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THE CULTURE THAT HAS NO NAME! Collins praised Ryan, then went on leave. Behind this, there lies a sick culture: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JUNE 6, 2011

How progressives shouldn’t argue: Would Paul Ryan’s budget plan end Medicare?

This morning, Paul Krugman answers that question two different ways in just his first two paragraphs! It isn’t good for progressive interests when the Babe Ruth of the liberal world chooses to argue this way:

KRUGMAN (6/6/11): What's in a name? A lot, the National Republican Congressional Committee obviously believes. Last week, the committee sent a letter demanding that a TV station stop running an ad declaring that the House Republican budget plan would ''end Medicare.'' This, the letter insisted, was a false claim: the plan would simply install a ''new, sustainable version of Medicare.''

But Comcast, the station's owner, rejected the demand—and rightly so. For Republicans are indeed seeking to dismantle Medicare as we know it, replacing it with a much worse program.

For whatever it may be worth, the disputed ad said that the Republican plan would “end Medicare”—full stop. Krugman says the GOP was wrong to challenge that claim. Bu please note: In his very next sentence, Krugman avoids that claim when he speaks in his own voice. Speaking in a more accurate way, Krugman says the GOP plan would “dismantle Medicare as we know it” (our emphasis).

So how about it? Does the Ryan plan “end Medicare?” That is a semantic question. We liberals have never been skillful with such questions. We ought to develop our skills.

Does the Ryan plan “end Medicare?” As he continues, Krugman gets to the place where rubber meets road, but not until he has mired himself in a semantic debate—a discussion he really can’t win. In doing so, he hands the GOP a victory. As you may have noticed in the past thirty years, conservatives will often weasel their way off the basic point in a debate by opening up a side discussion. The side discussion distracts attention from the real issue under review.

That’s the way this semantic debate about “ending Medicare” works.

What are the real issues under review? Krugman, our movement’s most valuable player, gets to those points in paragraph 6. This is what voters need to hear, in the absence of pointless distractions:

KRUGMAN: And most seniors wouldn't be able to afford adequate coverage. A Congressional Budget Office analysis found that to get coverage equivalent to what they have now, older Americans would have to pay vastly more out of pocket under the Paul Ryan plan than they would if Medicare as we know it was preserved. Based on the budget office estimates, the typical senior would end up paying around $6,000 more out of pocket in the plan's first year of operation.

Under the Ryan plan, most seniors wouldn't be able to afford adequate coverage. You can call it Johnson or you can call it Jackson. But that is one of the take-away points progressives should be advancing. In Krugman’s column, we have to wade through two more grafs before he reinforces that point, restating what it means:

KRUGMAN (continuing directly): By the way, defenders of the G.O.P. plan often assert that it resembles other, less unpopular programs. For a while they claimed, falsely, that Vouchercare would be just like the coverage federal employees get. More recently, I've been seeing claims that Vouchercare would be just like the system created for Americans under 65 by last year's health care reform—a fairly remarkable defense from a party that has denounced that reform as evil incarnate.

So let me make two points. First, Obamacare was very much a second-best plan, conditioned by perceived political realities. Most of the health reformers I know would have greatly preferred simply expanding Medicare to cover all Americans. Second, the Affordable Care Act is all about making health care, well, affordable, offering subsidies whose size is determined by the need to limit the share of their income that families spend on medical costs. Vouchercare, by contrast, would simply hand out vouchers of a fixed size, regardless of the actual cost of insurance. And these vouchers would be grossly inadequate.

Ryan’s plan would hand out vouchers—and these vouchers would be grossly inadequate. That second point is the one which must be explained, since there’s nothing automatically wrong with vouchers. (See below.) In this column, Krugman only gets to that basic point in passing, mainly because he has burned so much time arguing semantic distractions.

