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WHY NOT THE BEST! On Sunday, the country’s most famous news hosts asked the world’s most useless questions: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, JULY 27, 2011

Already on tape: We’re late today because we taped the Marc Steiner Show with the University of Maryland’s Sheri Parks. The program airs on WEAA, Morgan State’s NPR affiliate.

We worked our way out from the Murdoch debacle. For a mixed time, just click here.

Maureen Dowd has nothing to say/Thomas L. Friedman is quoting himself: Maureen Dowd has nothing to say. Her new column shows how a Pulitzer-winner deals with this time-honored problem:

First, you kill four paragraphs with silly clatter about a time-travel claim out of Hong Kong.

After that, you toss in some pop culture pap. (Marty McFly, “Cowboys & Aliens.”) Then, to kill a bit more time, you revisit your silliest hits about the current president. Bring back the Nicorette reference. Re-warm your “bromance” narratives:

DOWD (7/27/11): President Spock, who so sparingly makes emotional connections, felt he had a real one with John Boehner. Chomping Nicorette through the stressful negotiations, Obama actually grew fond of the old-school Republican speaker puffing on cigarettes.

An alien and a cowboy, trying to connect on a fairway rather than a frontier and save America from a credit rating that would be alarmingly comparable to mine.

The Republican “Taliban wing,” as some Democrats dub the rabid Tea Party militants, was determined to break up any budding Obama-Boehner bromance.

Shockingly, the president was left waiting by the phone one day last week while the speaker would not take or return his calls. At some point, Obama, the jilted lover, simply gave up and went to bed.

Hang on! You’re nearing the end! Believe it or not, this is what the Pulitzer-winner ended up saying in today’s column: “Even though Obama compromises ridiculously easily, the Republicans are showing no willingness to compromise at all.”

What does it mean when one of the press corps’ biggest players has nothing more to offer than that? We’re not sure, but on the same page, the increasingly fatuous Thomas L. Friedman was pretty much quoting himself. As he started, he offered some deeply silly ideas about what Obama should have done in 2009. And good lord! Friedman is empty all the way down! After conducting a series of hearings in which he listened to people who sound much like Friedman, a much wiser Obama should have ended up saying this: “O.K., given our current fiscal predicament, where should we cut spending and where must we raise new tax revenues so that we can bring our government back to solvency and, at the same time, reinvigorate our formula for growth and success?”

Soon, Thomas L. Friedman is quoting himself—or doing a near-equivalent. He quotes the co-author of his own forthcoming book. That co-author is offering advice which is blindingly obvious:

FRIEDMAN: After all, “we don’t just need a plan for regaining American solvency. We need a plan for maintaining American greatness and sustaining the American dream for another generation,” argues Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy expert (and co-author with me of a forthcoming book).

Would anyone in the current debate disagree with that highlighted statement?

As he closes, Friedman returns to his current jag, the crying need for a third party. In this, his worthless column from Sunday, he said that third party will be run by Kahlil Byrd, the C.E.O. of Americans Elect, who was quoted “speaking from its swank offices, financed with some serious hedge-fund money, a stone’s throw from the White House.”

As your nation slides toward the sea, the culture of the Times op-ed page has never been so blatantly fatuous. But Thomas L. Friedman has now seen the cure! And of course, as you might have guessed, the cure will emerge from a set of “swank offices,” financed with big hedge-fund smack.

Your nation is sliding into the sea. If it doesn’t happen next week, it’s going to happen later. These frauds have been running the discourse for decades. Eventually, things fall apart.

Special report: Banana republic press corps!

PART 3—WHY NOT THE BEST (permalink): On Sunday, Teresa Tritch broke the news to New York Times readers concerning those Bush tax rates. In her EDITORIAL/DECONSTRUCTION, Tritch authored the following claim:

TRITCH (7/24/11): A few lessons can be drawn from the numbers. First, the Bush tax cuts have had a huge damaging effect. If all of them expired as scheduled at the end of 2012, future deficits would be cut by about half, to sustainable levels.

Say what? If the Bush tax cuts expire in 2012, our future deficits revert “to sustainable levels?” If Tritch’s claim is actually true, shouldn’t someone have mentioned this fact to Times readers a long time ago—long before last Sunday? Out on the newspaper’s front page, perhaps? Where a whole lot of readers might see it?

On-line, the liberal world jumped on Tritch’s piece—for, you know, maybe a day. In this familiar feckless manner, the liberal world has long arranged to let the discourse be ruled by those of other persuasions. Tomorrow, we’ll review the familiar way the liberal world advanced Tritch’s claim. But first, let’s review the banana republic behavior of a few of our most famous broadcasters—by the famous folk who host our Sunday news programs.

Meet the Press has long been considered the Sunday morning gold standard. Last Sunday, as the nation neared disaster, its host offered this question to Bill Daley, Obama’s chief of staff:

GREGORY (7/24/11): But dysfunction is on both sides. There's failed leadership on both sides, the president and Republican negotiators.

