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Daily Howler: We think the voters deserve to know--the spring was a season for spinning
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ONE MORE EXCERPT! We think the voters deserve to know—the spring was a season for spinning: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JUNE 30, 2006

PUT UP YOUR DUKES: The Washington Post is disturbed by all the recent “Blather in Virginia.” Here’s the opening paragraph of today’s editorial. It concerns a recent fight between Jim Webb and George Allen:
WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (6/30/06): Virginia’s U.S. Senate race is all of two weeks old, and already the debate between the Republican incumbent, George Allen, and his Democratic rival, Jim Webb, has descended into a trench of cynicism and puerility. In the past few days we have been treated to a stomach-turning (if coded) squabble over patriotism and to one candidate mocking the other's middle name. These are not the bare-knuckled blasts of a tough electoral fight; this is blather masquerading as political dialogue.
Go ahead and read their review—but our own reaction is quite different. What happened in the incident under review? Something very unusual. A Republican (Allen) behaved quite typically, taunting a Democrat about a pointless “character” matter. And omigod! In response, the Democrat (Webb) punched the Rep right in the nose!

For years, we’ve all watched Republicans play these cards (in this case, about that flag-burning amendment). But we don’t know when we’ve seen a Dem respond in so lusty a fashion. In various ways, this is exactly what Dems need to do, to the George Allens—and to the Ann Coulters. We suggest that you read this full report (from a Virginia daily paper) and ponder’s Jim Webb’s lusty conduct.

Special pleading: How he got there!

PART 3—ONE MORE EXCERPT: How did George Bush ever get to the White House? We think the public deserves to hear the whole, remarkable story. So yes, we’re back to work on the book we abandoned a few years ago. Today, we offer another excerpt. This one concerns the press corps’ conduct during the spring of 2000, when the corps continued its assault on Gore’s troubling character—and its ludicrous efforts for Bush. (For another excerpt from this book, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/27/06.)

In the spring of 2000, the press corps began to praise Bush for the bold leadership he was showing on Social Security. And they continued their attacks on Gore’s troubling character, insisting he was being too nasty and negative. Once again, the remarkable conduct during this period belongs to the press corps, not to Gore. As we’ve noted, Democrats and liberals continue to focus on Gore’s alleged failings in Campaign 2000. But that ignores the truly astonishing conduct which eventually put Bush where he is.

We’ve received some good suggestions about agents and publishers; if you have ideas, please send them. The story of Campaign 2K is astounding. We think the public deserves to hear it. We can’t understand our recent history—we can’t really see where we’re going—if this astonishing tale is sent down the memory hole.

What follows, in fact, is two separate excerpts from Chapter 11, “The spring was for spinning.” For another excerpt from this book, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/27/06. That excerpt comes from a later chapter concerning the Bush-Gore debates.

From chapter 11—The spring was for spinning

…WITHOUT QUESTION, GORE HAD TAKEN A SERIOUS BEATING in the ongoing Elian matter. Now he tried to change the subject; on April 21, his campaign announced that he’d be making a set of “compare and contrast” speeches—speeches which would challenge Bush’s proposals in four major policy areas. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a more obvious part of a presidential campaign. But in the April 22 New York Times, Katharine Seelye previewed Gore’s upcoming speeches in typical fashion:

SEELYE (4/22/00): Even as Governor Bush tries to move to the political center, the vice president is trying to define him as extreme. It is all part of a newly emerging strategy for Mr. Gore as he moves into what his advisers call the “compare and contrast” phase of the presidential campaign: compare his proposals with Mr. Bush’s and then “contrast” them. Translation: Mr. Gore rips his rival’s proposals to shreds and presents his own as reasonable alternatives.
As always, Seelye’s “translation” was dripping with spin. Gore was planning to “rip his rival’s proposals to shreds,” she said, conjuring standard images of Gore, the candidate who was nasty and negative. Indeed, Seelye was nicely on message again; as she wrote, the Bush campaign was also portraying the upcoming speeches as examples of Gore’s troubling negativity. In an April 24 press release, for example, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said that Gore would be “relying upon old-style, attack politics to once again jump-start his campaign…Instead of outlining his ideas for America, Al Gore believes he needs to rip his opponent’s lungs out in order to win.” There was a problem with Fleischer’s presentation, of course. As noted, Gore hadn’t yet given the speeches in question; as he criticized Gore for being so negative, Fleischer was trashing a set of speeches he hadn’t yet heard. But elementary matters of logic rarely seemed to trouble the press corps. And as usual, Seelye’s “translation” nicely reflected the prevailing line from the Bush campaign.

In truth, it was odd to see the Bush campaign complain about negative politics. As soon as Super Tuesday was done, the Bush camp had launched a set of remarkable attacks on Gore’s integrity and character. The attacks were voiced by top Bush aides—and by Candidate Bush himself. Almost surely, they were the most aggressive assaults on the character of a White House nominee in recent presidential campaign history. The comedy came as the press assailed Gore for his negative ways, while ignoring this onslaught by Bush.