There is one other basic point progressives should be advancing. Krugman gets to that point next—and he thoroughly nails it. If you’ve watched cable TV in the past month, you may understand why this point is hugely important:

KRUGMAN (continuing directly): But what about the claim that none of this matters, because Medicare as we know it is unsustainable? Nonsense…

Medicare as we know it is unsustainable? Nonsense, Krugman says. Krugman goes on to debunk that claim—a claim which is now the GOP’ immediate GOP rebuttal when Democrats or liberals complain about the puny size of those vouchers. At present, Republicans do not dispute the claim that the vouchers are small. They respond by saying this: It’s the best we can do. The current system can’t be sustained. It will soon be bankrupt.

By the way, please note: When Krugman speaks in his own voice here, he again refers to Medicare “as we know it,” thereby speaking with more precision than Democrats did in that ad.

Was something “wrong” with that Democratic ad? That’s a matter of judgment. But make no mistake: Inevitably, some voters will be misled by the claim that the Ryan plan “ends Medicare,” full stop. In truth, very few major Democrats are making that truncated claim; like Krugman, they’re speaking with more precision, saying that Ryan’s plan would end Medicare as we know it. Silly children like Rachel Maddow treat themselves to the nightly pleasure of saying that Ryan’s plan “kills Medicare,” full stop. But good God! If you can’t make the case against Ryan’s plan without giving yourself that advantage, you’re too dumb to play this game.

When Maddow schools her viewers that way, they aren’t learning how they should argue when their framework is rejected. “Kills Medicare” is fiery fun within the tribe, ineffective most everywhere else.

Was something “wrong” with that Democratic ad? We’ve seen worse. But why not conduct a thought experiment? In 1992, Candidate Clinton campaigned on a pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” What would Democrats have said if Republicans distributed leaflets in low-income districts saying that Clinton had pledged to “end welfare,” full stop?

Presumably, Democrats would have complained, for perfectly obvious reasons. (In those days, of course, we fiery liberals rarely complained about much.)

Can we talk? Cable conservatives long for the chance to argue the pointless semantic distraction which anchors Krugman’s column. It isn’t good for progressive interests when our own Babe Ruth, our own Paul Bunyan, finds himself playing this game—and playing it rather poorly.

That said, we were struck by one more aspect of this column. Once again, we were struck by the way Krugman has sometimes started to run with a very bad crowd.

Can we talk? It seems that Krugman came to politics late in life. (There’s nothing wrong with that.) In this recent profile in New York magazine, he is quoted making some semi-remarkable statements (click ahead to the profile’s third page):

WALLACE-WELLS (4/26/11): Krugman had begun the work that would eventually win him the Nobel Prize—an aggressive revision of international trade theory—by the time he was in his mid-twenties, and so for nearly all of his adult life he has had good evidence for the proposition that he is smarter than just about everyone else around him, and capable of seeing things more clearly. Krugman is gleeful about being right, joyous in the revelation of his correctness, and many of his most visible early fights were with free-trade skeptics on the left. Of Robert Reich, for instance, Krugman wrote: “talented writer, too bad he never gets anything right.” He was a liberal and a Democrat, but even in 1999, when he was hired by Howell Raines to write his Times column, “I still saw equivalent craziness on both sides.”

This evenhandedness began to disappear almost immediately. Four months after his first column, Krugman began studying the economic proposals of the Bush campaign and found, somewhat to his astonishment, that they were deeply disingenuous. “That was a radicalizing experience. Not just that the presidential candidate of one of America’s major political parties could say something that was demonstrably false, but that nobody was willing to say so,” Krugman says. “That was pretty awesome.” The Iraq War seemed insane to him, and he said so, forcefully. In 2003, these were sometimes unpopular positions, and Krugman and [Robin Wells, Krugman’s wife] found themselves turning to the progressive blogs; at times it felt as if it were the economist, his wife, and the Internet against the world.

We agree with one of Krugman’s points. The group silence of the mainstream press of the Clinton/Gore years truly was an “awesome” thing to behold. (From that day to this, liberals have agreed not to discuss it. Too many liberal heroes were up to their ears in this death-dealing scam.) But if Krugman is being represented correctly, he was surprised to see a major Republican making ludicrous claims about budget matters; as of 1999, he “still saw equivalent craziness on both sides.” If true, that represents a striking bit of political naivete.

