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Daily Howler: Nancy Pelosi knows several things. Progressives should know these things too
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WHAT PELOSI KNOWS! Nancy Pelosi knows several things. Progressives should know these things too: // link // print // previous // next //

Facts are not stubborn things: Congratulations to TPM’s Zachary Roth, who noticed the problem. Oh jeez! When the Post’s Juliet Eilperin challenged George Will, she too got a basic fact wrong:

EILPERIN (4/7/09): The new evidence—including satellite data showing that the average multiyear wintertime sea ice cover in the Arctic in 2005 and 2006 was nine feet thick, a significant decline from the 1980s—contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979.

In fact, Will discussed the amount of global sea ice, not the amount of Arctic sea ice. In all candor, this week’s new evidence about Arctic sea ice doesn’t really “contradict” the things Will wrote in those columns. Will made fundamental errors in his columns, starting with the erroneous claim that scientists widely believed, in the 1970s, that global cooling was on the way. But dag! Tuesday’s presentation by the Post involved an error too!

(To see Roth downplay his catch, just click here. In this post by Dave Roberts, we see that Eilperin’s editor may have produced the erroneous challenge to Will, rather than Eilperin herself.)

Sorry. Facts aren’t especially stubborn things when the Post’s science editor can’t keep things like this straight. Which brings us around to yesterday’s flap about the size of Obama’s defense budget.

Is Obama proposing a “cut” in defense spending? Beyond that, has the press corps been bungling this question? Yesterday, the liberal web featured some overstated complaints about press coverage of this question. (The reported cases of press corps bungling struck us as a bit underwhelming—especially when compared to the anguish being expressed. Click here.) On the other hand, it’s important to insist that so basic a framework be reported correctly. So how about it? Has Obama proposed an overall “cut” in defense spending? The answer looks like a solid no. But then, facts are rarely stubborn things in our news environment.

Simply story: In 2009, Bush’s last budget year, defense spending totaled $513 billion; Obama is requesting $534 billion for 2010. Roughly, that would be a four percent increase, which is roughly in line with inflation. If those are the actual relevant numbers, it’s absurd to claim that there’s been an overall “cut” in defense spending.

(Please note: Under Bush, Gates had originally proposed an even larger defense budget for 2010. But that doesn’t mean that $534 billion would qualify as a “cut.”)

But facts are rarely stubborn things in our news environment. In a Tuesday editorial, the New York Times quickly bungled a basic part of this story. Yes, they presented those two basic numbers. But they seemed to say—incorrectly, we assume—that the numbers in question had been adjusted for inflation:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (4/7/09): Even with much-needed plans to accelerate expansion of the Army and the Marines, Mr. Gates seems to have stayed within the budget figures announced last month: After adjusting for inflation, basic Pentagon spending will rise to $534 billion from $513 billion, with $130 billion more to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Facts really aren’t stubborn things—when the Post’s science editor bungles sea ice, when the Times seems to misstate something so basic. Though in the same breath, the Times may have answered another question we’d been pondering.

Here’s what we’d been wondering about:

A lot of noise has been made about Obama’s willingness to budget forthrightly for Iraq and Afghanistan. In presenting his budgets, Bush pretended there would be no such costs, thus keeping deficit projections down; Obama has been more honest. Yesterday, this made us wonder if we might be comparing apples to kumquats with those two basic numbers. Last weekend, for instance, the Post’s Jeffrey Smith previewed this matter like this:

SMITH (4/4/09): Several experts said the Pentagon budget plan last year was an effort to force the hand of a new administration and stands as a textbook example of military service pressures that have driven the growth in recent years of the defense budget, which has more than doubled since 2001. The 2009 total of $513 billion—not including special Iraq and Afghanistan war costs—exceeds the combined military budgets of the next 25 highest-spending nations.

Bush’s $513 billion didn’t include Iraq and Afghanistan. After its apparent bungle, the Times editorial seems to say that Obama’s $534 billion doesn’t include those costs either—that those costs are included elsewhere in the budget. That would mean we’re comparing apples to apples when those two basic number appear.

For ourselves, we haven’t seen a lot of bad reporting on this particular matter. On the other hand, it’s important to insist that the press corps get this framework right—and that they directly challenge those who attempt to misstate it. But the facts are rarely stubborn things in our news culture. Tomorrow, we’ll review some less-than-stubborn facts in the Ted Stevens case.

WHAT PELOSI KNOWS: Why are congressional Democrats doing the things they’re doing? More specifically, what explains Democratic thinking about possible use of “reconciliation”—the procedure by which Obama’s proposals could pass the Senate with just 51 votes?

A few weeks ago, on the Maddow Show, we got one answer (and one answer only): A gang of Senate Democrats are in the bag to corporate interests. This apparently included New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen, although Maddow failed to ask about these conflicts when Shaheen appeared on the program.

Some Senate Dems are in the bag, Maddow and a guest had thundered. This morning, E. J. Dionne’s column may shed more light on this critical question.