The Bush campaign held little back in its attacks on Gore’s character. On Sunday, March 12, for example, Bush adviser Karl Rove appeared on Face the Nation and Fox News Sunday. “[T]he Texas governor’s top political aide launched a withering attack on the vice president,” Terry Neal wrote in the next day’s Washington Post, “essentially calling him a liar and unethical on several morning news programs.” If anything, Neal understated the matter; over and over, Rove implied that Gore had broken the law in his 1996 fund-raising, and over and over he said that Gore “has a problem in telling the truth.” After Rove repeated this mantra for the fourth time on Fox News Sunday, host Tony Snow asked an obvious question: “Mr. Rove, you have now said four times the vice president has difficulty telling the truth. In other words, you’re calling him a liar.” In reply, Rove ran straight to the string of gong-show tales which had infested the discourse for the previous year:

ROVE (3/12/00): Look, this is the guy who claimed he invented the Internet. He said he was the source, the subject of the novel Love Story, that he was the man who investigated the Love Canal…This man has a consistent problem telling the truth.
That made five times Rove had said it. And when Snow asked if such attacks would be “a chief element of Governor Bush’s approach,” Rove ran the count to seven or eight, depending on how you were counting:
ROVE: I think it’s a chief problem of Vice President Gore. Vice President Gore will consistently have a problem of telling the truth…He cannot help himself. This is just something inside him. He cannot help himself when it comes to the truth. Sometimes Vice President Al Gore has a big problem telling the truth.
Rove made similar statements on Face the Nation, as Neal pointed out in the Post.

Rove was hardly alone in this approach. Indeed, immediately after Super Tuesday, Bush hit the trail with aggressive attacks on his newly-confirmed Democratic opponent. On March 9, Bush criticized Gore for continuing to raise soft money even though he was proposing its ban. (This, of course, was another theme which Seelye repeatedly pushed in the Times.) And Bush was neither kind nor gentle. “We are not going to be fooled by somebody who says one thing and goes out and absolutely does something else,” he said. “[Gore] must think that we have amnesia. He must think that we have forgotten Buddhist temples and fund-raising scams.” On March 12, the attacks continued. “After all, it was not all that long ago that he went to a Buddhist temple to raise money,” Bush said, deriding Gore’s calls for campaign finance reform. “One of his close friends was indicted and convicted of fund-raising excesses. I think the vice president is somebody who will say anything to get elected. At least that’s my interpretation of how he handles things.” For the record, that “close friend” of Gore’s was Maria Hsia, who had just been convicted of criminal conduct in her 1996 DNC fund-raising. But speaking of candidates who were willing to say anything, how fair and honest was Bush’s presentation? Hsia was not a “close friend” of Gore—and her prosecutors had specifically said, in open court, that Gore had known nothing about her illegal conduct. Repeatedly, Bush avoided mentioning this fact as he launched his attacks on Gore’s character.

Bush attacked Gore’s integrity throughout the month of March. He routinely cited invented the Internet, and he routinely made tendentious presentations about past fund-raising matters. At one point, Bush was asked if he would try to “keep Gore honest.” “It’s going to be a heck of a challenge,” he said. In a March 22 interview with the Washington Post, his aggressive Gore-bashing continued. “Bush repeatedly said he does not believe or trust Gore,” Dan Balz reported in the Post the next day. According to Balz, Bush “began [the interview] with unprompted criticism of Gore” and kept it up from that point on. “Throughout the session, Bush repeatedly returned to the issue of Gore’s credibility,” Balz wrote, “and to ethical questions about Gore’s fund-raising practices in the 1996 campaign.” Bush was asked if Gore “has the honesty and integrity to serve as president.” “That’s what I’d like to know,” he replied. Bush also accused Gore of breaking the law in relation to a recent minor controversy.

The next day, the attacks continued. “I know people on the vice president’s team don’t like me to remind people that this guy will say anything to get elected, but I’m going to,” Bush told reporters in Florida. “He’s the man who said he invented the Internet—he didn’t. He’s the man who said during a debate that he was responsible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, yet it was passed two years before his arrival in the U.S. Congress.” In that last instance, Bush’s charge was factually bogus. In an October interview with Time, Gore had referred to his advocacy of the EITC’s expansion, but he didn’t claim a role in the program’s creation. But in December, Bill Bradley—the high-minded straight-shooter who refused to fight back—began pretending that Gore had said that he authored the EITC program itself. Among the press corps’ legion of spinners, Bradley’s latest doctored tale became the hot new example of Gore’s Bizarre Lying, and Candidate Bush was now on the trail, flogging the bogus point too. For the record, Bush’s charges were often factually inaccurate. On DATE, for example, he charged that Gore had once belonged to the NRA; the claim turned out to be false. In mid-May, he made inaccurate claims about Gore’s financial holdings. Other such errors littered the discourse as Bush’s bashing of Gore continued.

