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PLUMBING THE ISSUES! We’re going to discuss that “in depth,” the host said. That’s where the humor began: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MARCH 31, 2009

How does Izzo do it: In an age of celebrity culture, Tom Izzo raises a fascinating question: How can anyone be that successful and remain almost wholly unknown?

Izzo is the Michigan State men’s basketball coach—and the anti-Paris Hilton. He’s on his way to the Final Four for the fifth time in eleven years. That’s a truly astounding achievement; only North Carolina has managed as many as four appearances during that period (click here). And yet no one has ever heard of Izzo, and there is no air of celebrity surrounding the Spartan program. When you think of other successful programs (Duke, UNC, UCLA, Kansas), you instantly imagine a culture. Michigan State? Nothing at all.

In fairness, the success of most of those other programs dates back a fairly long way. UCLA’s success dates to 1964, when a long string of triumphs began, most notably broken by Coach Wooden’s failure, the very next year, to recruit our entire staff. We weren’t going to college to play basketball, we told our high school coach when the phone call came. We were going to college to write depressing poems.

Our junior high buddy, Bobby Marcucci, became student manager of the Alcindor-era teams. We could have been the answer to a (former) trivia question, he told us once during that era. That question: Who was the worthless fifth starter on UCLA’s famous freshman team? Decades ago, every sports fan could instantly give you the answer.

Despite that early disappointment, everyone knows about Coach Wooden. Thus our current trivia question: How does Izzo do it? Why is this guy still unknown?

A question that has been on our mind: Lori Montgomery’s report in this morning’s Post points the way to a possible coming problem. Montgomery discusses the way the recession is lowering payroll tax revenues. Presumably, this could result in political and policy problems:

MONTGOMERY (3/31/09): Many liberal analysts reject the notion that Social Security needs fixing, arguing that the system is projected to fully support payments to beneficiaries through 2041—so long as the Treasury repays its debts. But they agree that the news is not good for the federal budget.

"This is not a problem for Social Security, it's a problem for fiscal responsibility," said Christian Waller, a public policy professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He said the new estimates would force President Obama and his budget director, Peter Orszag, "to stay on track in what they have set out to do, and that is rein in deficits."

The CBO, Congress's nonpartisan budget scorekeeper, released its most recent estimates for the Social Security trust fund last week as part of its final budget projections for the fiscal year that begins in October.

[...]

CBO is not the official arbiter of the trust fund's health; that task falls to the Social Security trustees, a panel of Cabinet secretaries and others who are expected to issue a new report later this spring.

Here’s the potential problem: With revenues shrinking due to recession, is it possible that the problem year for Social Security—2041—may draw a bit nearer in the next report from the SS trustees? We’ll defer to those who know more than we do. But liberals might want to start considering the political problems involved here.

Then too, we could always trash the Post for this latest outrageous report.

We think this is a bad play: Dems and libs are riding high, thanks to disasters of the Bush years. But Good God, our side can play the game dumb! We refer to just the first two grafs of this post at TPM:

BEUTLER (3/31/09): Our long national nightmare is finally over (probably), and we may have an anonymous bureaucrat in the Office of Management and Budget to thank for it. Last week, it was reported that he (or she) sent a memo to the Pentagon suggesting that the White House had had enough with the term Global War on Terror (GWOT) and would henceforth prefer the term Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO).

Soon enough, though, reporters got wind of it and administration officials—OMB chief Peter Orszag and Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell—began walking the claim back.

We think this is a very poor play. Three points:

First, a relatively minor factual matter: That “anonymous bureaucrat” isn’t anonymous, and “he or she” doesn’t seem to work at OMB. His or her name is Dave Riedel; Riedel works for the Defense Department (at the Office of Security Review). Riedel wasn’t named in the Washington Post’s news report on this topic, but he had been named in this earlier blog post by Al Kamen, co-author of the subsequent report. We know! Last Friday, Kamen misstated his own reporting as he semi-corrected his other blunders. But that’s the way things tend to get done at the Post.

More significantly: The OMB didn’t “begin walking the claim back;” their spokesman, Kenneth Baer, flatly denied it. "There was no memo, no guidance," Baer said. "This is the opinion of a career civil servant.” According to the OMB, Riedel had not been told to issue such a directive. The Post never got any reaction from Riedel; they never explained why they hadn’t.

