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DREAM DEFERRED! Ten years ago, it would have seemed like a dream—two nightly liberal programs: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MARCH 26, 2009

Your HOWLER keeps getting results: Hey, wait a minute! Two days ago, we said this—and we said it about Nick Kristof! But this morning, here’s how Kristof starts:

KRISTOF (3/26/09): Ever wonder how financial experts could lead the world over the economic cliff?

One explanation is that so-called experts turn out to be, in many situations, a stunningly poor source of expertise.

Wait a minute! On Tuesday, we said that Kristof takes script from “educational experts” too quickly—and we said that such “experts” are frequently wrong! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/24/09.) Two days later, Kristof hates experts! And look at the example he chose:

KRISTOF: The best example of the awe that an “expert” inspires is the “Dr. Fox effect.” It’s named for a pioneering series of psychology experiments in which an actor was paid to give a meaningless presentation to professional educators.

The actor was introduced as “Dr. Myron L. Fox” (no such real person existed) and was described as an eminent authority on the application of mathematics to human behavior. He then delivered a lecture on “mathematical game theory as applied to physician education”—except that by design it had no point and was completely devoid of substance. However, it was warmly delivered and full of jokes and interesting neologisms.

Afterward, those in attendance were given questionnaires and asked to rate “Dr. Fox.” They were mostly impressed. “Excellent presentation, enjoyed listening,” wrote one. Another protested: “Too intellectual a presentation.”

In fairness, Kristof is back on message here; his dim-witted rubes are “professional educators,” rather than big major scribes. But on Tuesday, we’d painted this very same picture, saying that Kristof was too inclined to defer to the dicta of ’sperts.

Don’t trust the experts, Kristof warns, sounding a like a form of ourselves. Indeed, a curious thought played in our brains when he cited an “expert on experts:”

KRISTOF: The expert on experts is Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His 2005 book, “Expert Political Judgment,” is based on two decades of tracking some 82,000 predictions by 284 experts. The experts’ forecasts were tracked both on the subjects of their specialties and on subjects that they knew little about.

The result? The predictions of experts were, on average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses—the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.

The “experts” often don’t get it right? Isn’t that what we just said, without making the crack about the chimps? Indeed, a curious thought now played in our brains: Could “Philip Tetlock” be a code-name, Kristof’s way of honoring us? We didn’t even google “Tetlock,” so much did we want to believe.

Your HOWLER often gets results, but rarely do its results come so quickly. “So what about a system to evaluate us prognosticators?” Kristof asks as he closes his column . “Hold us accountable!” he loftily says.

Dude, the analysts begged us to cry. Reread Tuesday’s HOWLER! We did!

A DREAM DEFERRED: Ten years ago, it would have seemed like a dream—the notion of having two nightly cable programs driven by progressive outlooks. Do you mind if we indulge in a speculation? If Countdown and The Rachel Maddow Show had existed in 1999, there’s little chance that George W. Bush would ever have reached the White House—little chance that all those tales about Gore would have survived for two years.

(Deep background: Of course, these shows would not have gone on TV unless their hosts accepted Insider Conventional Wisdom. On Hardball, Chris Matthews was lavishing praise on wondrous Bill Bradley—and endlessly trashing Crazy Nut Gore. That’s the deal these hosts would have had to accept. Are you certain they wouldn’t have done that?)

Back to what’s real: Countdown and Maddow are now on the air—and the clowning and dumbness are sometimes quite massive. It would be hard to overstate the sheer stupidity of last night’s Countdown, to cite one example—a program which started like this, then slid downhill from there:

OLBERMANN (3/25/09): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

How far will the GOP go to sink the recovery in hopes of damaging the president? The caller to C-SPAN says we are heading into fascism. House Whip Cantor responds:

CANTOR (videotape): I think what the public is doing they`re finally waking up and everybody is realizing that checks and balances are part of the system.

That’s right. Olbermann’s top news story was Cantor’s failure to rebuke a C-Span caller for a stupid remark about “fascism.” (His back-up complaint, cited throughout: Instead of watching Obama’s press conference, Cantor attended a Britney Spears concert.) Forgive us for noting that Olbermann, and at least one guest, spent some time confusing the issue of just who had used that term:

HOWARD DEAN (3/25/09): So, you know, the Republicans are going to have a long way to go here if they—if this is their first tactic. They’ve got to figure out how to reach the moderate middle. And you don’t do it by calling people “fascists” and all this other kind of business.

OLBERMANN: So, is Jon Alter right? Every time something like this happens, you and the other leaders of the Democratic Party sit back and try to stifle a loud, braying laugh?

DEAN: Well, I don’t laugh at the Republicans because they were pretty effective in winning elections for a long time. But I just scratch my head and think, you know, what are they—obviously, polling does not tell you to call the president of the United States a fascist. So, they must be doing something very peculiar at the RNC. And I’m not sure what it is. But I think their problem is that they’re just in disarray.

There was more, but we’ll do it tomorrow.

