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HOW TO LOSE AN ELECTION (PART 4): Voters live in Cartoon Nation. The nation’s big news orgs? Don’t care:

HOW TO LOSE AN ELECTION (PART 4): American voters don’t have a chance, given the ways of the modern “press corps.” In particular, American voters don’t have a chance to learn even basic facts. If you appeared on talk radio four years ago, you heard it as soon as Gore’s name was mentioned; inevitably, people would call and complain about the kooky things Gore had said. But then, why wouldn’t average voters believe that Gore had made those weird, kooky statements—had said he invented the Internet, for example? Voters had heard this recited again and again, often by favorite “good guy” pundits. And four years later, why wouldn’t average voters believe that Kerry is the number one liberal in the Senate? This too is recited again and again. And mainstream journalists make no attempt to correct the blatantly bogus claim; for that matter, neither do DNC talkers! For example, here’s an excerpt from Wednesday’s Crossfire. Tucker Carlson recites the script. Steve McMahon and Donna Brazile sit and gaze into space:
CARLSON (8/4/04): Why is it that the left see them ashamed of what they essentially fundamentally are? They're liberal. They have a different world view. There's nothing wrong with that objectively. Why do they run away from a description, a fair description, of who they really are?

MCMAHON: Who's afraid of it?

CARLSON: John Kerry is. He gets up there, the most liberal member of the Senate by any measure of his votes, and he calls himself anything but a liberal. Why doesn't he just say it?

MCMAHON: I've heard him say before many times, “If providing health care for every American is liberal, I'm liberal. I'm guilty. If providing a job for every American is liberal, I'm liberal.”

CARLSON: I love that. Right! “If loving children is liberal, I'm liberal.” Right. OK.

BRAZILE: Yes, and if supporting a balanced budget is liberal, then he’s a liberal.

CARLSON: Why not just say it?

Voters heard it recited again: Kerry is the most liberal senator. (“By any measure of his votes,” Carlson said, blatantly misleading CNN viewers.) Why wouldn’t voters believe it was true? They hear it said, again and again, never challenged or contradicted. Why wouldn’t voters think it was true, when everyone agrees to pretend that it is, the liars as well as the lied to?

Carlson, of course, bears the principal blame for what happened on this particular program; assuming even modest competence, his statement this day was a blatant lie. But beyond that, the principal blame for this culture of lying rests with the zombified mainstream press—a group of people who simply refuse to challenge or clarify fake, bogus tales. John Kerry is the most liberal senator! Surely, every major professional news org knows that statement is being recited as a piece of RNC strategy. And surely, every major professional news org knows that this statement is, in a word, false. But given the shape of our modern press culture, journalists would rather eat live worms than clarify fake spin-points like this one. To all appearances, modern journalists simply don’t care if readers or viewers are hearing fake claims. Will Crossfire correct Carlson’s blatant misstatement? Surely no sane person asks.

Indeed, blatant misstatement is part of our culture, defended even by HOWLER readers. Last week, we criticized the NewsHour’s Jim Lehrer for sitting and gazing off into space while this bogus statement was made on his program; readers quickly wrote to say that it isn’t the business of a news show to correct or clarify statements by guests. But of course that is a program’s business—unless the show wants its viewers misled. News orgs have all adopted the “Ad Watch” format, in which they clarify statements made in TV ads. Some day, in a brighter age, news orgs will run regular “Spin Watch” features, in which they present campaigns’ most common spin-points, and clarify them for their readers. (Everyone knows what they are.) But at present, this obvious thought never enters the heads of the lazy, disinterested boys and girls who make up the group which we still call a “press corps.” What is their practice, their common group culture? You’ve seen it—they stare into space, they burble and snore, dozing their way toward another election. How do they educate the electorate? Carlson says what is blatantly false; Brazile and McMahon make no effort to challenge; and even the nation’s major newspapers refuse to consider correcting these claims. Why wouldn’t voters believe what is false, when such statements are recited routinely? Your national press corps—corrupted, asleep—recites bogus facts as it dreams.

Everyone knows what the current scripts are. And all agree to pretend that they’re accurate. Result? You live inside a Cartoon Nation. Cartoons currently litter our “news.” But how can Americans know this?

