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THE EXCEPTION! We’re thrilled to see Franken enter the Senate. We remember 1996: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JULY 13, 2009

Behind the curve on boiled frogs: We’ll have to admit it—we think Paul Krugman is working behind the curve this morning. He asks a very important question, to which the answer is obvious.

Here’s the question Krugman asks, right at the start of his column:

KRUGMAN (7/13/09): Is America on its way to becoming a boiled frog?

The answer to that question is obvious: Yes—of course! Yes, we’re cooked on climate change. Yes, we’re cooked on the economy.

We’re already cooked for an obvious reason. Powerful elites have controlled our discourse for a very long time now. It’s too late to expect any serious changes before disaster hits in the two areas Krugman discusses.

At the top of the journalistic heap, Krugman has explained this process very well. But here’s the answer to today’s question:

Sorry, but yes—of course!

What boiled frogs look like: Yesterday, on tape from San Francisco, John King spoke with three boiled frogs (just click here). Guest host Wolf Blitzer set the scene for King’s unusual encounter:

BLITZER (7/12/09): John King is off today. But he did find some time earlier in the week to sit down, to enjoy some coffee and a meal and to listen to what's on your mind as Washington debates the price of health care reform and whether the economy needs more stimulus spending. John sat down for a meal over at Howard's Cafe in San Francisco and the conversation focused on the harsh realities of living through a tough job market.

John King had found time to enjoy some coffee and a meal. As he enjoyed himself, he chatted with three San Franciscans. At one point, a young unidentified woman spoke about health care. In this exchange, she took the discussion farther than it usually goes in our culture:

KING (7/12/09): So, again it comes back to an issue of trust when Congress—Speaker Pelosi, from this area—say we're going to pass major health care reform, we're going to get universal or near-universal coverage.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Then do it! Stop talking about it and just do it! You can do it! Every other country in the Western world does it. We're the wealthiest nation yet millions of people who don't have insurance and it's so sad.

This young woman knew, and said, something important: Every other western nation already has universal coverage. But darn it! King then asked an obvious, if absurd, question—and his companions didn’t seem to understand how absurd his question was:

KING (continuing directly): How do we pay for that?

CHRIS GRUNDSTROM: With all the influences, political influences in the world now, it's nearly impossible to even come out with something even partly workable. There are just too many political interests.

BRIAN LEE: I feel like at the bottom they're trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip. We just don't have that much to give, especially, I barely have enough to live on. So where am I going to get the money for health care and social services? I can barely support myself.

KING: Do you think the federal government can afford health care reform right now?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I heard a statistic the other day that 60 percent of bankruptcies are caused because of medical bills. My mother personally has held onto a job that she doesn't even like just because she has health insurance. And I think that for the nation's psyche, it's horrible. And if you're going to try to do something like that, taxes, once again, are going to have to be raised and they're going to have to be raised a significant amount and I don't think people are going to be very happy about it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Our John King at a diner out in San Francisco, where it's pretty tough like this across so many parts of this country.

That’s what boiled frogs sound like.

This young woman understood that every other developed nation already has universal coverage. She didn’t introduce a second key fact: These countries provide this universal coverage while spending half as much as we do on health care, per capita. She didn’t mention this absurd situation; neither did the other participants. And of course, King is going to cite this fact about the same time the frog jumps the moon.

By some form of odd Group Agreement, major journalists—and major career liberals—have kept that remarkable fact under wraps for many years now. It’s almost never discussed. For that reason, very few people understand the sheer absurdity of our health care situation. They don’t understand that we already spend twice as much as those other countries. They don’t understand the obvious corollary—under our system, vast amounts of “health care” spending are simply shoveled into the pockets of big corporate interests.

Result? When asked if we can afford universal coverage, they puzzle about where the money could come from! That’s exactly what boiled frogs look and sound like.

Bottom line: Frogs like us will never get change, when we so thoroughly lack the first clue. A managed discussion has keep us clueless. We frogs don’t know how to fight.

Special report: Why we lose!

PART 1—THE EXCEPTION: Here at THE HOWLER, we’re thrilled to see Minnesota’s Al Franken ascend to his seat in the senate. We’re thrilled because he’s the exception which proves an unfortunate rule:

Al Franken is actually smart. Let’s put it another way: Over the past decade or so, Franken—a liberal intellectual leader—has produced work which is sharply intelligent. In the past few decades, very few liberal “intellectual leaders” have done anything dimly like that.