Most significantly: Rachel Maddow, clowning around, invented the acronym “OCO” last week, first in her bungled Tuesday report, then again on Friday. Why did she keep using that funny term? “I like saying OCO,” she explained Friday night, finally saying something accurate. Unfortunately, this is precisely the sort of thing that has been used, for decades, to mock those weakling, feckless Dems. It’s amazingly dumb when other libs begin to clown around with that term. Unless we don’t care about outcomes.

Some background: The term “overseas contingency operation” has been in use as a budget term for decades, as a Nexis search instantly shows. (We record 159 hits before 2009. Example: “The FY2005 and FY2006 budget resolutions exempted up to $50 billion in overseas contingency operations funds from budget controls.” That’s from the Congressional Research Service, 2/1/08.) All last week, Hannity and Beck were mocking Fey Obama for insisting on the use of such a fancified term; that said, it’s amazingly dumb to see Big Libs clowning around with the comical acronym, which Maddow herself invented. We plan to review Maddow’s reports on this topic at the end of this week. In the meantime, the humorous use of this funny acronym seems like a loser’s play.

“Overseas contingency operation” is a budget term. As far as anyone has shown, Fey Obama hasn’t directed that it should replace the term “war on terror”—a term which Obama and other Dems had already stopped using, as has long been discussed. Why did Riedel send that memo? We don’t have the slightest idea—but the OMB denied that he was stating administration policy. Meanwhile, Hannity and Beck are mocking Obama—and some fun-loving liberals are fecklessly playing along.

It’s a lot of fun to say “OCO.” On the other hand, it’s a cable invention. Except for those kissing up to cable hosts, we’d call it an unhelpful move. Unless we’re having so much fun that we don’t care about outcomes.

Special report: Still dumbing us down!

PART 2—PLUMBING THE ISSUES: In The Truman Show, Truman Burbank begins to notice that aspects of daily life don’t seem to be making much sense. Soon, he discovers his life is a fake. Those “fellow citizens” around him are actors. Even his wife is a fraud.

We thought of Truman’s famous “show” when we watched Rachel Maddow’s program last Thursday. Ana Marie Cox, a witty person and a hapless analyst, was appearing on the program for the second time that week, this time to discuss the troubling things Sarah Palin had said in a recent speech (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/30/09). The Alaska GOP had posted the tape of Palin’s speech on-line that day. But in the course of watching a foolish discussion, we felt a bit like Truman himself. At one point, an aspect of journalistic life didn’t seem to be making much sense:

COX (3/26/09): Sarah Palin, I’d have to say—I don’t think she is following any particular strategy. She seems to— And also, I didn’t know the Alaska—I know the Alaskan Republican Party was small. But is it true they meet at the bottom of a well?

[Muffled staff laughter]

I didn’t see the video, but from the way it sounded, it was really like, kind of lonely.

MADDOW: Yeaaahhh. We put sub-titles on it so that you could tell.

COX: [Laughter]

Maddow and Cox both knew when to laugh—as did members of Maddow’s staff, who increasingly serve as her program’s laugh track. You also get that kind of help now on Maddow’s companion show, Countdown.

But was it just our imagination? Or did Cox seem to say, in the course of this chat, that she hadn’t yet watched the tape of Palin’s speech—the tape she’d been booked to comment about? It’s possible that she didn’t mean that. But our memory flashed to Margaret Carlson’s odd performance on Countdown, just the previous month. In that case, Carlson had been booked on the show to discuss a single topic—a videotape Eric Cantor’s press spokesman had released. The videotape, riddled with fourteen expletives, had been an issue on-line all day long. But as with Cox, so with Carlson! She hadn’t quite seen the full tape!

CARLSON (2/11/09): I watched this [tape] today, Keith, when my computer wouldn’t play the voice. And I thought, “Hey, this is really good! This really makes a point.” Then I heard the other version, which is more amusing than coarse—although I’ve only heard it with expletives deleted...

The tape had been a big issue since 9 AM. Carlson, called on the show to discuss it, hadn’t bothered to see it with full sound (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/12/09).

Cantor’s staff really had done something unpleasant; by way of contrast, Palin’s speech was utterly inconsequential. But in each case, the pundits who appeared on these cable “news” shows didn’t seem to have gone the extra mile—they hadn’t bothered to see and/or hear the tapes on which they would be commenting! Our view of Palin’s troubling speech was formed when we actually watched the tape. Cox didn’t seem to have bothered.

But then, all the people around Truman Burbank were pretty much faking it too.