To state the obvious, Bush had every right to criticize Gore in whatever manner he chose. But one month after this onslaught began, the Bush camp began complaining that Gore was being too negative, citing a set of policy speeches which Gore hadn’t even delivered. At the same time—and with no hint of irony—Bush began to stress a new theme; he would “bring a new tone to Washington,” he announced in an April 26 speech. “It does not have to be this way,” he declared, criticizing the “excessive partisanship and finger pointing” in Washington. “I will set a different tone. I will restore civility and respect to our national politics.” Tragicomically, Bush’s promise of a “new tone in Washington” coincided with his campaign’s untrammeled attacks. For example, here were the headlines on two press releases on the day of his high-minded speech:


GORE SQUANDERS CHANCE TO LEAD ON MEDICARE REFORM/Record leaves clear doubts about his credibility

Apparently the “change in tone” would only come after Bush reached the White House. Indeed, on April 29, Bush appeared before the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts, and he again attacked Gore’s 1996 fund-raising. “This is the fourth anniversary of his historic visit to the Buddhist temple,” Bush said. “He’s probably celebrating in private.” Meanwhile, RNC head Jim Nicholson had sent a new CD to the radio hosts. “Nicholson Counts Down Best of Gore’s Flip-Flops, Falsehoods and Exaggerations,” said the headline on the accompanying April 28 press release. According to Nicholson, the new CD would allow radio hosts to “replay Al Gore’s top blunders and falsehoods…For a long time, Republicans have made the case that Gore’s constant truth-twisting and phony claims were like listening to a broken record,” Nicholson said. “Now we’re going to prove it.”

Has any campaign ever presented such a laughable double message? Bush routinely savaged Gore’s character, often in highly tendentious (or inaccurate) ways. As he did, his campaign blistered Gore for the negative tone of a set of speeches—speeches Gore hadn’t even delivered. Simultaneously, Bush announced a high-minded plan to set a new, positive tone in the capital! Was the press corps drenched in liberal bias? If so, this comical bit of double-delivery would have been a gift from the gods. It would have given the press the perfect chance to laugh the Bush camp off the stage.

That laughter never happened. A few reporters took minor note of Bush’s groaning double message, but soon the press was spilling over with reports about Gore’s negativity. The theme was especially prominent in the New York Times, poster child of alleged “liberal bias.” As usual, the paper led the new, tortured spinning of Gore’s troubling character flaws.

By early May, those policy speeches had been given—and the Times landed hard on Gore for his deeply disturbing negativity. Seelye continued flogging his “fullblown attacks” and “intensive assaults;” more strikingly, James Dao wrote a pair of front-page reports on May 4 and 5 about Gore’s “cascade of attacks” against Bush. Indeed, Dao’s May 5 piece expressed a theme which was becoming press corps dogma. According to article’s headline, Gore was “Giving Bush the Bradley Treatment”—was trying to tear poor Bush apart the same way he’d torn up Bill Bradley. Dao barely mentioned Bush’s attacks on Gore—attacks which continued unabated. But how sensitive was Dao to attacks against Bush? Incredibly, here was Dao’s first example of Gore’s troubling, negative conduct:

DAO (5/5/00): Even some Democrats seem to think that Mr. Gore’s attacks occasionally go over the top…Today Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat who supports investing some of the Social Security trust fund in private markets, took issue with [Gore’s use of] the word “privatization.”

“That’s a scare word,” said Mr. Moynihan, who supported Mr. Bradley in the primaries but has since endorsed the vice president.

Dao was stretching fantastically. Moynihan’s semantic sensibilities to the side, the term “privatization” was being widely used to describe Bush’s proposal for Social Security. Richard Stevenson, the budget reporter at Dao’s own paper, had used the term just four days before. The AP was also calling Bush’s plan an example of “privatization.” So were Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News—and so was the conservative Washington Times, in editorials supporting the Bush proposal. George Will—and a string of other conservative pundits—all were using the naughty term too. But incredibly, Gore’s use of this commonplace term was Exhibit A in Dao’s front-page critique—a troubling sign of his nasty ways. Other absurd examples abounded. For example, at the end of his article, Dao gave five examples of Gore’s attacks, stretching over a seven-week period. Incredibly, here were two of Dao’s five examples, exactly as he presented them. Nothing has been left out:
APRIL 25—“We fell prey to the politics of illusion during the decade of amazing deficits. Now we have to avoid the politics of illusion in the decade of amazing surpluses. This is a test of our memory. Have we forgotten the dangers of irresponsibility? Have we forgotten the virtues of responsibility?”

MAY 3—“What about the waitress who’s carrying a heavy tray, what about the longshoreman, what about the steelworker and the auto workers? When they get to the current retirement age, they don’t want to be told that in order to finance some risky tax scheme for the wealthy, they are going to have to keep on working until they are 70 years old.”

After Gore’s “cascade of attacks,” these were two of the most disturbing examples Dao was able to muster. Amazingly, these were apparently two of the five worst things Gore had said in the previous seven weeks! Fortunately, Dao explained what was wrong with these statements (otherwise, it would have been quite hard to tell); the delicate scribe was upset with Gore for using the words “irresponsibility” and “risky.” Incredible, isn’t it? When Bush and Rove slashed away at Gore’s character, the New York Times didn’t say Boo. But Gore was now challenging Bush’s large tax cuts, and the Times called in the Manners Police. When Gore dared call the tax cuts “risky,” the Times complained in back-to-back, front-page stories—reports which began by slamming Gore for using the word “privatization,” the same word the Times itself was using. Dao’s reports defied comprehension—except in the context of Campaign 2000, where such nonsense was perfectly typical.

