ACCEPTING CARLYS LIES: Headlines on news reports rarely broadcast a viewpoint so clearly. In this mornings Washington Post, the following headlines appear on Perry Bacons front-page report:
Front-page headline: Candidates Diverge on How to Save Social Security
Page 4 headline: Both Hopefuls Envisage Saving Social Security
The repeated use of save conveys a clear notion about the status of Social Security. And the notion belongs to the headline writer; no variant of the phrase save/saving Social Security appears in Bacons report. Bacons report is weak in some major ways. But it doesnt directly adopt the idea that Social Security must be saved.
Presumably, an editor wrote his personal viewpoint into those headlines. Its all part of the culture of slop and inaccuracy affecting our budget reporting.
Will major papers like the Post produce stringent budget reporting this year? Their past track record is exceptionally poor, and so far this year, the signs arent encouraging. Though it isnt like the McCain campaign isnt giving them plenty to write about.
Yesterday, McCain held a town hall meeting in Denver. What follows is his remarkably challenged presentation about Social Security. The question to McCain was striking. His answer was even more so.
So modest! As he starts, McCain admits that he just wants to offer a little straight talk:
QUESTION (7/7/08): Hi, Senator McCain. I have been a registered Republican since I turned 18. I'm the compliance officer of a local broker dealer, as well as a registered investment advisory firm. Many of the proposals that are being created for people of my generation no longer include Social Security because of the belief it will not be there. Tell me how you plan to fix it.
MCCAIN: Thank you very much. Id like to start out by giving you a little straight talk. Under the present set-up, because we've mortgaged our children's futures, you will not have Social Security benefits that present-day retirees have unless we fix it. And Americans have got to understand that.
Americans have got to understand that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today. And that's a disgrace. It's an absolute disgrace, and it's got to be fixed.
Now, how do you fix it? Now, how do you fix it? You fix it by reaching across the aisle, and you say to the Democrats, "Sit down with me at the table. Sit down with me, the way Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill did the last time that Social Security was in deep trouble, and that was way back in 1983."
Ronald Reagan, a conservative president from California, Tip O'Neill, the liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, sat down together, and they walked out of the White House together, and they said, "We're going to fix Social Security." And they did, for about 20, 30 years. Right, Hank?
And Hank Brown and I were in the Congress at the time. And we were proud. We were proud to see the kind of bipartisanship that was exhibited for future generations.
Well, now it's broken again. Now it's broken again. Nothing is forever in America. I want to promise you that I'll say to the Democrats and I'll say to the American people: Here's a chart. Here's how much is coming in. Here's how much is going out. And here's where there's more money going out than coming in, and here's where there's no money left."
Now, are we going to hand it off to your generation to fix it? Or are we going to do the hard things? I want to be president to do the hard things. And I promise you that I'll do everything in my power to make sure that not only Social Security but Medicare is addressed, and it has to be done in a bipartisan fashion. And Washington is broke, and we're grid-locked by partisanship, and it's going to change, and it's got to change, and I will change it.
As is so common in our talk-radio culture, the questioner suggests that Social Security wont be there in the lifetimes of current adults. Here are some obvious problems with McCains response:
First, he doesnt correct the questioners assumption, though he seems to know its bogus. He starts by saying this: Under the present set-up...you will not have Social Security benefits that present-day retirees have unless we fix it. That claim can perhaps be defended as technically accurate (based on standard projections). But that claim is massively different from the questioners suggestion that Social Security wont be there. Presumably, very few people in that audience knew this. This part of McCains answer was slick.
Next, McCain says its a disgrace that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers. We have no idea why thats a disgraceand thats the way the system has always worked, right from inception. How many of his listeners understood any of this?
Next, McCain suggests that the current situation is comparable to the situation in 1983. That comparison is laughably bogus. Presumably, every budget reporter knows that. Presumably, McCains listeners dont.
Finally, McCain says the system is brokenand he imagines a day where theres no money left. But absent a hundred-ton asteroid striking Manhattan, there will never be such a day. Every budget reporter knows this. Again, McCains listeners dont.
If we lived in a rational world, that one presentation by McCain would generate a great deal of journalism. But we dont live in a rational world; we live in a world of dysfunctional journalism, where absurd presentations of this type have been tolerated for decades. In many cases, our journalists lack the stomach (or the honesty) to respond to such crap; in other cases, they arent sufficiently informed, or they just arent smart enough. And we liberals tolerate crumbs. Example: After Atrios finished yesterdays errands, he penned this lazy, undemanding paean to a largely inept piece of work by Times Jay Newton-Small.