And yes, this is a gigantic problem. It explains why liberals lose.

For the rest of the week, we plan to review the woeful work of some liberal “intellectual leaders.” Before we do, let’s recall the wonderful time, in 1996, when Al Franken showed he was smart.

Let’s revisit that wonderful passage from his best-selling book, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot (and Other Observations).

Ah yes, that wonderful passage! In it, Franken actually explained the bone-simple logic of the ongoing Medicare pseudo-debate. This debate had the mainstream press corps thoroughly bollixed—and in the end, it was widely used to slander Bill Clinton.

In Big Fat Idiot, Franken actually explained the problem with the ongoing debate. In the process, he offered the best anecdote about a major press figure we’ve seen, right up to this day.

That Medicare debate no longer exists. But the dumbness of the mainstream press—and of our liberal intellectual leaders—still drives and shapes our central debates. Simply put, Franken was smarter than they were back then. We’re thrilled that he’s now in the senate.

The issue at hand: By the summer of 1995, the Medicare debate was so familiar that a third-grader could have recited it. Newt Gingrich was riding high, as new Republican speaker. And his party had proposed a level of future Medicare spending that almost surely would have required cuts in future services.

The GOP had thus made the kind of proposal which both parties had always described as a “cut” (links below). But so what? Newt kept going on TV programs like the NewsHour and saying sh*t like this:

GINGRICH (11/14/95): President Clinton talked about Medicare cuts [in the GOP’s proposed budget]. There are no Medicare cuts. We increase Medicare from $4800 per senior citizen [in 1995] to $6700 per senior citizen [in 2002]. That's a $1900 a year increase. That's an increase, that's not a cut.

Our very brightest mainstream “journalists” kept accepting this Standard Presentation, although it was grossly misleading. (Below, we’ll show you what Jim Lehrer said this evening in reply to Gingrich’s statement.)

How thoroughly was the mainstream press corps accepting Gingrich’s presentation? One month later, Nightline devoted a special show to what Ted Koppel instantly called the “Medi-scare” debate. As he opened, Koppel offered this dumb-as-rocks endorsement of Gingrich’s Standard Presentation, which was by now iconic:

KOPPEL (12/13/95): Only a couple of years ago the shoe was on the other foot. Hillary Clinton testified before a congressional committee, suggesting that the annual increase in Medicare spending be trimmed. The Republicans almost ran the first lady out of town for her health care proposals, including the charge that she favored cutting Medicare.

Now the White House is beating Republicans to death with the same phony charge, and the GOP is cringing as it watches the president's approval rating going up at Republican expense. It was a bum rap two years ago. It's still a bum rap.

The GOP was proposing Medicare cuts? It’s “a phony charge,” Koppel quickly announced—“a bum rap.” Before long, he staged this exchange with pseudo-con pitchman Jim Glassman:

KOPPEL: All right. So we can actually take the Medicare program and we can say..., “What you're going to be getting, in terms of dollars to spend on your health care, if you're over the age of 65, under the Medicare program, you're going to get more under both the Republican and the Democratic plans?”

GLASSMAN: Oh, you're going to get considerably more! You're going to get essentially 6 or 7 percent more than you're getting currently.

An apologist could call that “technically accurate.” But it was also grossly misleading. But uh-oh! Like almost all his mainstream press colleagues, Koppel showed no sign of knowing this.

In his book, Franken explained.

The explanation: Franken’s book arrived in January 1996, a few weeks after Koppel’s program. At one point, Franken offered a highly informative, wonderfully comical anecdote about the ongoing Medicare debate. In this anecdote, Franken described a social gathering at Ross Perot’s high-profile Dallas convention in August 1995, where Gingrich had made his Standard Presentation about the GOP Medicare plan.

In his Dallas presentation, Gingrich had used a standard pair of numbers—the same numbers he used on the NewsHour three months later (see above). Medicare was currently spending $4800 per recipient, he had correctly said. And under the GOP proposal, Medicare would spend $6700 per recipient in the year 2002; that number was accurate too. One more thing: As was typical in that era, Gingrich had thundered as he went. Here’s how Franken quoted him on page 224 of his book:

GINGRICH (8/11/95): Now most of you probably do math well enough that you know if you're at 4800 here and you're at 6700 here, that's called an increase. Now I want to go real slow for a minute because we've got a lot of reporters who are listening.

