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Print view: Why did Obama cave to Boehner? Maddow and Hayes didn't know
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WHO LOST THE PUBLIC! Why did Obama cave to Boehner? Maddow and Hayes didn’t know: // link // print // previous // next //

Katie Couric’s brilliant career: Yesterday, in the New York Times, Bill Carter gave us a look at the values found at the top of the upper-end press corps.

At the top of the Times front page, Carter reviewed Katie Couric’s brilliant career as anchor of the CBS Evening News. Couric has been a ratings disaster, Carter explained. But in fairness, she did achieve some journalistic success:

CARTER: (4/11/11): As the audience totals settled into a third-place rut, dropping even behind those scored by her immediate predecessor, the interim anchor, Bob Schieffer, many of the more experimental ideas were scrapped. So was Mr. Hartman. (He now heads news for the BBC in the United States.) A longtime producer, Rick Kaplan, was brought in.

But “even though they finally returned it to a more traditional newscast, and in many ways a very fine newscast, they never convinced those people who left to come back,” Ms. Muller said.

Still, Ms. Couric scored victories. Some of her interviews made news, including one with the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez in 2007 in which he flatly denied using performance-enhancing drugs. Two years later, after he was compelled to acknowledge his steroid use, he apologized to her for lying.

Sad. Carter’s idea of a “victory” involves an interview in which Couric was lied to by a guest—a guest from the world of sports. (Couric played no role in the revelation that Rodriguez had lied.) Struck by this amazing success, Carter described more of Couric’s journalistic triumphs:

CARTER (continuing directly): She devoted time and energy to creating a popular online forum for commentaries and other coverage; the program won an Edward R. Murrow award for best newscast in 2008 and 2009, and three Emmy Awards in 2010.

Ms. Couric’s turnaround was cemented by her interview with Sarah Palin, then a vice presidential candidate, during the 2008 campaign. Ms. Palin seemed to be flummoxed by a series of direct questions, asked in low-key fashion, about things like Supreme Court decisions Ms. Palin might disagree with and which newspapers she read.

“I think she was really resurrected by the interview with Palin. It was a game changer in the campaign,” said Ms. Muller, who is on the committee that gave Ms. Couric a Walter Cronkite award for her impact on the 2008 election. “I think it really, really showed us what she is capable of. I play it for my journalism classes when I teach interviewing techniques.”

Couric won a series of insider industry prizes. For what? Carter didn’t bother to say. Meanwhile, her alleged “turnaround” was cemented by an interview in which she asked a candidate what newspapers she reads. (For the record, Couric made groaning errors during that interview, letting Palin escape with scripted evasions about her stance on abortion rights.)

Finally, note the ludicrous way Carter describes Couric’s effect on the median age of her audience. This exercise in innumeracy appeared on page one of the Times:

CARTER (continuing directly): Ms. Couric managed to do something unexpected: she lowered the median age for the program’s audience. After having the oldest network news audience under Mr. Rather, CBS now has the youngest—with a median age of 60.6. But there were not nearly enough of those younger viewers to compensate for the decline. In August 2006, Mr. Schieffer’s newscast reached seven million viewers. Last August, the newscast reached a new low of 4.89 million. And there is no evidence that the slide will stop anytime soon.

“We were going to try to bring people to the evening news who didn’t previously watch it,” Mr. Hartman said. “And it turned out to be an impossible thing to do.”

Based on the things Hartman says, it seems clear that Couric “lowered the median age” by losing large numbers of older viewers, not by attracting younger viewers. Carter slid right past that fairly obvious fact.

Couric is paid $15 million per year, Carter said, more than the slackers Brian Williams and Diane Sawyer. But what did Couric produce for that scratch?

Carter, a man with low standards for big network stars, never quite bothers to say.

Special report: Mark Twain’s ineffectual mob!

PART 2—WHO LOST THE PUBLIC (permalink): Question:

If John Boeher is “outstandingly bad at his job,” what does that say about Barack Obama, who got his astral projections kicked in last Friday’s budget settlement? (Many big liberals have advanced that view. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/11/11.)

What does it say about congressional Democrats? Last fall, they avoided passing a 2011 budget, creating the need for the tedious struggle which came to an end last week.

For ourselves, we’d be less hard on Obama than many liberals have been. You see, we have a long historical perspective—a perspective which stretches all the way back to November 2010! Beyond that, we’ve heard that more elections will be held at some point in 2012. And not only that—we’ve looked at some of the recent polling, in which the public was saying, early last week, that Democrats weren’t cutting the budget enough.