One further point must be made about Dao’s strange pair of front-page reports. Though Dao condemned Gore’s “cascade of attacks,” he never considered an obvious question—he never asked whether Gore’s critiques of Bush’s proposals were right or wrong on the merits. In the first item quoted above, Gore was damned for daring to suggest that Bush’s large tax cuts were irresponsible. But what were Gore’s specific complaints about Bush’s proposal? And how well had Gore made out his case? Dao made no attempt to say. He didn’t attempt to describe Gore’s claims; he didn’t pretend to examine the merits. And four months later, Dao’s great paper confounded its readers with absurdly contradictory accounts of those very same tax cut proposals [described earlier in this chapter]. To all appearances, the slumbering paper had made no attempt to gather even the simplest facts about the most basic campaign proposals. The spring of the year had been a season for spinning. In August, confused and confounded New York Times readers would find themselves paying the price.

Second excerpt:

WAS THE SPRING A SEASON FOR SPINNING? SOCIAL SECURITY proved it. On May 15, Bush delivered a major speech laying out his ideas for reform of the venerable program. His proposal? Younger workers should be allowed to use roughly fifteen percent of their payroll taxes—the taxes that normally fund Social Security—to set up personal investment accounts. The money accrued in these private accounts would be used for the individual’s retirement. One key point: As was widely noted in the press, Bush didn’t offer a fully-formed plan. “Bush offered few specifics about how his ideas would work,” Judy Keen wrote in USA Today. The hopeful had only “outlined broad principles.” But everyone agreed that Bush had endorsed the most sweeping reform in Social Security’s long history. In a rebuttal speech given two hours later, Gore opposed the use of personal accounts; he said the risks involved in private investment would “take the ‘security’ out of Social Security.” The press corps swore that a “great debate” was surely going to follow.

That “great debate” never happened. The corps did present the general outlines of Bush’s historic proposal. Bush pledged not to reduce Social Security benefits for current retirees or for those near retirement. He said that use of the personal accounts would be voluntary. He promised to keep future Social Security surpluses “locked away” for the program’s sole use. And he promised that he wouldn’t increase payroll taxes. Bush also explained what he did want to do. He would let participating workers put their money in “steady, reliable” investments—investments that could be used “only for retirement or passed along as inheritance.”

As such, the general outline of his thinking was known—or at least, a voter could get that impression. Meanwhile, why was this change in the program needed? According to Bush, “We are nearing Social Security’s greatest test…If we do nothing to reform the system, the year 2037 will be the moment of financial collapse.” His reforms would somehow address this problem (how, he didn’t specifically say). Meanwhile, the proposed reforms would be great for younger workers. “The reforms I have in mind will actually increase their retirement income,” he said in his high-profile May 15 speech. Indeed, workers would end up with substantially more money because of the private accounts, Bush asserted. “Right now, the real return people get from what they put into Social Security is a dismal 2 percent a year,” he said. “Over the long term, sound investments yield about a 6 percent return…A worker who invests even a limited portion of his or her paycheck could, over a career, end up with hundreds of thousands of dollars for retirement.” There was one last bonus in Bush’s speech; as noted, the money could be left to the worker’s heirs. Nothing like that was allowed under Social Security.

One thing was clear about Bush’s presentation. If a voter accepted Bush’s claims at face value, his proposals were hard to dislike. Workers would gain hundreds of thousands of dollars—a giant sack of free money. They could pass the money along to their heirs. And, of course, the savings accounts would somehow extend the solvency of Social Security itself; individuals workers would be better off, but so would the overall system. Indeed, in the weeks which followed Bush’s speech, enthusiasts like the aforementioned Gergen wrote paeans to the Texan’s proposal. In a column in U. S. News (released in late May), Gergen pictured a 25-year-old worker earning $30,000 a year. Under the current Social Security system, the money at question in Bush’s plan would earn that worker $153,000 in retirement benefits, Gergen said. But omigod! Under Bush’s plan, the same money would earn $297,000—about twice as much. Unless Americans hated free money, it was hard to see what was wrong with this plan. “There is a good reason why Governor Bush is forging ahead,” Gergen wrote. “He is becoming the candidate of fresh ideas.”

Gergen was cheer-leading wildly, praising the Texan’s brilliant ideas. But was anything suspect about those ideas? To be honest, not since the Music Man hit River City had anyone offered so much for so little. Individuals would gain large sums from Bush’s Social Security proposal; meanwhile, his large tax cuts meant that each worker would pay fewer taxes. Given this pair of rosy scenarios, the press would surely want to examine Bush’s Social Security proposal—especially since, in unveiling his “principles,” he had “offered few specifics about how [his program] would work.” It may have been that Bush’s proposal would work out just as he had described. But any press corps worth its salt would surely have wanted to look at it closely. Surely, the press corps began to work hard to examine this key “reform” plan.

In fact, nothing like that ever occurred. Looking back, it’s stunning to see how little effort was made to examine Bush’s proposal. In May, the press corps strutted, postured and puffed about the “great debate” which was coming. But in the lazy months which followed, the press corps seemed to find endless ways to avoid examining Bush’s idea. The spring of the year was a season for spinning. No heavy lifting would interfere with the corps’ lengthy Spring Break.

How thoroughly did the press corps nap? Because Bush’s proposal lacked basic details, it was hard to know just how it would work. But twenty-one countries around the world had experience with somewhat similar retirement plans; examination of the foreign experience could have been a source of perspective. More significantly, six plans involving private accounts had already been presented in Congress. Unlike Bush’s hazy offering, these congressional plans were fully formed. If the corps had examined these real-world proposals, voters could have gotten a clearer idea of how Bush’s ideas might really work.