In fairness, people can be misrepresented in profiles like this, even when they are quoted accurately. But Krugman was always a policy man—and it is in the area of policy, rather than politics, that he has made his Ruthian contribution to the liberal project.

Krugman is a giant of policy analysis—and he’s a bit of an ingenue on politics. That’s why it’s sad to see him running with the wrong crowd:

KRUGMAN: But Comcast, the station's owner, rejected the demand—and rightly so. For Republicans are indeed seeking to dismantle Medicare as we know it, replacing it with a much worse program.

I'm seeing many attempts to shout down anyone making this obvious point, and not just from Republican politicians. For some reason, many commentators seem to believe that accurately describing what the G.O.P. is actually proposing amounts to demagoguery. But there's nothing demagogic about telling the truth.

Start with the claim that the G.O.P. plan simply reforms Medicare rather than ending it. I'll just quote the blogger Duncan Black, who summarizes this as saying that ''when we replace the Marines with a pizza, we'll call the pizza the Marines.'' The point is that you can name the new program Medicare, but it's an entirely different program—call it Vouchercare—that would offer nothing like the coverage that the elderly now receive. (Republicans get huffy when you call their plan a voucher scheme, but that's exactly what it is.)

The blogger’s “summary” is idiotic. It lays out a road map for any liberal who want to lose a debate on this topic. If someone replaced the Marines with a pizza, they truly would have created “an entirely different program.” Out in the real world, no one would say that the Ryan plan is “entirely different” to anything like that degree.

Go ahead—argue that way on cable! This represents a perfect way for liberals to get distracted away from the basic point: Many seniors will end up without health care under Ryan’s plan! It’s a perfect way to get into a side discussion in which the liberal will look like the hyperbolic hack to many average viewers.

Krugman is new to politics; in truth, he simply isn’t an expert when it comes to politics. And uh-oh! Increasingly, he seem to run with a gang of Kool Kidz—with the loud children who sat out the Clinton-Gore era and seem determined to dream up ways to lose debates today.

Duncan Black is convincing—within the tribe. Progressives win votes in the wider world when they stick to the basic points about Ryan’s plan, when they avoid getting tricked into making absurd comparisons in silly sidecar discussions.

Does the Ryan plan “end Medicare?” If you find yourself debating that point, there’s a good chance you’ve already lost. The merits massively favor your side. These silly semantics do not.

What’s the matter with vouchers: The term “voucher” tends to poll poorly. For that reason, pols like to avoid having the term applied to their proposals. (In 1999, Candidate Bradley proposed Medicaid vouchers. He then screamed, complained, bellowed and wailed when Candidate Gore used the word.)

In the current case, Ryan had been deeply disingenuous on this point, arguing that his plan offers “premium support,” not “vouchers.” Are there three human beings alive today who could explain a relevant difference?

For the record, there’s nothing automatically wrong with “vouchers.” It depends on how big the vouchers are. The problem with the Ryan plan is the fact that the vouchers would be much too small. As taken from Krugman’s column, these are the basic points liberals should be arguing:

• These vouchers would be grossly inadequate.
• For that reason, most seniors wouldn't be able to afford adequate coverage.
• Medicare as it exists today is indeed sustainable.

If you find yourself arguing about something else, you may already have lost.

Special report: The culture that has no name!

PART 1—THE PUNDIT THAT HAS NO SOUL (permalink): Humans received a bit of good news in last Thursday’s New York Times. Near the bottom of the op-ed page, in italics, the Times made this announcement:

Gail Collins is on book leave.”

Collins will be gone until the fall, giving us humans a merciful respite. But before she left to scribble her book, Collins produced one last weekly on-line conversation with her pal, David Brooks—and she wrote a truly disgraceful column. In that chat and in that column, she gave liberals and progressives a chance to consider a deeply damaging press corps culture—a culture that has no name.