Regarding that dream from ten years ago: Countdown is a “liberal” program—but it has become a bad nightly joke, one of the dumbest programs ever. Meanwhile, consider what happened last night when the progressive host who isn’t a clown “looked out for you” concerning a key, central question—the very central, very key question of possible Senate filibusters.

The host in question was Rachel Maddow, who is so intellectually acute that she has to ask her friend, Kent Jones, to clue her on popular culture each night. She started last night’s program with a very serious, very seminal topic. Why are “a group of 16 self-proclaimed moderate Democrats” “deciding to give Republicans as much power as they can?” That’s a lopsided framework—but the question is central. To show you how strongly she feels on the topic, we’ll present her statement in full:

MADDOW (3/25/09): Tonight, at this very hour, President Obama is back on the rubber-chicken circuit. Obama is headlining a pair of Democratic Party fund-raisers tonight, the first he has done for the party since taking office. Democrats are no doubt delighted to benefit from the effortless, sky’s-the-limit fund-raising possibilities of having a president of your own party available to headline those often sort of awful dinners.

The president, on the other hand, has to be considering just what it is that he is lending his star power to. The president earlier today was on Capitol Hill, lobbying for his budget with the people he needs to persuade to pass it. Not the Republicans, of course, since no matter how many times Republican call him a socialist or a fascist or a “whatever-ist,” the Republican opposition to the president and to his agenda is sort of mathematically impotent. The Democrats have huge majorities in both houses of Congress.

So, the president went to meet with Senate Democrats today, not with Republicans, because if he does have any problem passing his legislative agenda, it will be because of opposition from his own party. [Comical voice] Who exactly am I doing this fund-raiser for again?

Yes. A group of 16 self-proclaimed moderate Democrats in the Senate have recently joined forces to essentially put the brakes on President Obama’s agenda, by forming a second right flank against him along with the Republicans.

Today, they defended that strategy in an op-ed in the Washington Post. Senators Evan Bayh, Tom Carper and Blanche Lincoln said, quote, "It is not our intent to water down the president’s agenda. We intend to strengthen and sustain it."

They go on to argue that, the way they see it, there’s no way to pass anything through the Senate except by going through them. Quote: "On nearly all important votes, a super-majority of 60 senators will be needed to pass legislation. Without Democratic moderates working to find common ground with reasonable Republicans, the president`s agenda could well be filibustered into oblivion."

“Filibustered into oblivion.” That sounds bad, right? And if you support President Obama getting his agenda passed, that agenda being [comical voice] filibustered into oblivion—that would be bad. How could that be avoided? Well, one way would to be to not let the Republicans filibuster everything.

Democrats have the choice of bringing up important legislation under rules that don’t allow a filibuster. Legislation like health care reform or the global warming bill could just require a simple majority vote, 51 votes, in order to pass. No “filibustering into oblivion.” Problem solved, right?

Well, conservative Democrats are blocking that—because they want the Republicans to be able to stop Obama’s agenda? Democrats do? How can you simultaneously warn that the Republican filibuster could send the president’s agenda into “oblivion” and then argue in favor of that filibuster?

I mean, of course, you can simultaneously argue for those two things: They’ll kill the president’s agenda! I want them to be able to kill the president’s agenda! You can argue for those two things, but then you can’t also get away with saying you’re in favor of the president’s agenda. Not if you`re being forced to make sense, that is.

In the United States Senate right now, Democrats control 58 seats. Republicans hold 41 seats. In other words, Democrats have a huge majority because voters decided to send that many Democrats to Washington alongside the new Democratic president—thinking, and I know this is a leap here, but thinking presumably that a Democratic president with big Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress might do Democratic things, might pass a Democratic agenda.

Anyone voting against a Democratic agenda voted Republican. Those votes produced a vewwy small Republican minority in Congress. A small minority that now has way more power than they otherwise would because of conservative Democrats deciding to give Republicans as much power as they can.

In general, the American people, I don’t think, are all that concerned with process, right? With how many votes you need to pass something. Pass health care reform with 90 votes or with 51 votes—I don’t care. Just pass it!

You know what might concern them, though, the fact that the country can elect 58 Democratic senators—58!—and the Democrats still can’t figure out how to get stuff passed! They still can’t figure out how to get major policies passed without watering those policies down or even blocking them to inexplicably please the Republicans.

[apparent switch to videotape]

Joining us now is Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire. She’s a member of the newly formed caucus of moderate Senate Democrats. She met with President Obama today during his trip to Capitol Hill.

Senator Shaheen, thank you so much for joining us tonight. I know this probably is not your number-one choice of discussion topics right now.

Some of that analysis struck us as weak, but Maddow was asking a very key question: Why don’t Democrats insist on a strict, up-or-down vote on various parts of Obama’s agenda? If Dems have 58 senators—and they do—why don’t they insist on rules requiring a simple majority (50 votes) to get these items passed? Why don’t they insist on rules which don’t allow filibusters?