How did the press corps handle the matter? For starters, no newspaper or magazine ever presented a full report on the foreign experience. How had privatization worked in Great Britain? How had the system functioned in Chile? There was simply no way to find out. For the record, in the few cases where some modest reporting was done, the foreign experience didn’t sound reassuring. “Chile’s plan thrived for a decade or more through an economic boom,” the Chicago Tribune said in a brief May 7 report, “but has since suffered with a downturn in the economy.” Meanwhile, a few journalists noted a problem with Great Britain’s use of personal accounts; brokers’ fees had used up roughly forty percent of the profits from the investments. But reporting on the foreign experience was extremely hard to find. The press corps simply took a pass on this possible source of information and perspective.

Much more remarkably, no one ever did a report on those real-world congressional plans, several of which had been presented by major congressional players. Rep. John Kasich (R-OH) had authored one of the plans; almost no one ever mentioned it. Democratic senators Moynihan and Kerrey had presented a plan; no paper or magazine ever explained it. How might personal accounts really work? There was simply no way for a voter to know. The most basic information was missing in action as the press corps napped, yawned, dozed and slumbered.

Without question, the corps’ refusal to examine these plans robbed voters of valuable insights. Indeed, as in the case of the foreign experience, some of the bloom came off the rose when one did look at these real-world proposals. Uh-oh! When Kasich and others had developed real plans, they’d been forced to deal with the real-world concerns which Bush had ignored in his vague, sunny speech. And alas! Though the Texan had painted a cheerful picture of younger workers raking in dough, the actual picture was substantially different when one examined these real-world proposals.

On September 28, 2000, for example, Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post presented one of press corps’ the only reports on the Kasich proposal. (This report appeared more than four months after Bush made his ballyhooed May 15 speech.) Kessler, an outstanding budget reporter, offered a mordant assessment. “The fine print of the [Kasich plan] might temper public enthusiasm for Bush’s Social Security approach,” he judged. “[A]ccording to the deputy chief actuary of Social Security, which evaluated the Kasich plan last year, some baby boomers would see little or no advantage from individual accounts, and workers who invested conservatively in bonds would fare relatively poorly.” Another sobering assessment followed: “[T]he actuary’s report suggests the Kasich plan would bring relatively little gain in benefits compared with the current system, while adding a new element of risk.” This picture, of course, was vastly different from the cheerful portrait Bush (and Gergen) had painted. In addition, Kasich noted that none of the six congressional plans had observed Bush’s pledge against benefit cuts—the feel-good pledge which made his proposal seem to be nothing but gain.

Only one other major paper ever mentioned the Kasich proposal. On October 26, William Neikirk offered a bit more detail in the Chicago Tribune. Why would individuals gain so little under Kasich’s plan? According to Neikirk’s brief account, the plan “would reduce the [guaranteed] Social Security benefits of future retirees by a total of about 45 percent.” Ouch! But would income from the personal accounts replace the loss in guaranteed benefits? “[T]he accounts would for the most part earn back the cuts for workers and in some cases put them ahead,” Neikirk wrote, citing Kasich staffers as his source. “In general, younger workers came out even or slightly ahead, while middle-age workers still did not earn back all their benefit cuts.” And even this unexciting result was based on “an assumption open to challenge,” Neikirk noted—the assumption that workers would earn seven percent on investments. Need one other point be offered? Workers who made out poorly on their investments could be faced with significant losses. These were some of the actual facts of one actual, high-profile plan. These facts looked very different from the cheerful “facts” Gergen had pleasingly sketched in the spring, when workers were told that they would be handed six figures worth of free money. Gergen, pimping those “fresh ideas,” had left out half the story.

None of this necessarily meant that personal accounts were a bad idea. Theoretically, Kasich’s large reduction in guaranteed benefits extended the life of the overall system; according to Kasich, he was seeking a real-world solution to funding problems which Social Security would eventually face. But Kasich was frank when he spoke with Kessler; some retirees would lose ground under terms of his plan, he conceded. But given the press corps’ lazy performance, American voters were almost never exposed to this type of information—the kind of information needed to conduct any kind of real debate about the Bush proposal. Kessler and Neikirk penned brief accounts, but no one else, at any paper, ever discussed the Kasich plan, or any of the other plans which had actually been offered in Congress. The plans weren’t discussed in our major newspapers; they weren’t discussed in our newsmagazines. Were they ever discussed on programs like Hardball? Surely, we don’t have to ask.

The press corps’ indifference was startling. As a result, a Dick-and-Jane discourse ensued in the press, in which little attempt was ever made to get beyond standard factoids and sound-bites. Bush appeared all over the country, speaking about the large sacks of money younger workers would haul away from his plan. But he refused to answer the most obvious question—he refused to say whether private accounts would force a cut in guaranteed benefits. And the press showed little interest in this utterly seminal point. Finally, a comical episode revealed the indifference the corps brought to its touted “great debate.”