Now I don't want to be too negative, but you might even have one or two liberals who show up who claim that going from 4800 to 6700 is a cut. Now, this is not because they're bad people; this is an early sign of the educational dysfunction which has hit our society.

We can’t find a published transcript of Gingrich’s speech in Dallas. But he constantly thundered like that in those days. This mocking attack on the press, and on “liberals,” would have been fairly typical.

Gingrich had thundered and roared—and he’d compared two numbers. Unfortunately, he was omitting a crucial third number, as he constantly did—with no challenge or clarification from fellows like Koppel and Lehrer. It was all true: In 1995, Medicare was spending $4800 per recipient. Under the GOP proposal, that number would rise to $6700 in the year 2002. But uh-oh! According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, it was going to cost $8000 per recipient to maintain the current Medicare program in 2002. The GOP plan proposed spending much less than it would cost to maintain the existing program.

Franken explained this in his book. (Almost no one else ever did, even as super-hacks like Glassman told the public they were “going to get considerably more” under the GOP proposal.) This produced that comical anecdote—an anecdote which came in large part at the expense of the NewsHour’s quite pleasant Margaret Warner.

Franken described a small social gathering after Gingrich’s speech in Dallas. He sat and chatted in a bar with Warner and Bob Novak—and with Rep. John Kasich, a major budget honcho in the Republican House. In the anecdote, Franken challenges Kasich about the two numbers Gingrich had used in his thundering presentation. As he does, Warner jumps in, assuring him that Kasich and Gingrich are surely being honest in their Standard Presentation:

FRANKEN (page 225): At one point Novak was extolling Gingrich's “masterful” speech, and I objected, especially to the patronizing crap about the $4800 versus the $6700. So I turned to Kasich:

“By the way, are those constant dollars?”

Margaret jumped in. “Of course they're constant dollars. They wouldn't be that dishonest.”

"Sure they would,” I said. Turning back to Kasich, “Are those constant dollars?”

“Al...” Kasich’s voice has a touch of annoyance, “we're increasing funding for Medicare.”

“But the $4800 to $6700, has that been adjusted for inflation?”

"Al, the dollars are going up.”

"I just want to know if those are constant dollars.”

"Al, we're going from 178 billion [total Medicare budget in 1995] to 283 billion [total Medicare budget in 2002].” Kasich gave the others an exasperated look. When will this guy stop?

"Look. Gingrich is going like, 'Hey, you're a fucking moron if you can't see that 6700 is more than 4800.' I just want to know how big a moron am I. Are those constant dollars?”

A pause. Then. “No, Al, they're not constant dollars.”

Kasich slumped in his chair and admitted, “I guess we're being a little intellectually dishonest about this one.” And I took a few victory laps around the table.

Margaret was slightly embarrassed and begged me not to repeat the part about her assuming it was constant dollars. I knew she was kidding, however. She's a terrific journalist and she knows a good story.

On a technical basis, we’re not sure if “constant dollars” is a technically perfect was to phrase that. (It may be.) But Franken understood the logic of this debate. Amazingly but typically, Warner didn’t. Beyond that, she had simply assumed the basic honesty of Gingrich and Kasich. (“They wouldn’t be that dishonest.”) Completing the hat trick, she then begged Franken not to reveal the clueless things she had said.

We first posted this anecdote in 1999 (links below). Before we did, we called Franken, who we didn’t know, and asked him if he’d taken any “artistic license” in his presentation. Was that really what Warner had said?

Yes, it’s what she said, he told us. (As we recall, he said she had asked for some very minor change in the text of the paperback edition.)

Having followed the press corps’ work, we believed him. Still do.

Consequences: In a post of normal length, we can’t begin to explain the harm that was done by the way the press corps accepted that Standard Presentation by Gingrich. In the endless Medicare debate, Gingrich was baldly misleading the public; Bill Clinton’s standard presentation was, in fact, much more accurate. (Both parties are proposing cuts, Clinton said. The GOP’s cuts are too large.) As became clear on talk TV and talk radio, many people were being misled into thinking that they would get massively increased Medicare services under the Gingrich proposal. But Warner’s cluelessness was typical. The press corps routinely accepted Gingrich’s presentation—then began casting Clinton as a liar because he was saying something different (for a groaning example involving Lehrer, see below). This debate thus played a tragic role in a developing a basic press corps notion: Bill Clinton is a big fat liar. Three years later, thanks to people like Koppel, this diagnosis was extended to Gore, sending Bush to the White House. (For a groaning example involving Koppel, see below.)