Such perspectives have largely been AWOL as liberals have rent their garments about last week’s budget deal. On the One True Liberal Channel, Rachel Maddow seemed semi-clueless about these matters last night. Here’s how she explained Obama’s cave to the hapless Boehner—to a man who supposedly has “the opposite of the Midas touch:”

MADDOW (4/11/11): Thirty-eight and a half [billion dollars]. Not only did Democrats give Republicans more than they originally asked for, they also stopped saying that what Republicans wanted was a bad idea.

I mean, Chris Van Hollen was right in economic terms. Taking $32 billion out of the demand side of the economy right now, while we’re still trying to recover from a great recession, probably will slow down the economy. It probably will result in fewer jobs. It probably will result in the recovery taking longer and going slower and unemployment staying higher. That’s the way this works, economically speaking.

So even if the Democrats felt like they had to be the adults in the room, they had to stop the Republicans from shutting the government down, they could have done so while also saying, “Hey, we didn’t really want to do this! What the Republicans want is wrong. It’s bad for the economy. It’s bad for the country. We had to give them this thing that’s bad for the country in order to stop thing even worse that they wanted to do. But it’s a bad idea.”

Democrats could have said that. Instead, they said this.

OBAMA (videotape): This agreement between Democrats and Republicans, on behalf of all Americans, is on a budget that invests in our future while making the largest annual spending cut in our history.

We agree—the deal was bad on the merits. We agree—it was grating to see Obama praising a bad budget deal. And Maddow is hardly alone in her perspective. Many other liberal pundits have construed the budget agreement the way she did.

But why did Democrats cave on the deal? How did we get from $32 billion in proposed cuts to $38 billion—“more than they originally asked for?” Note the way Maddow explains it. She imagines only one explanation, the explanation which is natural to a tribal true believer:

Our Glorious Leaders caved on the deal because they “felt like they had to be the adults in the room.” They felt they “had to stop the Republicans from shutting the government down.” In this way, Maddow pictures events in a way which pleases tribal vanity. In standard fashion, she excludes another possible motive:

Possible motive: Obama caved because polling showed that the public agreed with the need for larger cuts.

Was that part of the reason Obama caved, thereby getting his aspirin kicked by the hapless Boehner? We have no way of knowing. But this possibility never occurred to Maddow, who framed the rest of the discussion around the way she feeds her whiny dog, who represented Republican leaders. As usual, Maddow complained about “the Beltway media”—and then, she introduced Chris Hayes, who instantly noted that he himself is part of that very same group. “Well, you are ‘Beltway’ in the sense that you’re geographically located inside that freeway,” Maddow brightly observed.

When it comes to domestic politics, Hayes is sharper than Maddow. In his first comment, he brought the public’s views into the mix, while framing his remarks in a way which reinforced liberal vanity:

HAYES: I think— Here’s what I think: I think there’s an asymmetry of zealotry between both sides, which is to say that there are more zealots, and they are more zealous, on the right right now.

If you looked at what people wanted in the polling before this deal went through, a majority of Democrats polled and a majority of independents wanted—I forget what the phrasing of the poll was—a compromise to avoid a government shutdown, even if it means giving up things you want, something like that.

And the majority of Republicans wanted a shutdown. And that was true of the representatives they sent to Congress and everyone knew that. And so, when Boehner was negotiating, he was negotiating with the added leverage of the fact that he had a caucus that was willing to shut it down and that caucus was supported by a base that wanted to see the government shut down.

In the polling out today, two-thirds of Democrats and two-thirds of independents approve of the deal struck on Friday, whereas the Republicans, who ate everyone else’s cake, they’re divided on it because they didn’t get enough. So I think it comes down to where actually people’s opinions are in the two camps.

According to Hayes, the incompetent Boehner ate Obama’s cake. But how in the world could that have happened? More to the point, how could something like that be explained on a program like Maddow’s?

The other side has more “zealots,” Hayes said, semantically putting Our Side in the right. (He also seemed to say that Republicans wanted a shutdown, failing to explain why they agreed not to have one.) But when he discussed “what people wanted in the polling before this deal went through,” he failed to mention an unfortunate fact—he failed to mention the Gallup poll in which 47 percent of respondents said that Democrats weren’t offering big enough cuts. (Only 15 percent said that Dems should offer smaller cuts. To review Gallup’s poll, just click here.) But in that final highlighted passage, he took us to the heart of the current problem, without ever quite explaining what that problem is.

