow the growth of benefits.” That’s a polite way of describing the fact which Hagel was at great pains to conceal. The third part of Hagel’s plan would cut future promised benefits. By how much would it cut those benefits? We don’t know; snoozing Schieffer didn’t ask.

So yes—along with raising the retirement age, Hagel would cut future promised benefits, and not just for those who take early retirement. But if you watched him on Face the Nation, you got no idea of that basic fact. Hagel slickly made it sound like you’d “draw more Social Security” under his plan. CBS viewers were badly misled—and Schieffer just stared off, into air.

In days to come, we may learn how much Hagel’s plan would cut those future promised benefits. In the meantime, it’s sad when pols with reputations for candor do on TV and bamboozle the public. Hagel was in Full Obfuscation Mode. But then, it’s easy with Schieffer.

YOU HAVE TO WATCH FOX TO SEE BUSH CONTRADICTED (CONTINUED): Once again, the amazing fact—when it comes to our Sunday morning programs, you actually have to watch Fox News to see someone challenge George Bush’s dissembling! Last Friday, Bush set out to deceive the public, as he so constantly does; he said that his plan for private accounts “is an add-on to that which the government is going to pay you. It doesn't replace the Social Security system.” Plainly, that statement made no sense; it was a blatant attempt to mislead. (To see Josh Marshall’s longer treatment, click here.) And on Fox News Sunday, to his vast credit, host Chris Wallace said just that to Bush uber-hack Dan Bartlett:

WALLACE (3/6/05): All right, let me ask you something about education [sic]. This is how President Bush described his idea for personal accounts this last week. Let's take a look.

BUSH (videotape): Personal accounts is an add-on to that which the government's going to pay you. It doesn't replace the Social Security system.

WALLACE: Mr. Bartlett, that's not right. The president's plan is not an add-on, is it?

“Mr. Bartlett, that’s not right,” Wallace said, actually playing the role of a journalist. And Bartlett, of course, just kept on dissembling, the way the Bush White House always does:
BARTLETT (continuing directly): Absolutely. Absolutely.

WALLACE: It's an add-on?

BARTLETT: Absolutely. See, this—

WALLACE: Well, wait a minute. Wouldn't it take revenue out of Social Security?

BARTLETT: Well, an add-on in the respect that there is disinformation being spread across the country that there will be no government benefit provided to future retirees. That is absolutely false.

To his credit, Wallace kept pursuing this consummate nonsense, and Bartlett just kept insisting that the president’s plan was an “add-on” after all.

No, nothing will stop this White House rom its dissembling. But on Fox News Sunday, you got to see Wallace perform like an actual newsman, challenging blatant White House deception. But sadly, as we’ve noted before, if you want to see Bush’s dissembling contradicted, there’s nowhere to turn except to Fox! Yesterday morning, Bartlett also appeared on ABC’s This Week and CNN’s Late Edition—and the supine hosts of those two programs never said Boo about Bush’s misstatement. George Stephanopoulos and Wolf Blitzer know their place. They politely stared off into air.

By the way, one other person flagged Bush’s howler on the Sunday programs. On Meet the Press, the Post’s Mike Allen mentioned the statement—but go ahead and enjoy a good laugh as you see what Allen told Tim Russert:

ALLEN (3/6/05): The president on Friday described private and personal accounts as an add-on to Social Security, something extra. And that set off a lot of bells because Democrats said either he's being deceptive or he's completely changed his negotiating position. I checked on this. The White House says he has not changed anything. They said it's just how it came out and you won't hear that again.
Poor Allen!“You won’t hear that statement again,” the gullible scribe assured Russert. But even as Allen was making this statement, Bartlett was on the air at Fox, loudly affirming the president’s howler. So it goes when a grossly deceptive White House meets an obedient “press corps.”

Yesterday, you actually had to turn to Fox to see George Bush’s dissembling challenged. Everywhere else, hosts knew their place. Everywhere else, all was silent.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Wallace has been the lone truth-teller before. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/18/05.

BLITZER KEEPS UP THE CLOWNING: At Late Edition, Blitzer maintained the press corps’ clowning about those transition costs. Here was his final question to Bartlett:

BLITZER (3/6/05): One final question: How much is the transition cost estimated at? Democrats say maybe $2 trillion, if not more. How much do you—
Democrats say “maybe $2 trillion, if not more?” Dick Cheney said it’s at least three trillion! But so what? Blitzer stuck with a safer script. And note the way a shark like Bartlett deals with a stooge like Blitzer:
BARTLETT (continuing directly): Well, you're throwing numbers around. We've made very clear that President Bush has listened to the concerns of not only members of Congress but to the markets, that we be cognizant of our budget situation as we phase in accounts. And that's why we've planned just that. Over the next 10 years, it would be about $750 billion, far from what critics claim to be $2 trillion.
“You’re throwing numbers around,” Bartlett said—implying that Blitzer’s numbers must be too high! In fact, Cheney has said the costs will be at least three trillion—but by narrowing his time frame, Bartlett made it sound like the cost would be far less than two! Blitzer, of course, just starred into air. “Dan Bartlett, thanks very much for joining us,” he said after Bartlett finished his answer. “Always a pleasure,” Bartlett replied. We’d have to guess that the uber-shill meant it.