Hurrah! After all these weeks, Collins finally got around to discussing the Ryan plan! Way back on April 6, the high lady seemed to tell Rachel Maddow that she would be reviewing this plan—and she seemed to say that the plan was a disgraceful mess. Let’s recall what this horrible person said in early April (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/8/11):

COLLINS (4/6/11): He’s put it out. So now we can discuss it.

He’s screwed everything up, it’s a big mess. The numbers are all wrong. He’s killing Medicare as we know it today.

He’s doing nothing whatsoever about all the people who aren’t covered by health insurance right now. He’s ruining all the attempts to control medical spending. Medical costs are not going to go down at all.

He’s doing all those terrible things. So fine, he’s been brave. He works out in the morning. He’s got a better part [in his hair]. He put his numbers out, three cheers! And now, let’s talk about them.

Speaking to Maddow and her audience, Collins struck her best liberal pose. She mocked the praise Ryan had been receiving. She noted that the numbers in his gruesome plan were “all wrong.”

“It’s a big mess,” she said of Ryan’s plan. “He’s doing all those terrible things.” Beyond that, Collins seemed to make a promise. “Now we can discuss it,” she declared. “He put his numbers out, three cheers! And now, let’s talk about them.”

Those words were spoken on April 6. Collins would go on to write sixteen more columns before her book leave began. Despite her fiery statements to Maddow, she never mentioned the Ryan plan until Column 15, which appeared on May 26.

Finally, the high lady Collins mentioned the Ryan plan! But when she did, Maddow’s audience wasn’t around—so Collins suggested that Democrats had been demagoguing the plan! Speaking to a respectable audience, Collins put her fiery pose away. Instead, a truly horrible person showcased her horrible soul.

Many of you can’t come to see what a horrible person this high lady is. Please consider that fifteenth column—and this lady’s final chat with her best pal, Brooks.

Below, you see the typically vapid way Collins started her column. We’ll include her headline, which was—what else?—a bow to her greatest gods, the deities Snicker and Snide:

COLLINS (5/26/11): Democratic Happy Dance

Hey, did anybody notice that the Democrat won a special Congressional race in a Republican district in upstate New York? Apparently, she campaigned a lot on protecting Medicare.

OMG! The Democrats are levitating with joy. Never have you seen so many smiling liberals.

''I'm feeling great. I'm ecstatic,'' said Steve Israel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Israel is also a member of Congress from New York—a state where, in case you hadn't heard, a Democrat won a special Congressional race Tuesday night.

There is no escaping our fate. We are going to spend the next 17 months hearing about how the Republicans want to kill off Medicare. By 2012, the current video on the Web showing a guy who resembles Representative Paul Ryan pushing an old woman off a cliff will look like a Teletubbies skit. By the fall, there will be ads showing the Republicans hacking their way through rows of bedridden seniors with scimitars.

As usual, Collins was complaining about all that tedious political talk from all those highly tedious people who actually care about politics. She was complaining about the way we’d be “forced” to hear that Republicans want to kill Medicare. Beyond that, Collins instantly seemed to be tracking a standard conservative complaint. She suggested the Democratic web ad was tasteless and excessive, in some unspecified way. She suggested that future ads against Ryan’s plan would only get that much worse!

At least Collins was discussing the Ryan plan, after seven weeks of silence. But what did she say about the plan? Unfortunately, this is where this awful person took her analysis next:

COLLINS: So far, the Republicans are increasing their opponents' Glad Bag of Happiness by sticking to their guns. Ryan, the House budget guru, was back on YouTube Wednesday with another defense of his Medicare plan and a cogent explanation of how the current health care system is all screwed up, rewarding doctors for the number of procedures they do rather than how well they treat their patients.

''Washington has not been honest with you,'' Ryan told the camera. He is the powerful chairman of the House Budget Committee, and, therefore, you would think, Washington.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Republicans were complaining about Democratic triumphalism. They had a point. How are we going to fix the hugely expensive, deeply flawed fee-for-service health care system with all this demagoguery?

''I don't think it's responsible to try to scare seniors for political points,'' said Senator John Cornyn.