Alas! Let’s explain what that highlighted passage might be taken to mean:

Here’s what that highlighted passage might be taken to mean: Democratic voters approve of bad policy—policy that is bad on the merits. Independents approve the bad policy too—and Republican voters would only approve if the policy somehow got worse! That’s an argumentative reading of a poll whose questions were so imprecise that it’s hard to know just what its responses meant. (To review all poll questions, click this.) But public opinion is part of the field on which Obama and Dems are now competing. And let’s be frank: From the progressive perspective, public opinion is very shaky on these issues—has been for a very long time.

According to Gallup, the public wanted Democrats to offer bigger cuts! And people, things can get worse. Earlier, Maddow showed results of a poll in which respondents disapproved “the Republicans’ exact proposal to kill Medicare by turning it into a coupon system.” But the public disapproved by an amazingly narrow margin, 44 to 50 percent.

Needless to say, Maddow thought those numbers were great. (“Your ancestors have to have been very, very good people in their lifetimes for you, in your lifetime, to have earned the luck of being the political opponent of the Republicans this year.”) We think those numbers are extremely troubling.

Can progressives compete on the current field? Here’s what happened when Maddow imagined a bit more zealotry on our side—when she imagined fiery liberals rising to bully Obama:

MADDOW (continuing directly): Well, what— Could the Democratic base, could the liberals among the Democratic Party’s base provide that same kind of leverage to President Obama? Could they say to him, “Listen, very publicly, we are not going to accept it if you let the Bush tax cuts go again, or if you touch a hair on Medicare’s head?” And then the—that would allow the president to say, “Listen, it’s these crazy liberals over here. I just can’t go anywhere on Medicare.”

HAYES: Yes. I think that is where the force sort of has to come. And it has to come from, if liberals do care about this, you know, making that demand felt. And remember, this doesn’t all happen in the negotiations in the two weeks. There is precedent here in the dreaded primary that every Republican member of the House and the Senate is terrified of, a Tea Party primary.

So they have already been kind of kept in check prospectively by the round of primaries that happened in 2010. So you can’t do this overnight. This is a sort of long-standing thing that’s built up that has ceded more and more power to the ultraconservative, ultra-reactionary right wing of the party.

That’s something that you can put in place on the liberal side, but it takes time. It’s not an instant thing. You can’t show up tomorrow and say, “Now we’re going to break you,” because that threat has to be credible.

Maddow imagined doing nothing to Medicare, though almost everyone seems to agree that Medicare is in fact the source of a large future problem. In his response, Hayes described an unfortunate fact: Within our American politics, there is a large, long-standing, aggressive drive in favor of bad policy views. There is a much weaker force pushing better ideas.

The right has been at this a very long time. The left? Nowhere near as much! Sorry, but the left and center-left have been doing as little as humanly possible for a great many years.

What will Obama say on Wednesday when he lays out his own budget plan? We have no idea, nor can we mind-read his motives. Hayes said he is “terrified;” we think he has every right. But please understand: Presumably, Obama’s plan will have been shaped, in part, by his desire to get re-elected—by his desire to get in line with a set of ideas the public will buy.

And by the way: If Obama doesn’t get re-elected? After that, the deluge?

Presumably, Obama will try to keep his plan in line with ideas the public will find acceptable. But the public’s views on these matters are very shaky—have been so for a very long time. The public has no earthly idea how the budget works—has no idea whose budget claims are true/bogus/false/just plain stupid. And the public’s head is full of ideas which have been driven by disinformation campaigns of the past thirty years—disinformation campaigns your liberal leaders and liberal sectors have widely accepted.

Maddow cited other polling data in which the public rejects cuts to Medicare. But we the people are clueless on all such matters, much like Mark Twain’s ineffectual mob. The public’s views can change overnight in response to bogus claims—and the public’s views can change for the worse. This seems to have happened in the recent budget fight, if Gallup’s polls can be believed. (By April, more people thought the Dems should accept bigger cuts, even after two straight months in which the Dems gave ground.)

And so, we reach a basic question: Who lost the public? How have we reached the point where the public has no idea what’s in the budget—where the public thinks all sorts of ludicrous things which derive from conservative disinformation campaigns? However we have reached this point, political possibilities are defined by the public’s beliefs—and the public’s beliefs are quite shaky.

We’ll stop here, though more should be said. But at Rachel’s site, the headline for her segment with Hayes says it all: “Obama tactics baffle, disappoint left.” Could it be that we liberals are “baffled” because we don’t understand American politics? Don’t understand the public’s outlook? Don’t know, don’t even want to know about the public’s beliefs?

Tomorrow: Your leaders won’t tell you the truth