The president was quite angry with Speaker Boehner, saying he was left at the altar twice. But I just want to show the, the context for this conversation. The U.S. federal debt, going back to inauguration day when the President came in, it was $10.6 trillion. In July, now 2011, it's at $14.3 trillion. The proposed increase would take it to $16.3 trillion.

And yet, from the Republican point of view, here you were in negotiations about spending cuts, and yet, it was the White House who said we've got to increase the amount of tax increases for this to be a balanced plan. Can't you understand the point of view which says, “Wait a minute, why shouldn't the priority be on spending cuts alone and not tax increases when we've got this kind of debt situation?”

Gregory noted the rapid rise in federal debt, then asked a truly peculiar question. Why shouldn't the priority be on spending cuts alone…when we've got this kind of debt situation?

We know, we know: On face, Gregory was merely asking if Daley could “understand th[at] point of view,” which is held by the other party. But his imploring question seemed to suggest that this point of view made some obvious sort of sense, given the size of the federal debt and its rapid rate of increase. He seemed to suggest it was somehow strange for the White House to say that “we've got to increase the amount of tax increases” (sic).

In fact, the larger the debt and the deficit get, the more difficult it would presumably be to solve the problem with spending cuts only. A smaller amount of debt might be cured with cuts. By why would someone think that a massive debt suggests a cuts-only solution?

Gregory’s question was really quite strange. In fairness, Daley’s answer was almost as bad.

That said, Gregory’s extremely weird question was matched all around the dial this Sunday as tribunes of the upper-end press corps displayed their intellectual skills. On Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer came out with this strange question, speaking with Senator Kyl, the Arizona Republican:

SCHIEFFER (7/24/11): Let me ask you this, Senator. Do you think that Republicans, particularly those in the freshman class over in the House, understand just how serious this debt limit crisis is?

Because so many of them ran for and were elected on a platform of "I promise, no way no how, will I ever raise taxes." So that puts them in a really tough spot. Do you think they understand what might happen if you can’t raise this debt limit here?

Say what? Does raising the debt limit involve raising taxes? No it doesn’t, yet that was the obvious implication of Schieffer’s plu-pitiful ask. Meanwhile, over at This Week, Christiane Amanpour was playing it tough with Tim Geithner:

AMANPOUR (7/24/11): Now Mr. Secretary, you and Speaker Boehner last week shook hands on a deal that involved $800 billion worth of revenue.

GEITHNER: No, let me stop you there.

AMANPOUR: All sides are saying that.

GEITHNER: No, no, that's not true. We got close.

Like Amanpour, we have no idea what was actually said at those endless budget talks. But were “all sides” really “saying that?” Were “all sides” saying that Boehner and Geithner “shook hands on a deal that involved $800 billion worth of revenue?” Of course they weren’t, as anyone would know from reading the previous two days’ newspapers, or from watching Obama’s Friday press conference.

From the front page of Saturday’s Washington Post: “White House officials said that there was no handshake agreement on taxes.”

How do these major broadcasters get to be so clueless? We’re not sure, but Candy Crowley even got steam-rolled by Tim Pawlenty on Sunday’s State of the Union! We know—a broadcaster can’t be ready for every claim a guest might make. But Pawlenty made a remarkably basic claim—and Crowley failed to challenge it:

PAWLENTY (7/24/11): Well, first, let's—I do want to say, let's remember how we got here. President Obama took office with a $500 billion or so deficit, and he ran it up the deficit to $1.5 trillion—excuse me, $1.5 trillion.

Say what? It’s true that the deficit for fiscal year 2008 was roughly $450 trillion. But, as Crowley surely knows, that fiscal year ended in the fall of 2008, with Candidate Barack Obama still on the campaign trail. On January 7, 2009, the CBO issued its deficit forecast for fiscal year 2009—a year which had now been under way for three months.

Obama was still two weeks from taking office. But on the front page of the Washington Post, Lori Montgomery explained where the projected deficit stood:

MONTGOMERY (1/8/09): The nation's budget deficit will soar to an unprecedented $1.2 trillion this year, congressional budget analysts said yesterday, a startling tide of red ink that could dampen enthusiasm on Capitol Hill for some of President-elect Barack Obama’s most ambitious priorities.

In the first official estimate of the damage done to the nation's finances by a weakening economy and various financial-sector bailouts, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported that the gap between government spending and available revenue will exceed 8 percent of the overall economy by the end of September, a chasm not seen since the end of World War II.

The news drew a grim reaction from Congress, where the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), called the figure "jaw-dropping." While lawmakers said they expect to dig this year's hole even deeper by approving a massive stimulus package aimed at pulling the nation out of recession, Conrad and his House counterpart, Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.), said they have warned to limit the package to temporary measures that will not add to the deficit in future years.

A key word there is “president-elect.” Due to the economic disaster, the 2009 deficit was already projected at $1.2 trillion, even before Obama took office—even before any Obama stimulus measures had been enacted. Once again, the fiscal year was already three months old.

