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Daily Howler: Pelosi, Dodd and Leahy discussed SS--and embarrassed themselves once again
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THREE AMIGOS! Pelosi, Dodd and Leahy discussed SS—and embarrassed themselves once again: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, MAY 2, 2005

THREE AMIGOS: When it comes to Social Security, the world-class bungling by Major Dems continued on yesterday’s programs. Here, for example, was Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT), misstating badly on Meet the Press. He appeared with Senator George Allen (R-VA):
ALLEN (5/1/05): The reality is once you get to 2017, the revenues coming in will not be enough to fund that but—to fund the output.

DODD: No, no, no. No, no. George, we know from every single actuary that the issue becomes a “crisis,” if you will, in 2042. And in 2042, 80 percent of the Trust Fund is there, according to actuary accounts. So 20 percent—let me finish.

“We know from every single actuary?” In fact, the current, official CBO estimate says that Social Security is fully solvent until the year 2052. Indeed, in Nancy Pelosi’s otherwise woeful outing on ABC’s This Week, she stressed this factual point from the get-go, directly challenging George Stephanopoulos when he cited the earlier year—the same year Dodd was promoting. Dodd’s statement here is flatly inaccurate—and his misstatement tilts in favor of Bush! Meanwhile, Sunday viewers saw two Dem spokesmen making contradictory presentations about this elementary fact. But Major Dems have performed like this ever since this debate began. No corporation would ever tolerate such inept work from its spokesmen. (By the way: In the latest projection of the SS trustees, the target year is no longer 2042—it’s actually 2041. It became clear during Dodd’s appearance that he doesn’t know this fact. This adjustment occurred back in March.)

But Dodd outdid his hapless Dem colleagues in one important area. When Tim Russert asked him what Dems would do about the projected shortfall in SS revenue, Dodd at least had something to say. In fact, he made an effective presentation:

DODD: There are ways to deal with solvency...This is a solvency issue, and there are ways of solving the solvency issue, in my view, without having to get into benefit cuts. Simply if you would just take what the president suggested in 2001 for his tax cuts, which were not to be permanent but to expire within 10 years—if he would not make those permanent, those tax cuts will amount to about $11 trillion in revenue losses over the next 75 years. The solvency issue for the Social Security Trust Fund is around $3 trillion. Just reduce that tax cut by $3 trillion, keep $8 trillion if you want. That solves the solvency problem without cutting benefits at all. That's one way to do it, and we ought to be doing more.
That was at least the start of an answer—and in our view, it was a good one. Elsewhere, though, Dodd’s colleagues engaged in embarrassing, hapless displays when confronted with this obvious question. On Fox News Sunday, Pat Leahy dissembled, ducked and flailed, leading Chris Wallace to say, quite accurately: “Forgive me, but I do think, in fairness, that you're mischaracterizing what the president is saying.” And on This Week, Pelosi staged another horrendous performance concerning Social Security—a performance so inept that it made decent people avert their eyes. “What is the Democrats’ plan?” Stephanopoulos asked. To anyone who understands the logic of this matter, Pelosi’s replies were an utter embarrassment. Indeed, her answers were so incoherent and so odd that Stephanopoulos didn’t seem to know how to reply. Democrats should be deeply disturbed to find themselves represented by such an inept group of spokesmen.

Sorry. No one who actually cares about outcomes goes on TV so unprepared. And no major party which cares about outcomes makes so little attempt to coordinate its message about the simplest factual matters. Regarding those projections on solvency, Dodd couldn’t get the simplest fact right—and viewers saw him give an answer that flatly contradicted Pelosi’s. No major party performs so ineptly—unless, at heart, its floundering spokesmen just plain old flat-out don’t care.

A SEMANTIC QUESTION THAT ACTUALLY MATTERS: Meanwhile, three cheers to Buffalo working-class Catholic Tim Russert for an important semantic selection. Early on, he posed this question to Senator Allen:

RUSSERT: One other point. The president's proposal, at his news conference, says that people who are making $90,000, future retirees, would have their benefits cut 40 percent. People making $59,000 would have their benefits cut 30 percent. Could you accept that?
Throughout the program, Russert said that Bush’s Social Security proposal would result in “cuts” to benefits. That’s a semantic choice that actually matters. In all likelihood, we’ll be discussing this word choice for weeks.