To her credit, Newton-Small had caught Carly Fiorina lying through her teeth on McCains behalf. And yes, thats the accurate term; Fiorina was baldly, blatantly lying. This is what the lady said. She lied through her teeth as she did:
FIORINA (7/7/08): In the Bush tax cuts, if they are repealed, 23 million small businesses will have their taxes raised. Why? Because 23 million small businesses file their income tax as individuals. And so, when Barack Obama blithely says, only the wealthiest are going to be taxed, he is ignoring the fact that 23 million small businesses file as individuals and those small businesses are the only growing sector of the economy right now and small businesses produce 60 percent, actually its more like 70, 70 percent of the new jobs in this country.
Twenty-three million small businesses will have their taxes raised if the Bush tax cuts are repealed? That statement is blatantly false, as Fiorina of course understands. (Only a fool could believe that she doesnt.) To her credit, Newton-Small seemed to know, or perhaps suspect, that this statement was grossly inaccurate. But just read her post! (The headline refers to fuzzy math, an absurdly soft characterization.) After e-mailing Fiorina and getting a bogus response, Newton-Small couldnt quite bring herself to say how fake the whole presentation had been. And so, as is often the case in these matters, she semi-melts down into semi-jello by the end of her once-promising post. She raises several irrelevant points, creating pointless distractions. And a phrase like terribly misleading now joins fuzzy math.
But Fiorina didnt mislead or offer fuzz. In her original statement, she blatantly lied. She said something that was grossly inaccurate, and she plainly knew it. In Newton-Smalls post, that perfectly obvious fact gets fuzzed away by the end (and at the start, in the headline). This sort of apologetic pseudo-journalism has gone on for many years now.
And this was largely OK with Atrios. He tossed off a dozen words about Fiorinas blatant lyingand about Newton-Smalls lack of stomach.
For ourselves, we became annoyed with Atrios during the Democratic campaign. Boo hoo hoo hoo hoo, he explained. Even though I have a political blog, I cant write about politics while all this is transpiring! (Just click here, then marvel.) Was someone stopping him from that task? Or was it simply the fear of offending? But this is the way our great liberal elites have behaved since roughly the dawn of time. In this way, our liberal leaders have constantly ledby telling us why they cant do so.
Lets be frank: Fiorina was lying, through her teeth, in yesterdays statement. In this way, the regular people who attended McCains event become grossly misinformed. But the mainstream press corps doesnt want to go there. And for decades, our liberal leaders have been too busy doing something else to insist.
Had some stuff to do and now I got nuthin, Duncan said, in his previous post. Yeah, well guess what? Weve noticed! So has Fiorinaand so has McCain. So has the mainstream press.
CLARK/OBAMA/MCCAIN/THE PRESS: Here at THE HOWLER, we rarely disagree with Digbylet alone with Paul Krugman. Thats why were inspired today to discuss the (hopefully former) Wes Clark/John McCain flap.
According to Politico, Clark will be taking a break from presidential campaigning. This results from his comments on Face the Nation concerning McCains military service. Digby draws this conclusion:
DIGBY (7/7/08): I think everyone will be a little bit more circumspect about criticizing McCain's military expertise and national security judgment from now on, don't you? Some things are sacred in the village and McCain's superior leadership ability is one of them.
Will everyone be more circumspect about McCains national security judgment? Perhaps, but we dont know why they should be. Weve always liked Clark, but we think his presentation was exceptionally ill-advised, for reasons which follow.
First point: Before Clark made his presentation, we dont know of any journalists who were saying that McCains national security judgment was somehow beyond reproach. Nor do we know of anyone who was saying that his POW experience was relevant to such questions. The Democratic framework was firmly in place, and it seemed to be purring along fairly nicely. This is what it said:
DEMOCRATIC FRAMEWORK: We all respect John McCains service. But his judgment about Iraq has been badand he keeps bungling elementary facts. [Optional: And hes too probably old to be president.] Plus, hes hot for war with Iran. Hell just give you Bushs third term.
Not every pundit agreed with those assessments, of course. (Some did.) But no one was saying this: But thats impossible! How could McCains judgment be bad on such matters? He once headed the Navys largest squadron! In fact, until Clark put that fact on the map, we dont recall ever hearing that McCain once headed such a squadronand weve read about a million profiles of the sanctified solon in the past decade. (Were sure we encountered this fact at some point. Plainly, it hasnt been stressed.) Among the bad effects of Clarks presentation, then, wed include this: He may have put an impressive-sounding fact onto the mapon McCains behalf. Journalists may be more likely to mention that fact after this.