Collins was very slick in this column. A true believer might get the impression that she criticizes the GOP for the Ryan plan. But go ahead—read the whole thing. You’ll find that Collins forgot to mention the points she stated so boldly on that Maddow program in April. Most significantly, she failed to note that Ryan’s “numbers are all wrong;” she also failed to note that Ryan “has screwed everything up;” Is Ryan “killing Medicare as we know it today?” She never even said that! Instead, she told us there’s no escape—we’ll be hearing that claim from Democrats for the next two years. She never made the naughty statement in her own voice.

By the way, is that claim an accurate claim? Is it true that the Ryan plan would “kill Medicare as we know it today?” That’s what Collins said to Maddow, all the way back on April 6! But she failed to pass judgment in her column! Darlings! Out in public, ladies like Collins don’t dirty their hands in such ways.

Some of you will fly-speck that column, trying to convince yourselves that Collins really did speak the truth about the Ryan plan. You will be kidding yourselves. Collins played it safe throughout, sticking to the politics of the plan and advancing her standard vacuous theme, in which all major politicians are boring her to tears. If you doubt that she actually struck that pose, just review her final weekly conversation with the increasingly ridiculous Brooks.

The conversation appeared on-line on Wednesday, May 25, one day before her column appeared. The night before, the Democrats had won that special House election in western New York. After some standard back-and-forth simpering, this is the first thing Collins said about Medicare as an issue:

COLLINS (5/25/11): O.K., let’s get to the issue. You do agree that yesterday’s vote was all about Medicare, right? Here’s a super-Republican district and two relatively anonymous candidates—their debate high point came when they both admitted to owning four cars, but squabbled over whose fleet was more expensive. The only notable thing about the campaign was that the Democrat kept pounding away at the Republican for supporting the Paul Ryan budget plan, which included an end to Medicare as an entitlement.

I know you like Ryan and let me throw in some praise for him. I agree with the people who say he was brave to open up this conversation. Although it appears now he did not actually appreciate that the voters were going to hate, hate, hate his idea. So maybe a combination of brave and out of touch.

Good God.

Collins began in her typical way, pretending that both candidates in the New York race were idiots. The high point of their debate “came when they both admitted to owning four cars, but squabbled over whose fleet was more expensive,” the condescending high lady said. In fact, to most serious liberals, the high point of this election debate came when Kathy Hochul, the eventual winner, told the truth about Ryan’s plan. But Collins, a truly horrible person, won’t tell the truth about such matters in the open air.

How odd! Speaking to Brooks instead of Maddow, Collins forgot to say that Ryan had presented a tangle of bogus numbers. She forgot to say that he screwed everything up and created a big giant mess. She forgot to say that he does “nothing whatsoever about all the people who aren’t covered by health insurance right now.” She forgot to say that Ryan is “ruining all the attempts to control medical spending.”

Collins even forgot to say that Ryan is “killing Medicare as we know it today,” coming up with a euphemistic replacement. (The Ryan plan “includes an end to Medicare as an entitlement.”) But what did she remember to say? Lady Collins remembered to say that she thinks Ryan was brave—brave for starting the conversation! She mocked that notion on Maddow’s show, then pimped it out speaking with Brooks.

In this on-line conversation, Collins said that Ryan is brave but perhaps a bit out of touch. She never said a single word about his vast deceptions—deceptions she pimped to the skies when she played our darling child for what she is, a big mark.

For the record, Lady Collins has always been like this. We were first repulsed by this type of conduct from this high lady in October 1999! But liberals have never been able to come to terms with the simpering culture within which this very bad person works. Our silliest children keep getting conned, in the way Maddow has been conned by Collins on a monthly basis. Meanwhile, our fiery analysts don’t get around to describing Collins for what she truly is.

In the process, no one ever tells the voters about this very bad person. No one ever names the culture within which this high lady works.

Collins works from deep within a highly destructive press corps culture. To this day, this destructive culture is, to borrow the words of Betty Friedan, “a problem without a name.”

Tomorrow—part 2: Defiantly stupid is still A-OK