Elsewhere, hosts made different choices. On Fox, for example, Wallace kept saying that SS benefits would grow under Bush’s proposal. Here’s the way he framed the matter when he spoke with Bush chief Andy Card:

WALLACE (5/1/05): Mr. Card, let's look at this chart, from the Social Security Administration, of how the president's indexing plan would affect different income groups. There's a lot of numbers there, but let me try to explain them. Low earners retiring in 2075 under the president's plan would see no change in their annual benefits from what they would get under current law, their scheduled benefits and their indexing benefits. But, as you can see from the numbers, medium earners—and those are people making $36,000 today, as well as high and maximum earners would see their benefits grow much more slowly under the president's plan
Indeed, according to Wallace, everyone’s benefits would “grow” or “increase” under Bush’s proposal. Here’s the way he framed the issue during his later panel discussion:
WALLACE: Well, let me ask you about that—the president's idea of this progressive index, and the idea that the benefits for lower-wage earners are going to grow faster than the benefits which will also continue to grow for higher-income earners. Does that help or does that hurt and why did he put it in?
According to Wallace, everyone’s benefits “continue to grow” under Bush’s proposal. But uh-oh! According to Russert, everyone “would have their benefits cut!” But Wallace and Russert are using the same set of facts, which makes this a classic semantic dispute. And this is a semantic dispute which actually makes a major difference. This conflict will make a major difference in how this debate will turn out.

Around the web in recent weeks, some writers have fought semantic wars about matters that likely make little difference. As we have noted, polling suggests that it makes little difference whether Bush’s plan is described as involving “private accounts” or “personal accounts” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/10/05). In the filibuster fight, it’s unlikely that outcomes will actually turn on “nuclear option” v. “constitutional option.” But does Bush’s plan prescribe benefit cuts? Or will everyone’s benefits grow? This is the semantic war that drove the brainless Medicare fight from 1994 through 1996—and yes, this word choice made a huge difference in the way voters came to judge the GOP’s Medicare plan.

Our suggestion? The liberal world’s limited intellectual resources should be focused hard on this matter. If logic and history are any guide, this distinction will make a major difference in the forthcoming SS debate. The logic of this word-choice must be fully explored and it must be clearly explained—and no, this doesn’t happen by chance.

For ourselves, we’ll focus on this matter in the days to come. Excitables all around the liberal world should bring their powers to bear on this topic. Has Bush proposed “cuts” or “growth” in SS benefits? It’s a major, important distinction—a distinction that will affect outcomes.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: From 1994 through 1996, the Gingrich Congress badgered reporters, insisting they drop the naughty word “cuts” from their discussion of the GOP Medicare plan. In their 1996 book, Tell Newt to Shut Up, Maraniss and Weisskopf provided a brilliant history of this matter; for ourselves, we discussed this matter in three reports which we posted in 1999 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/20/99). Yes, this is a semantic fight which will actually make a difference. And no, the logic of this fight won’t be clear unless liberals and Dems make it so.

BUSH’S HELPMATES: Don’t be fooled by second-hand accounts; Laura Bush was simply sensational at the White House Correspondents Dinner. (And no, her outing wasn’t smutty, although some predictable sources said different.) Truth? You can’t do this sort of spot any better. For confirmation, go to the C-SPAN site; under VIDEO/AUDIO RECENT PROGRAMS, click “White House Correspondents Dinner 4/30/05.” (Her performance starts about 1:15 in.) Aside from a string of excellent jokes, note the Rudner-style delivery, especially when she dead-pans Cheney. This was a very strong performance. Next time, let’s hope Dems do as well.

Of course, wherever George Bush is being humanized, Elisabeth Bumiller is there. Today’s Times presents a large spread (with large smiley photo) about Mrs. Bush’s winning performance. Our analysts emitted low, mordant chuckles when they reached Bumiller’s nugget:

BUMILLER (5/2/05): Whether her cheeky one-liners will shore up her husband as he struggles with Social Security, gas prices and combative Democrats is another question entirely. But her zingers showed how much the White House relies on her to soften her husband's rough edges at critical moments, much as she did with her extensive travels and fund-raising in the 2004 campaign.
Of course, the White House relies on someone else to soften Bush’s rough edges, too. The White House relies on Elisabeth Bumiller, every single Monday. And the scribe has kept it up for years in her fatuous “White House Letter,” even during Campaign 2004. FAQ: Who provided the corresponding “Campaign Letter” which softened the edges of Candidate Kerry? Answer: No one did! The Times kept publishing Bumiller’s sponge-baths, and offered no corresponding treatment of Kerry. A second-grader would have seen the problem. But did we mention that this is the Times?