Of course, journalists have been oohing and aahing about McCains POW years since the 1990s. During Campaign 2000, his bus became a virtual POW fantasy camp; male journalists rode around expiating guilt about not having served in Vietnam. (Some journalists openly described such feelings; in other cases, the emotional transaction had to be intuited.) And a long string of silly judgments were derived from McCains POW years. (It must be why he loves to talk!) We captured some of these judgments in real time, even after McCain left the race, hoping to establish a factual record that might be useful in the future. But then, the liberal and Democratic Party worlds put themselves on cruise control. Slumbering peacefully (as is our wont), we let the press corps continue to fluff its views about McCains service.
But in general, the judgments in question involved McCains alleged character, not his military or security judgment. As such, Clark went on Face the Nation and tried to debunk a set of claims no one was actually making. In our view, it was slightly odd that he was doing thatunless he was trying to pimp himself as a possible VP choice. But in the processalready seeming somewhat oddhe managed to stumble into an infelicitous statement:
CLARK (6/29/08): Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.
Oof! Gigantically clumsy, even though he was reacting to language from Bob Schieffer. (When McCain made his hundred years remark, he was reacting to language from a citizen. We dont recall anyone cutting him a whole lot of slack about that.) And extremely unfortunate! Reaction to a comment like that is virtually mandated by the gods, whether we understand it or not. Its just as e. e. cummings wrote, referring to the publics conduct at our own fathers once-famous theater (click here, see footnote 8):
Humanity i love you
because you would rather black the boots of
success than enquire whose soul dangles from his
watch-chain which would be embarrassing for both
parties and because you
unflinchingly applaud all
songs containing the words country home and
mother when sung at the old howard
Cummings would likely have grasped the following: In politics, you just cant make a flippant remark about an American airman being shot from the skyespecially when everyone knows it led to more than five years of captivity. You just cant do itunless your goal is to see the other side win. For one thing, journalists will react to such a comment, especially if its aimed at one of their idols. And since our journalists arent very sharp, they will often deconstruct your remark very poorly.
Do we think they shouldnt have such idols! So true! But the time to address that problem was 2001, 2002not now. Not when the sh*ts near the fan.
We liberals! Many of us have responded by saying: But General Clarks statement was true! And of course, thats plainly the case: A three-year-old childor a pet rabbitcould ride in a fighter plane and get shot down. That wouldnt qualify either one for the White Houseand getting shot down didnt qualify McCain. But we could list a thousand statements about McCain or Obama which are perfectly true, though no one would dream of saying them. How about this, for example?
That unusual growth on the side of McCains face doesnt necessarily mean that hell die in office.
That statement is also true. But go aheadjust say it on Sunday TV! And yes, we could imagine a thousand such statements about Obama too.
(About Clinton? Not so much! Ditto Gore. All was permitted.)
In short: In politics, the mere fact that a statement is true doesnt mean its even dimly appropriate. When we offer but its true as our defense, we only show how limited our analytical skills remain, even after all these years of getting cut up in elections. In truth, our side hasnt tried very hard to understand the laws of this game. (As it turns out, We dont watch enough cable!) Many of our career liberal leaders have worked very hard, down through the years, to avoid such ruminations. Too much risk.
In our view, Clarks overall presentation was oddunless he was trying to get himself on the ticket. Lets recall his words to Schieffer. Well add a ghost or two:
CLARK (6/29/08): That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded wasn't a wartime squadron. [The way mine was.] He hasn't been there and ordered the bombs to fall. [The way I have.] He hasn't seen what it's like when diplomats come in and say, I don't know whether we're going to be able to get this point through or not. [Like I have.]
Hiss! Hiss-spit! Hiss-spit! Mee-ow! As far as we know, no one had ever affirmed McCains foreign policy/national security judgment based on his time at the head of that squadron. Clark was making a very good pitchfor his own experience. But in the process, he was snarking oddly at McCains service, while shooting down a set of claims no one had ever made. And then, that clumsy comment!
Sorry. You cant make flippant remarks about a U.S. airman being shot from the sky. Presumably, Obamas campaign knows thatand so, for a while, General Clark will be gone. But that framework still exists, and it was working fairly well: We all respect the senators service. But his judgment has been very bad.
TOMORROW: Profile of Brian!