CURRENT SCRIPTS: Everyone knows the Standard Claims which voters are hearing, again and again. Kerry is the most liberal Senator! (Except, of course, for the fact that he isn’t.) He voted against the $87 billion! (Bush himself threatened the veto the bill, six days after Kerry’s vote.) He has voted to kill every weapons program! (So has John McCain, as McCain himself pointed out, if one adopts the tortured “logic” driving that cartoonish claim.) He tried to gut the intelligence services! (By cutting their budgets one percent. The Republican Congress cut them by three.) He voted to cut defense spending! (At the same time a DefSec named Cheney was doing it.) And, of course, he’s a Big Flip-Flopper. These comic-book claims now create Cartoon Nation, the nation in which our elections are run. But the Washington Post; the New York Times; the NewsHour with Lehrer; Nightline with Koppel? All these news orgs are simply too lazy to clarify these comic book claims. Readers, you live in a nation in which lazy “journalists” simply yawn at scripted misstatements. How are voters supposed to know that these claims are just silly—cartoons?

YOU’LL SEE IT HERE AND NOWHERE ELSE: “By any measure of his votes,” Carlson said, Kerry is “the most liberal member of the Senate.” When GOP hacks say that Kerry and Edwards are first and fourth most liberal senators, they are citing a survey from National Journal. But on March 6, that very same Journal—explicitly responding to this misleading claimpublished its list of current senators with the most liberal lifetime voting records. Here it is—the Journal’s Top Ten. Guess whose names aren’t on it?

National Journal: Most liberal senators, lifetime voting
1. Mark Dayton, D-Minn.
2. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md.
3. Jack Reed, D-R.I.
4. Jon Corzine, D-N.J.
5. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
6. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
7. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa
8. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.
9. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.
10. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt
“By any measure of his votes,” Carlson said, Kerry is “the most liberal member.” Will CNN correct this groaning misstatement—an apparent lie? Of course they won’t; the net doesn’t care. Of course, there’s little sign that Brazile or McMahon give a good flying f*ck either. It’s good to be a Washington pundit. Why waste time on such affairs?

NOTHING COMPLICATED ABOUT IT: Your modern press corps refuses to challenge or clarify Cartoon Nation scripts. Consider Glenn Kessler’s striking report in Wednesday’s Washington Post. Kessler analyzed the way Kerry has handled “the defining issue of war in Iraq.” Midway through his 1400-word piece, Kessler described a seminal script from the current White House campaign:

KESSLER (8/4/04): Bush and his surrogates are working hard to use Iraq to frame Kerry as a flip-flopper, seizing repeatedly on his opposition last year to an $87 billion spending measure to support the troops and provide reconstruction money for Iraq—a Senate vote cast in the midst of the Democratic presidential primary contests when antiwar candidate Howard Dean was riding high.
There it is, an iconic issue—Kerry’s vote on the $87 billion. According to the Bush campaign, it means he didn’t support the troops—and it makes him a big fat flip-flopper. As Joe Klein has correctly noted, Bush’s claim about Kerry’s vote constitutes “the emotional heart of [Bush’s] pitch at each stop” on the trail. “This is something that I think...the Bush campaign believes is a real trump card,” Klein has said. “It is front and center of their flip-flop argument.” In short, Kessler was discussing one of the most important elements of our current White House campaign. How well did he explain the claim which Bush is repeatedly making?

He limned the claim as the press corps typically does—with respect for the scripts and contempt for the voters. Here was his full treatment of Kerry’s vote on the $87 billion:

KESSLER (continuing directly): Kerry has said he voted against the measure because it was not funded—he supported the request if tax cuts for the wealthy were trimmed to pay for it—but one of his closest advisers, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), has told other Democrats that he begged Kerry not to vote against the $87 billion.

Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt said Kerry's inability to “talk straight about that vote on Iraq” will haunt him. “He voted for the war and voted against funding for Iraq,” Holt said. “As long as you look at John Kerry through a gauzy haze of images and rhetoric, they have a chance. You have to look at his record.”