In late June, Newsweek budget guru Allan Sloan reported an interview with Lawrence Lindsey, Bush’s leading economic adviser. In the interview, Lindsey finally acknowledged something which should have been obvious; Bush’s plan would force a cut in guaranteed Social Security benefits. (Duh! In what other way could private accounts extend the program’s solvency?) Sloan directly quoted Lindsey about the need for such benefit cuts. “Reductions in the guaranteed amounts of benefits that will go to plan participants are absolutely obvious. So I will say it,” Lindsey said. Repeat: According to Newsweek, Lindsey explicitly said that benefit cuts were involved in Bush’s proposal. Indeed, such benefit cuts were “absolutely obvious,” Bush’s adviser now said.

By any standard, this was big news; Lindsey had settled a major point which Bush had refused to address. The Gore campaign sent out several press releases highlighting Lindsey’s statement. But did this move the “great debate” forward? Please. Three weeks later, Newsweek published a letter from Lindsey, in which he said that he had been quoted “in a misleading way.” No decision on benefit cuts would be made until after the election, he now said. But the Bush budget guru needn’t have worried about damage from his previous statement to Newsweek; press corps disinterest was total, as always. Indeed, in the three weeks following Newsweek’s initial report, no reporter in the country ever reported what Lindsey had said. Amazing, isn’t it? Lindsey’s statement wasn’t reported by any newspaper. It wasn’t reported by any magazine. No editorial or op-ed column mentioned it. In fact, according to a NEXIS search, Lindsey’s statement was mentioned just once—by Bill Press, on CNN’s Crossfire. Once again, the press corps’ aversion to matters of substance had reached the point of near pathology. The press corps simply refused to discuss the shape of this major proposal.

Back in May, pundits had made a high-minded pledge. Bush would be forced to give more details about this important proposal, they said. Indeed, a “great debate” would follow. But those pundits were living in a world of deep dreams. As far as the national press was concerned, the spring of the year was a season for spinning. In truth, the press didn’t have the slightest interest in conducting a “great debate” about any real issue. Throughout the campaign, your press corps liked to discuss personalities, and they liked to talk about clothes. Lazy, disinterested, vapid—dysfunctional—the press corps showed in the spring of the year that there was no topic substantial enough to shake its overpowering indifference. That “great debate” which it piously promised quite simply never occurred.

What did the press corps do instead? As usual, it used Social Security as a way to retell its preferred, typecast stories. Social Security became a proxy for the corps’ endless Character Tales. And here’s the way the drama was cast: According to the press corps’ overpowering consensus, Bush had shown himself to be a bold leader by daring to touch the third rail of American politics. Meanwhile, Gore was engaging in endless attacks, because he was trying to scare the voters. And everybody seemed to know that Gore was attempting to do something else; he was trying to do to Bush just what he’d done to Bill Bradley. The pundit corps showed little interest in the facts or the merits of Bush’s proposal. What did the pundit corps do instead? In its usual robotic way, it recited this latest approved tale. Social Security was used just one way; it became a way to restate attacks on the cut of Gore’s troubling character.

Gore was battered on pundit shows for his opposition to personal accounts. On The News, Brian Williams rolled his eyes at Gore’s use of the troubling word “risky.” On Hardball, host Chris Matthews lit into Gore for using the word “privatization.” (Matthews agreed with guest Jack Kemp that Gore’s word-choice was “pure demagoguery.” As noted above, this charge was pure nonsense.) And everyone seemed to know the rule—they had to savage Gore for his troubling “attacks.” Gore’s alleged negativity became the great issue. The actual merits of his actual claims was sent down the memory hole.

On CNN, Cook and Rothenberg scolded Gore for his “attacks.” (They applied the word “attack” to Gore no less than ten times in a two-minute outing.) But what were the merits in Gore’s “attacks?” The pundits made no effort to say. Nor did Williams explain the risks which did exist in the Bush proposal. On these programs, nonpartisan experts were non-existent; spinning pundits again ruled the day. And once again, Hardball heroically led the way in the pundit corps’ battering of Gore.

Was liberal bias driving the coverage? Not for those watching Hardball. On the night of May 15, Howard Fineman reviewed Bush and Gore’s speeches on Social Security—and there was little doubt where the Newswseek sage stood. “Al Gore is saying that, one more time, the Democrats can use Social Security as a scare issue,” Fineman said (lodging an obvious “attack” against Gore, the very thing pundits claimed to find so distasteful). Bush, by contrast, was being “presidential”—a point Fineman offered three separate times just in his opening comment. Indeed, Bush’s clothing was even presidential as he spoke on this issue this day. “You see Al Gore in the, in the silk shirts,” Fineman said. “You see George W. Bush dressed up like a president.” Incredibly, even in this important discussion, Fineman began with a vacuous comment about the candidates’ wardrobes. (Bush had worn a suit and tie for his May 15 speech; Gore had worn a sport coat and dark shirt. To Fineman, such trivia mattered.) As the rest of Campaign 2000 would show, nothing could stop your press corps from this kind of nonsense. Nothing could stop them from insulting the public interest with their fixation on trivia and spin.

Liberal bias was missing in action; Gore was battered on Hardball all week for his opposition to personal accounts. According to Matthews, Gore was “a human stop sign” and “a pander bear”—“a pure demagogue,” making “dishonest statements.” Gore was “fear-mongering,” running “a fear campaign;” he was “trying to scare the hell” (and “the bejesus”) out of people. Gore’s proposals constituted “an assassination of the character of Social Security,” Matthews said. But no attempt was ever made to offer information to Hardball viewers. Did budget experts appear on the program? Surely we don’t have to ask.