PELOSI’S FOLLY: But for all the bumbling by those obedient hosts, the most remarkable Sunday performance was turned in by Nancy Pelosi. She appeared on Fox News Sunday—and she was stunningly unprepared and inept. How bizarre was Pelosi’s performance? At one point, she even said this:

PELOSI (3/6/05): Your previous speaker [Bartlett] said incorrectly that Social Security would be in the red in 2018. That's simply not true. The more money going out than coming in doesn't start until 2030. There's time for us to do this right.
Incredible, isn’t it? The system’s trustees say that Social Security can pay full benefits until 2042. The CBO says the problem doesn’t begin for ten years after that—until 2052. So what does Pelosi say on behalf of the Dems? Amazingly, she seems to say that the shortfall begins in the year 2030! Pelosi may be referring to the year when SS stops cashing in the interest on its trust fund and starts to pay down its principal instead (an utterly trivial green eye-shade distinction). But as a matter of simple politics, this presentation could hardly be stupider. And yes—Pelosi bumbled through every part of her presentation, She was incoherent throughout, and plainly uncomfortable. Without question, this was one of the worst Sunday TV outings we have ever seen.

But then, Big Dem Leaders continued to showcase a level of stunning incompetence on yesterday’s programs. In particular, they offered a wild array of contradictory claims about the Bush plan’s transition costs. On Meet the Press, Russert played a DNC ad which said the transition would cost $4.5 trillion. On the same program, Senator Dick Durbin said the costs would be “$2 trillion to $5 trillion,” thereby undercutting what Cheney himself has said. On Face the Nation, Barbara Boxer seemed to say $5 trillion over 20 years. And Pelosi actually seemed to say that transition costs would be fifteen trillion over 45 years! In this case, Pelosi may have been making the most effective and informative statement—but her presentation was so unclear it was hard to tell just what she was saying. But then, this was true of almost every statement the House Dem leader made on this program.

The enormous “transition costs” of Bush’s plan are a potent talking-point for Democrats. Despite that, the party has completely failed to establish a uniform presentation, and individual Dems persistently understate the actual costs of transition. As with Durbin, they often understate what even Dick Cheney has said! This represents a level of incompetence that almost defines the word “malfeasance.” Plainly, the current Dem Party is wholly incapable. There is no task so simple and obvious that the Who-Gives-A-Good-Goldarn-Gang can handle it. At some point, it becomes hard to criticize fawning scribes when the Democrats function this way.

PROLOGUE—THE LATEST HAPPY ENDING: Starting tomorrow, we’ll examine the way your liberal “spokesmen” responded to the Dan Rather flap. But for an intriguing prologue to our rumination, let’s consider a change of address we might describe as The Latest Happy Landing.

A bit of background: In late November 2002, we marveled at a puzzling piece by the Washington Monthly’s Nick Confessore (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/29/02). Confessore, a fiery liberal, was analyzing a fairly obvious fact. Paul Krugman had become a famous pundit by trashing the Bush Admin’s lying, Confessore said. But for some strange reason, Confessore noted, mainstream reporters and center-left pundits hadn’t chosen to follow Krugman’s lead. The Monthly scribe was puzzled by this. “What makes Krugman interesting, in short, is not just why he writes what he writes. It’s why nobody else does,” the scribe wrote.

Confessore had noted an important fact—the rest of the press corps’ reporters and pundits had left Krugman twisting in the wind. The comedy came when the Monthly scribe tried to explain this situation. Why had others left Krugman hanging? First, Confessore politely explained the failure of mainstream reporters to examine the “facade of lies” surrounding the Bush budget plans:

CONFESSORE (12/02): [I]f dismantling the facade of lies around, say, Bush’s tax cut is so easy to do—and makes you the most talked-about newspaper writer in the country—why don’t any other reporters or columnists do it themselves? Because doing so would violate some of the informal, but strict, rules under which Washington journalists operate. Reporters usually don’t call a spade a spade, unless the lie is small or something personal. When it comes to big policy disagreements, most reporters prefer a he-said, she-said approach—and any policy with a white paper or press release behind it is presumed to be plausible and sincere, no matter how farfetched or deceptive it may be.
Politely, Confessore re-typed a tired old line; reporters weren’t “dismantling the facade of lies” because to do so would “violate some of the strict rules under which journalists operate!” In short, reporters weren’t reporting the facade of lies because they were far too professional! And don’t worry—Confessore’s clowning was just getting started. Having praised reporters for their inaction, the bright young writer politely explained why pundits weren’t echoing Krugman:
CONFESSORE (continuing directly): Similarly, among pundits of the broad center-left, it’s considered gauche to criticize the right too persistently, no matter the merits of one’s argument. The only worse sin is to defend a politician too persistently; then you become not a bore, but a disgrace to the profession and its independence—even if you’re correct. Thus, in Washington circles, liberal Times columnist Bob Herbert is written off as a predictable hack, while The New York Observer's Joe Conason, who vigorously defended the Clintons during the now-defunct Whitewater affair, is derided as shrill and embarrassing. Obviously, conservative columnists and pundits aren't quite as averse to being persistent or shrill. But center-left journalists do not, to put it mildly, take their cues about what's acceptable practice from conservative pundits.
Confessore was describing great moral cowardice—but he almost made it sound heroic. Why were center-left pundits so quiet? Easy! Such pundits “do not, to put it mildly, take their cues about what's acceptable practice from conservative pundits!” It couldn’t be that these pundits were vast moral cowards; instead, Confessore said that they were simply refusing to act like a bunch of conservative hacks! No, this didn’t make any sense. But as he continued, Confessore kept making it sound like the cowardice of his center-left colleagues was a badge of professional honor:
CONFESSORE (continuing directly): That's because liberal journalists and conservative journalists have different value systems. Most liberal pundits—E.J. Dionne, Ronald Brownstein, or Maureen Dowd—came up through the newsroom ranks, a culture that demands shows of intellectual independence from politicians, especially Democrats. Many conservative pundits, on the other hand—Safire, Tony Blankley, or Peggy Noonan—come straight from political careers, a culture that encourages intellectual fealty and indulges one-sidedness. Krugman is not a journalist by training, and he's never held appointive or elective office. But like conservative pundits, he doesn't feel bound by the niceties that professional reporters do. Hence the discomfort with Krugman's methods among center-left journalists.
Why were center-left pundits so quiet in the face of Bush’s “facade of lies?” Why were they trashing Krugman (and Herbert; and Conason) at their fancy cocktail parties? Could it be that they were moral cowards? Could it be that they just didn’t care about the policies Bush was pimping through that “facade of lies?” No, it couldn’t be any of that—so Confessore found nobler motives! According to Confessore, liberal pundits were staying silent due to their “value systems;” they had “c[o]me up through the newsroom ranks, a culture that demands shows of intellectual independence from politicians!” According to Confessore’s laughable presentation, if Dionne, Dowd or Brownstein had discussed that “facade of lies,” that would have meant they were being “one-sided.” Why weren’t these pundits following Krugman? Easy! They “felt bound by the niceties” of their profession. Krugman, a non-journalist, didn’t.

Confessore’s analysis was utterly laughable—an insult to the intelligence of Monthly readers. According to Confessore himself, Bush was involved in “a facade of lies”—but he made it sound like his “center-left” colleagues were being Top Pros when they refused to pursue that story! They were following their high-minded “value systems.” They were refusing to “violate the strict rules under which Washington journalists operate.” They were showing “cultural independence from politicians” and refusing to be “one-sided.” And they were refusing to “take their cues about acceptable practice from conservative pundits”—from the very conservative pundits Monthly readers correctly dislike. By the time Confessore got done, he had almost transformed his Silent Colleagues into Heroes of Modern Press Culture. What a stud! He praised Paul Krugman for dismantling Bush’s lies. And he praised the rest of his cohort because they hadn’t dismantled them!

Yes, Confessore made a set of silly excuses for the failures of the mainstream press—and in the culture of the mainstream press, such fawning is always rewarded. Result? At long last, in late December, we got the good news. Confessore would no longer write for the low-budget Monthly; no, at age 28, our man had arrived; he’d now be employed by the New York Times, a paper that pays a good salary! “Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel Is Going the Way of the Pince-Nez,” said the headline atop the scribe’s first report. Confessore, polite to the end, had arrived at a Great Destination.

Yes, writing dumb-ass stories about the Plaza is part of the road a young hustler must walk. But so is the road of December 02, when Confessore showed he was willing to fawn to the ways of a cowardly press corps. Even in the “liberal” Monthly, the bright young scribe knew to play by the rules. And two years later, his ship came in—as it has done for so many young scribes who have made such a joke of your interests.

Starting tomorrow, we’ll discuss the way the liberal world responded to the Dan Rather matter. The liberal response was pathetic, inept—another lesson in how to lose the Spin Wars that now drive our national politics. And why was the liberal response so inept? Why did libs lack a Master Narrative about CBS and rest of the mainstream press? In part, because the press corps is full of Confessores—fiery liberals who put their own careers ahead of your vital interests. They won’t tell the truth about the press—and those “conservative pundits” eat them for lunch, and eat your interests for lunch along with them. The story here will be somewhat complex, but it will all be clear in due time. And oh yes: As a side story, we’ll offer more stories of happy landings as our larger rumination unfolds.

TOMORROW—PART 1: Rare liberal success! Flavia Colgan (almost) gets it right!