Dionne reports an interview with Nancy Pelosi, who leads House Dems, not those is the Senate. But Dionne’s discussion of reconciliation is quite instructive. In the following passage, he discusses the current state of play regarding use of this procedure. He starts his analysis with something Pelosi knows:

DIONNE (4/9/09): Pelosi knows that her own majority still depends on members elected from relatively conservative rural and suburban districts. Of the 254 House Democrats—it takes 218 to form a majority—49 come from districts John McCain carried last year, according to a Congressional Quarterly analysis.

Pelosi wants to protect those 49. The best evidence for how she is executing her balancing act came in the House budget resolution that left open the possibility that health-care reform, but not a cap-and-trade plan on carbon emissions, would pass under "reconciliation" rules.

The rules, set by agreement of both houses, would allow health-care reform to get through the Senate with only a bare majority of 51 votes. But cap-and-trade would need 60 votes.

Pelosi knows that many of her members come from red or red-leaning districts. She doesn’t want them getting booted out of office next year. (As we noted last week, this is also true of most of the Senate “conservaDems” who got critiqued on the Maddow Show.) According to Dionne, this is why Pelosi has agreed to deep-six the use of reconciliation for cap-and-trade legislation. Health care may proceed under reconciliation—but the House has already agreed that cap-and-trade will not.

As he continues, Dionne explains this decision further. In the process, he cites something else Pelosi knows:

DIONNE (continuing directly): Why the different treatment of these issues? "The priority, of course, is to pass health care," Pelosi said without blinking. She still hopes it will pass with an expansive bipartisan majority, but added: "We cannot abandon the effort if we don't have 60 votes."

On the other hand, Pelosi knows that energy issues do not divide neatly along partisan lines. Regional differences, notably among coal states, oil-and-gas states and the rest of the country, often count more than party.

"There are enough Democrats who are for health-care reform," she said. "You don't know where those Democratic votes are on cap-and-trade." Her view is that unless both houses can forge a broad compromise that will get at least 60 votes in the Senate, the whole effort will die anyway.

According to Dionne’s account, Pelosi thinks cap-and-trade “will die anyway,” absent the sort of broad consensus which would produce 60 votes in the Senate. We don’t quite understand that reasoning—but this takes us beyond the analysis we got on Maddow’s show, back in the clowning old days.

By the way: Maddow presented that analysis on her March 24 program. On March 25, mustachio-twirling Senate Dem Evan Bayh appeared on Hardball—and told Chris Matthews the very same things about the use of reconciliation in health care and cap-and-trade (for transcript, click here). We didn’t really understand Bayh’s reasoning, and Matthews—on his eighteenth Diet Coke of the day—didn’t ask good questions. But in Dionne’s column, Pelosi offers the same analysis Bayh gave Matthews several weeks ago. But so what? In ProgressiveWorld, Pelosi remains a Very Good Person, as we saw on last night’s Countdown. Bayh is a Very Bad Tool.

Here at THE HOWLER, we understand one of the things Pelosi knows: Many Dems in the House and Senate come from conservative districts. (For reasons we explained last week, there are many more Senate Dems from red-leaning states than Senate Reps from blue-leaning states. No, these people don’t believe that history ended last fall.) We still don’t understand the second thing Pelosi knows: We don’t really understand the reason for dumping reconciliation in the case of cap-and-trade. Bayh told Matthews the same sorts of thing Pelosi has now told Dionne. But so what? Weeks have gone by, and the progressive media we follow each day have made no attempt to explore this matter further.

It’s lots of fun to thunder and storm, complaining about those Corrupt Senate Dems. But this novelization becomes harder to swallow when we see Pelosi and Bayh say the same things about congressional strategies. What explains the cap-and-trade strategy? We don’t really know—and in the last three weeks, no one on MSNBC has made any attempt to pursue it.

One last point, concerning the way ideological media can sometimes self-edit:

Last Friday, Ana Marie Cox appeared on the Maddow Show. In the ensuing discussion, Maddow extended her portrait of mustachio-twirling Bayh. (To watch the discussion, click this.) Maddow pretty much told us, a few weeks before, that sixteen Senate “conservaDems” were in the bag to corporate interests. But fourteen of these solons (Bayh not included) had just voted for Obama’s budget.

Maddow said she was surprised by this. In response, Cox said something odd:

MADDOW (4/3/09): But are you, are you with me on the conservaDems in the Senate, generally? I was surprised! All Evan Bayh’s so-called “moderate Democrats” abandoned him on the budget.

COX: Well, I am more sympathetic to the conservaDems than you are. But we can have that discussion some other time, preferably over cocktails.

MADDOW: [chuckles]

The pair proceeded to joke and snark about Stupid Dull Big Loser Bayh. But how odd! Cox said she was “more sympathetic to the conservaDems” than Maddow is. But rather than let us rubes know why, she said they could have that discussion later. Over cocktails, of course.

Soon, the pair were masterfully joking—and we rubes had been left in the dark.

Next week, we plan to do a series of posts about the ideal functions of our emerging progressive media. But let’s get clear on this one point: Progressives aren’t served by dumbed-down analyses of congressional politics. And progressives aren’t served when pundits like Cox keep their thoughts to themselves.

“Are you with me?” Maddow asked. Refusing to tell us rubes what she thinks, Cox gave her answer: Yes!