Had Candidate Bush made a worthwhile proposal? That, of course, was a matter of judgment—a judgment voters could hardly make, given the press corps’ performance. But by the end of that first week in May, it was easy to see who was winning the war in the press. On May 19, in fact, a pair of big pundits—one liberal, one conservative—reached a common conclusion about that. On Capital Gang, Mark Shields posed the question: “Al Hunt, who is winning the first round of the Social Security debate?” Hunt, a liberal, had no doubt about who was getting the better press coverage:

HUNT (5/19/00): Well, certainly, Bush is winning among the elites, and I think in the press coverage so far. But, Mark, I don’t think he can go for five or six months with ducking the details of what this is all about.
Alas, poor Albert! Hunt was one of the lotus-land pundits who believed that his colleagues would force a real discourse. But Hunt was right when he said that Bush was winning the war in the press. Indeed, conservative Fred Barnes voiced the same judgment that very same evening on Fox. “An important thing has happened in this country regarding Social Security,” Barnes told his co-host, Morton Kondracke, on their show, The Beltway Boys.“Elite opinion—in other words, the bigwigs, the opinion makers, people like you, Mort—have changed their mind and are now, I think, sympathetic to the Bush plan and think that Gore is just being a reactionary liberal.” Indeed, it had long been clear that press elites favored the concept of personal accounts. Such a plan was “really quite mainstream thinking at this point,” Fineman said on the May 15 Hardball.

Thus was born another comical narrative—the scripting of Bush as “bold leader.” Had Bush proposed a useful reform? That was a matter of judgment. Some economists favored his plan; some economists did not. But had Bush been bold in presenting his plan? Without any doubt, some political risks were involved in the Texan’s proposal. But the widespread portrait of Bush as bold leader flew in the face of certain facts on the ground—facts which made this widespread presentation the corps’ latest comical tale.

For starters, why had Bush refused to offer a specific plan? His advisers were admirably frank on the subject. According to the May 16 New York Times, Bush aides “said he had avoided specifics because Hillary Rodham Clinton’s abortive [health care plan] had shown that being locked into one plan was a recipe for legislative disaster on a complicated issue.” In USA Today, Keen cited Bush adviser Lindsey, who offered the same explanation. To be sure, it was understandable that Bush was avoiding specifics. Such conduct is common in political campaigns; Candidate Clinton didn’t present a specific health plan in 1992, for example. But though the approach was understandable, it hardly was “bold”—especially since everyone knew that serious questions surrounded the use of the personal accounts. But Bush was widely praised for his daring, even as he refused to say whether benefit cuts would be involved in his program. Bush offered voters free sacks of money from their personal accounts, and refused to speak to the question of benefit cuts. And this, according to the press corps’ new thinking, was the mark of a bold, daring leader!

But the comedy came from another source too—the way the issue was polling. Instantly, Bush’s proposal proved wildly popular; it was approved by margins of two-to-one in a series of polls. Many pundits expressed surprise, but again, that was just their ignorance talking—or their disingenuity. As every Washington journalist should have known (and as Brit Hume mentioned on Fox), private accounts had polled favorably for years—as long as they were presented in the specific, reassuring ways which Bush had expressly chosen. In particular, as long as benefit cuts weren’t discussed, the idea had long polled favorably. And the Bush camp was well aware of these facts; indeed, in the days before his May 15 speech, Bush advisers were widely quoted discussing the issue’s popularity. (Personal accounts were “wildly popular” with younger voters, one Bush aide exulted.) Meanwhile, polling had clearly established another point—support for private accounts tended to reverse if voters were told about benefit cuts. But this, of course, was precisely the point the bold leader wouldn’t discuss.

And so it was born—the latest gong-show character tale from the press corps’ seemingly endless supply. Bush had proposed a cheerful plan which offered the voters big sacks of free money. His plan was affirmed two-to-one in all polls; the press corps plainly favored it too. And Bush refused to provide the “details” which almost surely would have soured the public on his proposal. Despite all this, Bush was lionized as a bold leader—for offering a plan which was “wildly popular,” a plan which had polled well for years. Meanwhile, Gore was trashed as a “pander bear”—although his stance was opposed two-to-one in most polls. No one but the Washington press corps can present such silly tales with such total conviction. Surely, Gore became the first contender in many years to find himself in this odd situation—trashed as a “pander bear” for opposing a plan which was backed two-to-one in a long string of polls! Only the Washington press—on a silly Spring Break—can offer such endless prime nonsense.

Was Candidate Bush being bold in his stand? To be honest, the corps didn’t know. Surely, each side had considered the politics of Social Security; the Bush campaign was well aware of the political appeal of personal accounts, for example. But what specific blend of politics versus principle had driven Bush and Gore’s positions? To state the obvious, the press didn’t know. But no matter—the corps engaged in typical clowning in the wake of Bush’s May 15 speech. Instead of informing the public about the issues involved, it chose to tell a pleasing story, a story in which it pretended to know what was going on in Bush and Gore’s minds.

The spring of the year was a season for spinning. Four months later, few voters really had a clue about Bush’s Social Security proposal—and hapless reporters like Connolly and Bruni didn’t know the simplest facts about Bush’s seminal tax cuts...