Yes, Laura Bush was superb this weekend—simply, flat-out excellent. Unfortunately, Mrs. Bush’s dissembling husband has been doing less well in his serious duties. We discussed his most recent blatant lying in a special Saturday post. We continue from there in a special report: “Defining Dishonesty Down.”

Bonus: Defining dishonesty down!

KINSLEY’S KISSES (PART 1): What did George Bush do last Friday—the morning after his TV news conference? What else? As we noted in Saturday’s HOWLER, he held his latest rally for privatization, across the river in Falls Church, Virginia. And when he got there, he lied to the public; indeed, he lied in the faces of five young workers who plainly trusted him as their president (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/30/05). And yes, Bush’s statement to these young voters was a straight, unvarnished lie; there’s no use hanging onto the word if it can’t be employed in this circumstance (text of Bush’s statement below). But then, Bush was also clowning hard during Thursday evening’s press confab. Reviewing the conference in the Washington Post, Dana Milbank noted one of his stretchers:

MILBANK (4/30/05): Speaking of 75 years, Bush criticized the 1983 Social Security changes that were supposed to keep the system afloat for that long. "The problem is, 22 years after 1983, we're still talking about it," he said. "The 75-year fix lasted about 22 years." Actually, with Social Security forecast to remain solvent through 2041, the fix will have lasted 58 years.
And of course, if you use the current CBO forecast, “the fix will last” until 2052—a period of 69 years! But so what? Twenty-two years, 69 years—what’s the difference when you’re spinning the rubes? Bush wanted to spread the sense that traditional fixes for Social Security have turned out to be fruitless. So he pimped a fake, phony number—a fake number, but one that he liked.

But this, of course, was minor stuff compared to Bush’s groaning misstatements at the next day’s pep rally. At that session, Bush baldly lied to the public, telling young workers that there will be “nothing there” in Social Security when they retire in 2041. But so what? If your name is George W. Bush, there’s almost no chance that the press will call you on even the most absurd misstatements. In the Post, Milbank noted Bush’s misstatement in Falls Church—and he mildly noted that it was bogus. Here is Milbank’s correction of Bush—the only correction of its kind we have found to date:

MILBANK (4/30/05): [Bush] asserted that Social Security would go flat broke in 2041: "In other words, you're working all your life, you're putting money in, and by the time it comes for you to get ready to retire, there's nothing there." Yet, even if politicians do nothing about Social Security, it would pay out nearly 75 percent of promised benefits after 2041.
You’re right—that’s a very mild correction of a blatant, bald-faced misstatement by Bush. But we can find no other newspaper that challenged Bush’s statement at all—this blatant lie, which he told to young voters. Conclusion? If you’re George Bush, you’re now allowed to lie in the faces of trusting young voters. Your national “press corps” will stare into air. They’ll know not to said Boo about it.

But then, something else is going to happen when George Bush blatantly lies to young voters. And here’s what it is: Two days later, Michael Kinsley will write a column explaining how honest he is! Yes, Kinsley watched Bush’s press conference on Thursday night—and he was impressed by the president’s honesty. “There was a remarkable amount of honesty and near-honesty,” the columnist said in yesterday’s Post, discussing Bush’s performance. “Above all, Bush was honest and even courageous about Social Security.” But readers, George Bush wasn’t especially honest about Social Security at Thursday’s conference—and the very next morning, he crossed the Potomac and lied in the face of those young voters. But so what? Two days later, Kinsley’s column praised the prexy because he’s so honest. It was the “liberal” press corps’ latest example of “defining dishonesty down.”

How did we get to this puzzling place? On Friday morning, George Bush lied to young voters. By Sunday, Kinsley was praising his honesty! But then, Kinsley—the brightest man of the 1980s—has sleep-walked through life for the past many years. His column in praise of Bush’s honesty gives us a chance to explore this.

