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TUESDAY, JULY 8, 2008

ACCEPTING CARLY’S LIES: Headlines on news reports rarely broadcast a viewpoint so clearly. In this morning’s Washington Post, the following headlines appear on Perry Bacon’s 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 Bacon’s report. Bacon’s report is weak in some major ways. But it doesn’t directly adopt the idea that Social Security must be “saved.”

Presumably, an editor wrote his personal viewpoint into those headlines. It’s 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 aren’t encouraging. Though it isn’t like the McCain campaign isn’t 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. I’d 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.

(APPLAUSE)

As is so common in our talk-radio culture, the questioner suggests that Social Security “won’t be there” in the lifetimes of current adults. Here are some obvious problems with McCain’s response:

First, he doesn’t correct the questioner’s assumption, though he seems to know it’s 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 questioner’s suggestion that Social Security “won’t be there.” Presumably, very few people in that audience knew this. This part of McCain’s answer was “slick.”

Next, McCain says it’s “a disgrace” that “we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers.” We have no idea why that’s a “disgrace”—and that’s 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, McCain’s listeners don’t.

Finally, McCain says the system is “broken”—and he imagines a day “where there’s no money left.” But absent a hundred-ton asteroid striking Manhattan, there will never be such a day. Every budget reporter knows this. Again, McCain’s listeners don’t.

If we lived in a rational world, that one presentation by McCain would generate a great deal of journalism. But we don’t 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 aren’t sufficiently informed, or they just aren’t smart enough. And we liberals tolerate crumbs. Example: After Atrios finished yesterday’s errands, he penned this lazy, undemanding paean to a largely inept piece of work by Time’s Jay Newton-Small.

To her credit, Newton-Small had caught Carly Fiorina lying through her teeth on McCain’s behalf. And yes, that’s 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 it’s 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 doesn’t.) 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t “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-Small’s 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 Fiorina’s blatant lying—and about Newton-Small’s 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 can’t 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 “led”—by telling us why they can’t do so.

Let’s be frank: Fiorina was lying, through her teeth, in yesterday’s statement. In this way, the regular people who attended McCain’s event become grossly misinformed. But the mainstream “press corps” doesn’t 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? We’ve noticed! So has Fiorina—and so has McCain. So has the “mainstream press.”

CLARK/OBAMA/MCCAIN/THE PRESS: Here at THE HOWLER, we rarely disagree with Digby—let alone with Paul Krugman. That’s why we’re 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 McCain’s 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 McCain’s national security judgment? Perhaps, but we don’t know why they should be. We’ve always liked Clark, but we think his presentation was exceptionally ill-advised, for reasons which follow.

First point: Before Clark made his presentation, we don’t know of any journalists who were saying that McCain’s 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 McCain’s service. But his judgment about Iraq has been bad—and he keeps bungling elementary facts. [Optional: And he’s too probably old to be president.] Plus, he’s hot for war with Iran. He’ll just give you Bush’s third term.

Not every pundit agreed with those assessments, of course. (Some did.) But no one was saying this: But that’s impossible! How could McCain’s judgment be bad on such matters? He once headed the Navy’s largest squadron! In fact, until Clark put that fact on the map, we don’t recall ever hearing that McCain once headed such a squadron—and we’ve read about a million profiles of the sanctified solon in the past decade. (We’re sure we encountered this fact at some point. Plainly, it hasn’t been stressed.) Among the bad effects of Clark’s presentation, then, we’d include this: He may have put an impressive-sounding fact onto the map—on McCain’s behalf. Journalists may be more likely to mention that fact after this.

Of course, journalists have been oohing and aahing about McCain’s 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 McCain’s 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 McCain’s service.

But in general, the judgments in question involved McCain’s 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 that—unless he was trying to pimp himself as a possible VP choice. But in the process—already seeming somewhat odd—he 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 don’t 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. It’s just as e. e. cummings wrote, referring to the public’s conduct at our own father’s 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 can’t make a flippant remark about an American airman being shot from the sky—especially when everyone knows it led to more than five years of captivity. You just can’t do it—unless your goal is to see the other side win. For one thing, journalists will react to such a comment, especially if it’s aimed at one of their idols. And since our journalists aren’t very sharp, they will often deconstruct your remark very poorly.

Do we think they shouldn’t have such idols! So true! But the time to address that problem was 2001, 2002—not now. Not when the sh*t’s near the fan.

We liberals! Many of us have responded by saying: But General Clark’s statement was true! And of course, that’s plainly the case: A three-year-old child—or a pet rabbit—could “ride in a fighter plane and get shot down.” That wouldn’t qualify either one for the White House—and getting shot down didn’t 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 McCain’s face doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll die in office.

That statement is also “true.” But go ahead—just 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” doesn’t mean it’s even dimly appropriate. When we offer “but it’s 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 hasn’t tried very hard to understand the laws of this game. (As it turns out, We don’t 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, Clark’s overall presentation was odd—unless he was trying to get himself on the ticket. Let’s recall his words to Schieffer. We’ll 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 McCain’s foreign policy/national security judgment based on his time at the head of that squadron. Clark was making a very good pitch—for his own experience. But in the process, he was snarking oddly at McCain’s service, while shooting down a set of claims no one had ever made. And then, that clumsy comment!

Sorry. You can’t make flippant remarks about a U.S. airman being shot from the sky. Presumably, Obama’s campaign knows that—and so, for a while, General Clark will be gone. But that framework still exists, and it was working fairly well: We all respect the senator’s service. But his judgment has been very bad.

TOMORROW: Profile of Brian!