EXTRA CREDIT: The following points are worth noting:

WHO WAS BEING NASTY AND NEGATIVE: The spinning of Gore as nasty and negative continued all through the spring. The presentation became even more selective during the Social Security battles. Gore was indeed calling Bush’s plan “risky,” but Bush was lustily name-calling Gore, endlessly calling him a “demagogue” for his criticisms of private accounts. “Too many times, Social Security has been demagogued to frighten the elderly,” Bush thundered in his May 15 speech. “I am here…to put my opponent on notice: The days of spreading fear and panic are over. The days of delaying, dividing and demagoguing are over.” In fact, Bush routinely called Gore a “demagogue” for his opposition to private accounts. (Gore was called a “demagogue” in Bush press releases on May 15, 17 and 19.) But once again, only Gore’s disturbing “attacks” received attention from the troubled press corps. At the New York Times, the delicate Dao never said Boo about the “cascade of attacks” against Gore. At the Times, “irresponsible” was a very negative word. “Demagogue” plainly was not.

RECITING FOR BUSH, PART 1: For the record, the notion that Bush was displaying “bold leadership” came straight from the Bush camp itself. Reporting made it perfectly clear; this was the way the Bush campaign hoped his proposal would play. In the Post, Dan Balz previewed Bush’s speech on May 15. “Bush sees Social Security as an issue on which to present himself as a bold leader,” the Post scribe reported. The next day, Keen used the very same phrase in reporting Bush’s speech. Bush was “using the subject to claim the label of bold leader while dismissing Gore as timid,” she wrote. Indeed, “leadership” was a principal theme of Bush’s speech, as Alison Mitchell noted in the New York Times. “Much of the Texas Republican’s address was devoted to drawing a contrast between himself and Vice President Gore, casting himself as a leader,” she wrote. Bush press releases stressed this theme. “WHILE BUSH LEADS ON SOCIAL SECURITY, GORE DEMAGOGUES,” said the headline on one such release.

To be sure, there was nothing wrong with the Bush campaign pushing its preferred viewpoint. But the Gore campaign had a viewpoint too; “Gore sees the program as a way to show voters that he is a reliable steward,” Balz wrote. That said, there’s little question whose framework the press corps adopted. Indeed, even as Bush spoke on May 15, his theme was being echoed on CNN, that well-known bastion of liberal bias. Natalie Allen broke in on Bush’s speech to interview CNN political director Beth Fouhy. And Fouhy recited her cohort’s new character tale—a tale which reflected Bush’s script:

FOUHY (5/15/00): The plan, while it is just a series of principles right now that Governor Bush is outlining—he is not getting into a lot of specifics—it is very bold for him to be getting into this. Because it is the famous third rail of American politics. Many, many people have gone before him in trying to attempt a revamp of the system. Many have been burned. He is obviously a candidate who has got a lot of confidence right now that he is venturing into something that he knows he is going to get criticized about quite a bit, primarily by Gore.
Bush was being “very bold.” Indeed, this was the very first thing Fouhy said. But she never suggested that Gore was trying to be “a reliable steward;” that framework almost never appeared in press corps discussions. As here, Bush’s bold leadership was routinely mentioned—and Gore was routinely criticized for conducting those endless attacks.

RECITING FOR BUSH, PART 2: Once again, it fell to Charles Cook and Stuart Rothenberg to offer the perfect recitation. On May 17, the pundits appeared on CNN’s Inside Politics. When host Bernard Shaw asked about Bush’s new proposal, the pair presented a textbook performance, presenting the press corps’ standard tale about the new debate.

Cook went first, and he quickly presented every element in the corps’ Standard Story. “For Governor Bush, it’s a chance to show sort of bold leadership,” he said, perfectly stating the Bush campaign’s spin-point. “But at the same time, getting into that area is certainly a risky thing…because Al Gore is very good at the attack; just look at what he did to Bill Bradley on health care.” Cook had included every key spin-point; from that point on, the pundits could focus on Gore’s disturbing attacks. (Gore attempt to be a reliable steward was, alas, never mentioned.) In fact, in the course of a two-minute discussion, the word “attack” was applied to Gore no less than ten times. Rothenberg: “Well, in general, he has been attacking for months now and there’s been a lot of criticism that he’s been overly negative. Once again here—attack, attack.” More Rothenberg: “There’s some danger for Gore, the fact that he maybe goes over the top on these attacks, too often seems like a traditional politician, too negative.” Still more Rothenberg: “I think it’s remarkable, Bernie, that Al Gore, the sitting vice president, has to attack as most challengers attack, and he’s attacking the front-runner.” Simply put, Rothenberg couldn’t stop saying “attack.” But how solid were Gore’s “attacks” on the merits? That elementary question never arose. Viewers were told that Gore was “too negative,” that he seemed like “a trite politician,” and that “people don’t particularly like him” because of his attacks. But were Gore’s attacks right or wrong on the merits? Shaw didn’t ask, and the pundits didn’t tell. Instead, they helped write the latest act of a long-running character drama.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Yes, it gets worse. Mainstream pundits favored Bush’s proposal—and they attacked Gore’s disturbing “attacks.” How scripted were they willing to be? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/2/04. We think the public needs to hear this whole astonishing story.