This is a very basic matter. Whatever one may think of Obama’s budget policies, you don’t understand recent budget history if you don’t understand this framework. But on Sunday, Crowley seemed to frame her response to Pawlenty from somewhere southwest of Mars:

PAWLENTY (7/24/11): Well, first, let's—I do want to say, let's remember how we got here. President Obama took office with a $500 billion or so deficit, and he ran it up the deficit to $1.5 trillion—excuse me, $1.5 trillion.

CROWLEY: Can I just interject that he inherited two wars? He inherited an ongoing prescription drug plan that was passed under the Bush administration, and a recession that went deeper and deeper.

PAWLENTY: The two wars were taking place under President Bush at a larger level in Iraq. So again, when President Bush left office there was a $500 billion deficit. Now it's about $1.5 trillion under President Obama's watch. He tripled the deficit of this country.

Pawlenty went on and on from there. When he finally finished his speech, Crowley raised a new topic.

Is it fair to the American public when their most prestigious Sunday news shows are hosted by people like these? Of course, the hapless incompetence of these people has been driving the nation to ruin for a very long time. Last Sunday, Tritch discussed those Bush tax cuts—a tax cut proposal Bush rolled out in December 1999. Five days after Bush made his proposal, Cokie Roberts co-hosted This Week—and she completely misstated the size of the cuts, apparently having been misled by a poorly written headline. (George Stephanopoulos bailed her out, covering for her remarkable ignorance. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/6/99.) Ten months later, ABC’s Ted Koppel still had no idea how big the tax cut proposal was. One night after Bush and Gore’s first debate, he spoke with Larry King:

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.

Ten months after Bush released his proposal, Koppel didn’t seem to know how to explain the size of the proposed tax cuts. (Bush set the cost of the cuts at $1.3 trillion over ten years. Gore said $1.9 trillion.)

What does it mean when a society’s most famous “journalists” conduct themselves in such ways? Inevitably, it means a society will end up where we finally are this week, in a state of complete public lunacy. Are America’s most famous journalists able to clarify any discussion? On Fox News Sunday, this is what happened when Chris Wallace tried to interview Boehner about that $800 billion in new revenue—the revenue Boehner said he and Obama agreed on:

WALLACE (7/24/11): I want to pick up on one part of this because it is causing some heart-burn for frankly House Republicans. What you're just saying is that, despite your promise not to raise tax revenue, that you agreed to $800 billion more as part of this debt deal through tax reform, lowering all the rates, but also closing loopholes and ending deductions. You'd agreed to $800 billion.

BOEHNER: Yes, because I thought we could get new revenues out of a growing economy that had more Americans working, more Americans paying taxes, and the fact that a fairer, flatter tax code means that we would have had a more efficient system of people understanding what their tax obligations were and our ability to collect what was due. Between the two, I believe that we could accomplish $800 billion without raising taxes.

WALLACE: That was raising taxes. It wasn't raising tax rates, it was raising taxes.

BOEHNER: It was not raising taxes. If you look at how it was outlined, we agreed the taxes would have to be reduced from the current law, current policy all the way down $2.7, $2.8 trillion from what the current law is. Yes, it is $800 billion over what the current policy is, but I thought that we could achieve that amount of money through fundamental tax reform on the corporate side and personal side.

At this point, Wallace moved on to another topic. So how about it: Had Boehner agreed to “raise taxes?” It would have been easy to clarify this matter by asking the obvious question: Did you achieve the $800 billion in new revenue by closing tax loopholes? (Tax deductions, tax breaks, “tax expenditures.”) Or was this, as Boehner wanted the rubes to think, $800 billion in new revenue created by “a growing economy?” It would have been easy to ask that question—and surely, Wallace understood the conceptual scam. But Republicans have been playing semantic games to confuse the issue of what they’re proposing. Wallace was only one of several hosts who failed to untangle this ball of twine in Sunday morning’s programs.

What had Boehner agreed to propose? Wallace and others agreed not to ask, leaving gorilla dust in the air. Our question: What will happen to a society which suffers from such Potemkin discussions? We’re not sure, but the analysts groaned when the hapless Schieffer posed this question to Senator Chambliss, the Georgia Republican:

SCHIEFFER: Senator Chambliss, let me ask you this. I mean, this is a question that I think a child might ask. Why has it come to this? What has happened to our congress here? I mean, it appears to be totally dysfunctional. It can’t seem to address any serious issue head-on anymore. What happened?

Schieffer is the only Sunday host who is restricted to a half-hour. He wasted a chunk of that time this week with this utterly worthless question, correctly noting that the question might have occurred to a child. (Chambliss gave a pointless, scripted reply. The exchange was not his fault.)

Can we talk? We’re not sure we saw a single useful question asked anywhere on Sunday’s programs. But then, this clowning has long been the norm. Go back and see what Cokie said when Bush proposed his tax cuts!

Last Sunday, Teresa Tritch advanced a claim about those famous tax cuts. Liberals hooted and cheered—for a day. Tomorrow, we’ll review what they said.

Tomorrow: What liberals said