We saw two things in Kinsley’s column. On the one hand, we saw the amazing latitude handed to Bush on issues involving truth and character. Beyond that, we saw the never-ending intellectual decline of your most famous “liberal spokesmen.” Once the brightest man of his cohort, Kinsley has been a cipher for years. Once a giant, he’s sleep-walking through modern times. Yes, we once loved his work, just like you. But it’s time we explored the state of play now. Kinsley is defining dishonesty down. On-lookers need to reject this.

TOMORROW—PART 2: Sorry, Kinsley! Even at that brilliant press conference, Bush wasn’t really that honest.

NOTHING THERE: Let’s review: On Friday morning, George Bush journeyed ten miles from the White House and lied in the faces of five younger workers (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/30/05). For the record, let’s make sure we all recall the disgraceful thing their president said:

BUSH (4/29/05): In 2027, the obligations of the federal government to retirees will be $200 billion greater than the payroll tax receipts. Starting in 2017, the system goes into the red, and it gets worse every year—2027, $200 billion; about 2030-something, it's $300 billion; and eventually, 2041, it's broke...

And if you're a younger worker and you start paying into the payroll system today and 2041 is about the time you start retiring, I'm telling you, the system's going to be bankrupt unless we do something about it.

In other words, you've been working all your life. You're putting money in, and by the time it comes for you to get ready to retire, there's nothing there.

Disgraceful—completely disgraceful. Bush told the young voters that there would be “nothing there” if they retire in 2041. But that, of course, is totally false—and yes, their president knows it. According to the estimate of the SS trustees—the estimate from which Bush drew all his numbers—Social Security will still be paying 74 percent of current promised benefits after its trust fund is exhausted in 2041. Payroll taxes will still roll in; benefit checks will still roll out. Indeed, adjusted for inflation, those adjusted benefits will be bigger that the benefits workers receive today. But Bush won’t stop dissembling about this—indeed, won’t stop lying. He told those young workers there would be “nothing there.” When he did so, he lied in their faces.

But try to find the brave newspaper which said Word One about this deception. Yes, Milbank challenged Bush’s misstatement, although he did so in a mild-mannered way. But we can’t find another newspaper which bothered to note this president’s lying. Sadly, here’s the way the AP’s Deborah Reichmann reported this absurdly false statement:

REICHMANN (4/29/05): Bush made his first public appearance since prodding lawmakers to consider reducing the benefits guaranteed to future middle and upper income retirees as part of a plan to assure the solvency of the Depression-era program.

"I have a duty to put ideas on the table, and I'm putting them on the table," the president said in suburban Falls Church, Va.

"If you're a younger worker, and you start paying into the payroll system today, and 2041 is about the time you start retiring, I'm telling you, the system is going to be bankrupt unless we do something about it," he added.
"In other words, you're working all your life, you're putting money in, and by the time it comes for you to get ready to retire, there's nothing there," Bush said. "That's a problem, folks, and it requires a solution, requires people to come together to make this work."

The outing was a follow-up to a prime-time news conference on Thursday, and he told his audience that "those who block meaningful reform are going to be held to account in the polls.”

Good girl! Reichman quoted Bush’s statement about “nothing there”—but she didn’t have a word to say about its blatant inaccuracy. If Bush had said the earth was flat, she would have just typed that up too.

At one time, only five years ago, your press corps screamed and yelled and railed, for two years, about the tiniest, most ludicrous “misstatements.” Now, they’re defining dishonesty down as George Bush lies in the face of young voters. And the sage of Malibu took it farther, praising the brilliant man for his honesty! In the next few days, we’ll take a look at the way this savant does his work.

ALLOWED TO LIE IN THE FACES OF STUDENTS: Most repugnantly, Bush was in a public school when he made these blatant misstatements. In his horrendous Washington Post “news report” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/30/05), Peter Whoriskey called the roll:

WHORISKEY (4/30/05): Many at the event, which was hosted by the Northern Virginia Technology Council, were workers younger than 40 from the region's high-tech corridor. A group of students from the Potomac School in McLean also was invited.
Is there any situation in which this president will be challenged for his lying? On Friday, he lied in the faces of underage students! But so what? With Milbank providing a mild exception, all reporters seemed to know that they’re paid not to notice or say.