As we told you yesterday: Increasingly, Countdown and the Maddow Show exist to dish out comfort food to us weak-minded liberals. The programs’ discussions are pre-arranged—“fixed”—to give liberal viewers the outcomes we crave. Maddow knew what Cox would say about Palin—but so did all the program’s viewers! There was no reason for Cox to watch the tape. Billed as an analyst, she was really an actor, on a new type of “Truman show.”

Let’s be fair. We might not mind these prefab discussions so much—if these programs did a good job explaining serious issues. In fact, MSNBC’s liberal programs tend to do a very poor job dealing with major issues. As with personalities like Palin, so with big issues like the budget: When such topics do get discussed, they tend to get discussed quite badly. Discussions tend to be pre-arranged, to give us the outcomes we like.

That said, the Maddow Show is much more substantive than Countdown. How clownish is the latter program? Before we see the way these programs skimmed past a major current issue, consider the clownish selection of topics on last Wednesday night’s program. Olbermann’s program pretended to be about news. In reality, it dished a buffet of soft comfort food to more than a million Truman Burbanks:

Olbermann opened with what he calls his “fifth story”—and the steaming nonsense began. Eric Cantor had appeared on C-Span’s Washington Journal, and a caller had used the word “facism” in discussing Obama’s plans. The C-Span host had instantly asked the caller to explain what she meant by the term—but Cantor didn’t scold her for it when he gave his response to her comments. Incredibly, Olbermann spent the program’s first sixteen minutes discussing this outrageous misconduct. This was the evening’s top news story; he discussed it with two major guests.

But then, other silly pseudo-topics drove this evening’s “show.” Olbermann devoted his entire “third story” (out of five) to a slightly rude question CNN’s Ed Henry had asked Obama in Tuesday’s press conference. (Gene Robinson served as analyst/actor.) As always, the “second story” was “worst persons,” with an unusually pointless complaint about something Bill O’Reilly had said. (O’Reilly was “still in full naked panicky fear about being eclipsed by Glen Beck`s success,” Olbermann told us as he started.) His main rejoinder to O’Reilly that night? “The New York Times just reported that the news operations over here, MSNBC, MSNBC.com, NBC News, CNBC, Weather Channel and Telemundo News, that combined we had a profit of 775 million dollars last year. How much you make, buddy?” For reason which are completely unclear, we libs are supposed to care.

The program’s “first story” was, of course, a discussion of Rod Blagojevich’s hair, conducted with Christian Finnegan, introduced as a comedian. The gentlemen also discussed the fact that Eric Cantor had attended a Britney Spears concert.

Yes, we have now listed the actual topics of four of this program’s five “stories!” In these ways, Olbermann handed more than a million rubes an insultingly brain-dead news “show.” But he did discuss one or two actual issues. In one case, he even promised an “in-depth” report—and that’s where the real humor began.

Olbermann slummed with an issue or two during his program’s “fourth story.” He introduced Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), telling us there would be a discussion about the president’s budget. (“President Obama tries to win over moderate Democrats in the Senate to his way of budgetary thinking. Senator Bernie Sanders...was at the meeting today and will give us some sense of it next.”) In fact, Olbermann only asked Sanders about the politics of the budget—not about the actual issues which may be dividing Senate Dems. (We’ll discuss this matter more tomorrow.) But along the way, he made a promise about the budget procedure called “reconciliation”—and our analysts all perked up their ears:

SANDERS (3/25/09): I think the key issue here is going to be the issue of what`s called “reconciliation.” And bottom line, what that means, Keith, is whether we can pass important legislation with 50 votes or that we have to go to 60 votes, which means we need—the Republicans can filibuster and defeat us or they’re going to water down any substantive piece of legislation. I think that’s the key issue.

[...]

If we have to go to 60 votes, either nothing happens in terms of health care or it is a very weak proposal which may not be worth even doing. And I would say the same thing with regard to global warming.

I find it interesting that our friends in the Republican Party are saying, “Oh, reconciliation, it’s terrible, the idea of 50 votes and a majority actually carrying major policy.” Well, you know, when they passed Bush`s tax breaks for billionaires, you know what they used? Reconciliation.

OLBERMANN: Yes. And they’ve been using it off and on since 1980. So, we’re going to go into that in depth later in the program.