Omigod! Franken understood the problem with Gingrich’s Standard Presentation. But then, you see, he’s actually smart! For that reason, we’re thrilled to see the Minnesotan somberly taking the seat in the senate. Unlike the bulk of liberal “intellectual leaders,” Al Franken is actually smart.

But alas, poor Franken! He’s the exception! Throughout the week, we’ll groan and curse our fate as others keep proving the rule.

TOMORROW: Frankly, that’s Lithwick.

Visit our incomparable archives: We’ve explained this matter in more detail, in three reports—short, medium and long. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/20/99.

What Lehrer said in 1995: Gruesome. According to Big Fat Idiot, the problem with Gingrich’s Standard Presentation was explained to Warner in August 1995. But the information imparted to Warner didn’t trickle up. Here’s what Leher said to Gingrich on the NewsHour, some three months later. At the time, Warner was the NewsHour’s top Washington correspondent:

GINGRICH (11/14/95): President Clinton talked about Medicare cuts [in the GOP’s proposed budget]. There are no Medicare cuts. We increase Medicare from $4800 per senior citizen to $6700 per senior citizen. That's a $1900 a year increase. That's an increase, that's not a cut. And there are places where what he said just plain wasn't true, as Sen. Domenici commented when we did a press conference immediately afterwards.

LEHRER: So you're saying that you would agree with Sen. Domenici that the president is telling lies?

GINGRICH: Well, I think it's very clear the president did not tell the truth and that the president frankly knows better, that the president has consistently misled the American people about what we're doing, and I think it's very unfortunate.

At the time, it was very unusual for a figure like Lehrer to use the word “lies” in such a context. He now used the unusual word—in relation to Clinton. In large part, this is where the fateful road to the Bush era begins.

Reviewing: Gingrich was making the type of proposal that had always been described as a “cut.” As we’ve shown elsewhere, his two-number presentation had misled many people into believing they would get vast increases in Medicare services under the GOP plan. Lehrer should have understood these things on his own, of course. In case he didn’t, the problem with Gingrich’s presentation had been explained to Warner three months before.

Lehrer should have introduced that third key number—that $8000 CBO projection. He should have asked Gingrich about it.

But, like everyone else, he didn’t. Instead, he used an unusual term: “Lies.” People continued to be misled about that GOP Medicare plan—and a framework was increasingly dropped around Clinton. A few years later, that basic framework would be extended to Gore.

What Koppel said in 2000: In December 1995, Koppel was thoroughly clueless (see above). Things didn’t get better as the years crawled by.

By October 2000, Koppel would appear on Larry King Live, the evening after Bush and Gore’s first debate. World history was hanging in the balance. Gaze on the shape of your culture as we recall what occurred.

King played tape of Bush attacking Gore as a big fat liar. (In the tape, Bush introduced his “fuzzy math” claim. He paired it with a claim which was already famous: Al Gore said he invented the Internet!) King then asked Koppel a bone-simple question about that campaign’s basic budget debate. Below, you see Koppel’s reply:

BUSH (videotape): Look, this is a man, he's got great numbers. He talks about numbers. I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator. It's fuzzy math!

KING (10/4/00): OK. Were you impressed with this “fuzzy math,” “top 1 percent,” “1.3 trillion, 1.9 trillion” bit?

KOPPEL: You know, honestly, it turns my brains to mush. I can't pretend for a minute that I'm really able to follow the argument of the debates. Parts of it, yes. Parts of it, I haven't a clue what they're talking about.

Stunning then—stunning today.

In fact, Gore’s “fuzzy math” had been perfectly accurate at the previous evening’s debate. But the hapless Koppel didn’t know that—or he was prepared to pretend. “It turns my brains to mush,” the multimillionaire pseudo-journalist sadly said. His head was still stuck way up his keister, just exactly as it had been in December 1995.

Why can such people walk the streets without being hooted at, jeered? We’ll give you part of the answer this whole gruesome week.