In Bush’s revamped stump speech Friday, he drew particular glee in focusing on the vote over the $87 billion. “He tried to explain his vote by saying: I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it. End quote,” Bush said to laughter. “He’s got a different explanation now. One time he said he was proud he voted against the funding, then he said that the whole thing was a complicated matter. Bush then added: There is nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat”

Kessler penned the Standard Account. It’s hard to know why Biden’s advice is included, but it seems to be Hard Pundit Law; any discussion of this topic must include Biden’s heartfelt advice that Kerry vote for the provision. Anyone with an ounce of sense will know what this is supposed to suggest; Biden gave sound advice, we’re being told, but feckless Kerry ignored it. But was Biden’s vote wiser than Kerry’s on the merits? Kessler makes no attempt to say. Why, then, are readers told that Biden gave Kerry this heartfelt advice? Biden’s advice is completely tangential—but it’s always part of the story. By the way: Has any Dem ever been more self-serving than Biden has been on this matter?

We get to hear about Biden’s advice. But note how Kessler deprives his readers of knowledge that is actually relevant. In his final paragraph, he records the mocking claims Bush makes on the stump. “There is nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat,” Bush tells voters every day. Given the actual facts of that funding bill, this statement by Bush is patently silly. But Kessler—wasting time mentioning Biden’s advice—cheats readers out of those facts.

“Nothing complicated” about that vote? The claim is complete, utter nonsense. Here is some of the complication which surrounded the Senate debate:

Troops vs. reconstruction projects: The original measure included $67 billion for the troops and $20 billion for reconstruction projects. Some senators wanted to treat the two measures separately—voting the money for the troops and considering reconstruction on its own merits. In particular, some senators said they wanted to see a more detailed overall plan from Bush before giving him the reconstruction money. Congress ended up authorizing $18.4 billion in reconstruction.

Taxes vs. deficit spending: How would the $87 billion be paid for? Some senators wanted to borrow the money, adding to the national debt. Others wanted to raise current taxes by roughly $87 billion to pay for the measure.

Loans vs. grants: Would the reconstruction money be a gift to Iraq? Some senators favored this approach. Other senators wanted to extend this money as a loan, not a grant. Indeed, when the bill first passed the Senate on 10/16/03 (this was the date of Kerry’s “no” vote), half the reconstruction money was in the form of loans. Nine Republicans joined 42 Democrats in voting for this provision. The House, by contrast, had passed a bill in which the reconstruction money would all be grants.

“Nothing complicated” about that vote? As any sentient being can see, there was a great deal of complication. And yes, these complications mattered to Bush, who dissembles about this fact daily. How do we know that they mattered to Bush? Simple! Six days after Kerry’s “no” vote, Bush said he would veto the bill if the reconstruction money included loans, as the Senate had voted. Let’s repeat that: Six days after Kerry voted “no”—rejecting a form of the bill he disfavored—Bush said he would veto the bill if it included provisions which he didn’t like! Since everyone knows that Bush means what he says, we’re sure he would have vetoed the bill if it included measures he didn’t like. And by the way—there would have been nothing wrong with that. The Congress would have had to shape a new bill. The troops were always going to be funded. There was never any doubt about that.

No, there was nothing wrong with that veto threat, but this narrative raises an obvious question. If there was “nothing complicated” about this bill, why was Bush saying he’d veto it? And if Bush could oppose one form of the bill, why is it supposed to be wrong that Kerry opposed another? Of course, voters won’t have to worry about this; writers like Kessler are keeping them clueless about this actual chain of events. Even in a 1400-word presentation which stresses Bush’s mocking claims, Kessler kept readers barefoot and clueless; he included Biden’s irrelevant advice, but he didn’t tell them about Bush’s veto threat. Nor did Kessler include the fact which Biden mentioned on Sunday’s Meet the Press (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/2/04). Nothing complicated about this bill? Please! Let’s remember the record:

BIDEN (8/1/04): There was an attempt to break out that $87 billion... John Kerry said, and a number of others said, “Let's take the $67 billion and have two votes. Vote immediately for the $67 billion for the troops. The remaining $20 billion roughly, because we don't trust these guys that they're going to be able to manage it very well, let's attach conditions to it.” They had $30,000 for pickup trucks, for example, in this thing. And so that was the big debate.

When faced with having to vote for that [20 billion] that was going to be mismanaged, they thought, they decided not to vote for it. Now, I didn't vote that way, but there is a merit to their position. Of the $18 billion, Tim, we voted to reconstruct Iraq, that our military says they badly needed to help them secure order in Iraq, only $450 million have been spent so far. That's incredible mismanagement. And we voted that money last October.