Would health care require 60 votes in the Senate? Or could Democrats pass measures on health care (and global warming) with a simple majority? As everyone knows, this procedural question will be very important this year, just exactly as Sanders said. And omigod! How the analysts cheered! Olbermann was “going to go into that in depth later in the program!” Because the analysts had no earthly idea how “reconciliation” actually works, they were thrilled to hear he would handle that topic. In depth, no less!

The analysts should have known better. What are the rules for “reconciliation?” When can—when should—the procedure be used? Like you, we had no earthly idea—because we follow the work of the mainstream press corps. Everyone knows that this procedural matter may settle the fate of Obama’s agenda. But how does this mystifying process work? Big news orgs are too lazy to tell you. Like you, we had no real idea how this crucial procedure works—and, of course, we had no earthly idea after this “in-depth” discussion. What follows is Olbermann’s full discussion. Despite its overpowering depth, he crammed it into the second chunk of the evening’s “worst persons” segment. We’ve got your “in depth” discussion right here:

OLBERMANN: Number two, Senators Kit Bond of Missouri and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, reacting to the deduction of Chris Matthews that Mr. Obama might have to use the voting rules of “budget reconciliation” to get some aspects of his spending plan passed. Budget reconciliation can be done in a straight majority vote, not the veto-proof [sic] 60-vote style.

Says Senator Bond, “In this post-partisan time of Barack Obama, we are seeing a little Chicago politics. They steam-roller those who disagree. Then, I guess, in Chicago, they coat them in cement and drop them in the river.” But Senator Gregg said it was, instead, like, quote, “running over the minority, putting them in cement and throwing them in the Chicago River."

Nice job on talking-points, boys! Also nice amnesia. Since 1980 Republican Senate majorities have used budget reconciliation to pass things like Bush budget cuts by that simple 51-49 vote a couple of times, like in the spending and budget bills in 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, and 2005. A lot of Democrats you threw in the Chicago River, senator!

Olbermann then moved ahead to BillO’s “naked panicky fear.”

What you see here constituted his complete discussion of this key, complex budget question.

Just so you’ll know how easy it is to stage a pseudo-liberal “show,” Olbermann’s staff had likely cut-and-pasted their data from this earlier post at ThinkProgress. As far as we know, the information there is all accurate—but, at least as recounted by Olbermann, it shed almost no light on what should, or is going to, happen. Duh! There’s nothing automatically “wrong” about using the reconciliation procedure; it was created (by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974) specifically so it could be used, in certain types of situations. (Since then, the rules have been further refined.) The question is when it can properly be used, according to Senate procedures. A related question: Will various Senate Democrats favor its use? If not, what are their reasons?

Sigh! As you can clearly see, the “in-depth” discussion was a hot steaming joke, like so much of this clownish program. Olbermann began with a bungled statement (reconciliation isn’t about overriding a veto); he then recited a big long list of data his staff had cut-and-pasted. He shed little light on this topic at all. But he had slammed two Republicans as hypocrites. His in-depth presentation of comfort food was, in that regard, quite well done.

Will “reconciliation” be used by Dems? This is largely a procedural question, but it’s extremely important. And yet, if you watched your liberal network last week, you have no f*cking idea about this matter at all. On this same evening, Maddow hopelessly bungled the topic, as we discussed last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/27/09). First, she issued fiery declamations about the “conservaDems” who may not favor reconciliation; she then rolled over and died completely, failing to ask any serious questions when one such Democrat, Jeanne Shaheen, appeared right there on her program. (She also snarled and snarked and name-called after Shaheen was gone.) The same night, the hopeless Chris Matthews floundered and flailed with major “conservaDem” Evan Bayh. Concerning the possible use of reconciliation, Bayh made some intriguing statements, but his statements were rather unclear. Matthews, on his eighteenth Diet Coke of the day, failed to realize till later.

Go ahead! We dare you! We double-dog dare you, to quote Maddows mugging. Read the transcripts from those three programs. Do you have the slightest idea how reconciliation will, or should, work?

The questions raised by “reconciliation” are very important indeed. But uh-oh! These pseudo-liberal cable “news” shows mainly exist to serve comfort food; they aren’t there to do basic issues. You hear that Cantor went to see Britney Spears; you hear about stupid comical Blago (two straight nights on Maddow last week). Maddow is vastly better than Olbermann. But last week, she played it tough—when she sat there alone. When Shaheen arrived, courage disappeared.

Truman Burbank was part of a “show.” So are you, watching these programs.

Tomorrow—Part 3: Mugging and clowning

Part 4: Honesty