Maddow was raising a very key question. And the host was playing it rough as she led up to her session with Shaheen. (Full disclosure! Through a third party, we may have written jokes for Shaheen during her tenure as governor.) According to Maddow, “conservative Democrats” were “deciding to give Republicans as much power as they can.” They were “simultaneously warn[ing] that the Republican filibuster could send the president’s agenda into oblivion and then argu[ing] in favor of that filibuster!” You can’t do that, she thundered. “Not if you`re being forced to make sense, that is.”

And then she introduced Shaheen, bolding saying that “this probably is not your number-one choice of discussion topics right now.”

Maddow led up to the session with fire. But wouldn’t you know it! During her entire discussion with Shaheen, Maddow didn’t force the conservative Dem to make sense. More specifically, she never asked Shaheen if she plans to support rules which would require 60 votes, or why she would support such rules if she supports Obama’s agenda. She plainly didn’t ask Shaheen why she and her colleagues have “decid[ed] to give Republicans as much power as they can.” Maddow’s questions were weirdly vague, given the white-hot flame of her lead-in. Given the sass and snark she regained as soon as Shaheen was gone.

Sure enough! As soon as Shaheen was no longer around, Maddow was breathing fire again! Once again, the fiery progressive could whup every Dem in the house:

MADDOW: One More Thing about conservaDems. In their op-ed today, the three conservative Democratic senators, Evan Bayh, Tom Carper and Blanche Lincoln, based their defense of standing against President Obama’s agenda now on what they say happened 16 years ago. They said, quote, “In 1993, we stood with great expectations as the last Democratic president was sworn in with big plans, a head of steam and a Democratic Congress ready to begin a progressive era. In less than two years, it all came crashing down, with disillusioned moderate voters handing the GOP broad congressional victories in 1994."

They are referring, of course, to President Clinton, who did undoubtedly have some big legislative stumbles in his first year in office. Famously, of course, there was his effort to allow openly gay people to serve in the military. That effort to end the ban ended up getting perverted into the "Don’t ask, don’t tell" disaster, in part because conservative Democrats like Sam Nunn—say, conservaDems 1.0—they refused to support the president and thereby forced him into a compromise with Republicans that was a horrendously bad policy that does not achieve the president’s policy objectives and that politically hung him up for two years, destroyed his political capital, and helped Republicans win in the mid-terms.

In other words, the conservaDems now say they need to repeat their 1993 disaster exactly in order to prevent another 1994. We know how conservaDems 1.0 worked out. Can we apply those lessons to this new version?

Lots of sass and snark leading in. Plenty of sass and snark leading out. But during the interview, a thorough roll-over! So it goes as our liberal stars keep us happy but clueless.

(And then too, the previous night, Maddow had done a segment on the “conservaDems” which featured only one point of analysis: Evan Bayh has formed this group because he gets so much money from big corporate interests. Maddow didn’t raise that notion during this interview either.)

In fairness, interviewing is a skill, and Maddow is new to the process. But go ahead—read the transcript of her full session with Shaheen. (To watch the segment, just click here). The questions are so vague as to be virtually pointless—and Shaheen was permitted to filibuster, offering long, winding answers. By way of contrast: Later in the program, Maddow did a superlative, highly informative segment with Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND). Our analysts gave up on Countdown long ago. But this session made them dream of what this other progressive program may yet become.

Sadly, though, there will be obstacles. A great deal of the Maddow Show seems designed to let rubes gape at the vast skills of the host and her staff—at the host’s astonishing sense of humor, at her ginormously transplendent word-play. On Tuesday night, we were treated to a display of these skills as Maddow did the long, groaning segment we’ve dubbed “Hannity Lite” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/25/09). You see, even as Hannity was gonging away about weakling Obama and the war on terror, Maddow was doing a long, gruesome segment in general support of the gentleman’s thesis. Good God! The analysts ran and covered their eyes as the long, gruesome segment played out. Yes, it showcased Maddow’s brilliant humor, giving us rubes a bit of amusement. But then too, it started like this:

MADDOW (3/24/09): And big news today from the Obama administration that, frankly, is going to take a little getting used to. There is yet another new name we are supposed to use for the wars. In fact, we’re not even supposed to call them “wars” any more.

Good God. And Maddow’s treatment of this “big news” only went downhill from there. Ten years ago, it would have seemed like a dream: That two progressive programs could be on the air. That such a program would take the bait on a gong-show topic like this.

(That such a program would tell its viewers that the day’s top story involved a C-Span caller saying something dumb without being scolded. Without being scolded by a man who attended a Britney Spears concert! Cue jokes about “stimulus package!”)

The one show is now a cathedral to dumb. The other show could still rule the planet. But progressives have to pressure their broadcasters, just as Maddow has (correctly) said that progressives should pressure their pols.

Tomorrow: Oodles of jokes and top word-play

Back to Kristof’s phony expert: Remember Kristof’s phony professor—the one who gave that phony speech? “By design it had no point and was completely devoid of substance. However, it was warmly delivered and full of jokes and interesting neologisms.”

Full of jokes and interesting neologisms? We’ll have to admit, we thought of Maddow’s segment about that “big news today from the Obama administration.” You know? The big news today that wasn’t big news? The big news that Hannity ran with?