Nothing complicated about it? Might Post readers want to know that Kerry’s concern turned out to be right? That Bush really didn’t have a plan? That only two percent of the reconstruction money has been spent, almost a whole year later? On July 4, the Post treated this as front-page news, doing a detailed report on the matter (see below). But heaven forbid that this salient fact be used to shed light on Bush’s spinning. Guess what, kids—Kerry’s concerns about this money were right! But we don’t learn that from Minister Kessler. We’re just told that Joe Biden urged different.

Yes, this is a complicated story. “Kerry is number one liberal” is not. But either way, the voter gets shafted. Simple misstatements go uncorrected; complex stories don’t get told. But there are two facts—two simple facts—which every voter deserves to be told. Kerry isn’t “the number one liberal”—and Bush threatened to veto the $87 billion. Elsewhere, voters would get these facts. But we live inside a Cartoon Nation, where only silly stories get told.

PAGE ONE THEN, UNMENTIONED NOW: By now, it seems that Kerry and others may have been right to wonder about Bush’s plan for reconstruction. On July 4, the Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran discussed the fact that the reconstruction money has gone unspent. At the time, the Post seemed to think that this was big news. We quote from the front-page report:

CHANDRASEKARAN (7/4/04): The U.S. government has spent 2 percent of an $18.4 billion aid package that Congress approved in October last year after the Bush administration called for a quick infusion of cash into Iraq to finance reconstruction, according to figures released Friday by the White House.

The U.S.-led occupation authorities were much quicker to channel Iraq’s own money, expending or earmarking nearly all of $20 billion in a special development fund fed by the country's oil sales, a congressional investigator said.

Only $366 million of the $18.4 billion U.S. aid package had been spent as of June 22, the White House budget office told Congress in a report that offers the first detailed accounting of the massive reconstruction package.

Thus far, according to the report, nothing from the package has been spent on construction, health care, sanitation and water projects. More money has been spent on administration than all projects related to education, human rights, democracy and governance.

Let’s translate. You see here the startling lack-of-a-plan which Kerry and others were worried about. In short, Kerry was right and Biden was wrong. But Biden is tooting his shiny tin horn, and Kessler (and others) are giving good script. You’ll read these facts here—and nowhere else. It’s like that inside Cartoon Nation.

ONE MORE GROANING MISSTATEMENT: As every American voter knows, Kerry tried to gut the intelligence services. We know this because Bush himself has recited the script, several times, and because RNC hacks still run on TV and recite the ludicrous charge. And we know it for another reason—because timorous, trembling, cowardly “journalists” refuse to discuss Bush’s blatant dissembling. In fact, this particular claim was so absurd that Walter Pincus debunked it in the March 12 Post. Headline: “Bush Exaggerates Kerry's Position on Intelligence Budget.” Here’s how Big Pinc started:

PINCUS (3/12/04): President Bush, in his first major assault on Sen. John F. Kerry's legislative record, said this week that his Democratic opponent proposed a $1.5 billion cut in the intelligence budget, a proposal that would “gut the intelligence services,” and one that had no co-sponsors because it was “deeply irresponsible.”

In terms of accuracy, the parry by the president is about half right. Bush is correct that Kerry on Sept. 29, 1995, proposed a five-year, $1.5 billion cut to the intelligence budget. But Bush appears to be wrong when he said the proposed Kerry cut—about 1 percent of the overall intelligence budget for those years—would have "gutted" intelligence. In fact, the Republican-led Congress that year approved legislation that resulted in $3.8 billion being cut over five years from the budget of the National Reconnaissance Office—the same program Kerry said he was targeting.

The $1.5 billion cut Kerry proposed represented about the same amount Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), then chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told the Senate that same day he wanted cut from the intelligence spending bill based on unspent, secret funds that had been accumulated by one intelligence agency “without informing the Pentagon, CIA or Congress.”

Bush appears to be wrong? Despite his exaggerated, overdue courtesy, Pincus laid out the laughable facts concerning Bush’s nasty charge. But the claim that Kerry tried to gut intelligence still echoes through Cartoon Nation. Question: Have you ever seen a single pundit criticize Bush for this absurd claim? And Bush, no fool, learned a lesson from this. He now delights in the fatuous claim that Kerry refused to support the troops—that he voted against the “uncomplicated” spending bill, the uncomplicated bill Bush said he would veto. No one criticized Bush back then, and he knows that no one will criticize now. That’s the way the culture works inside the corps’ Cartoon Nation.