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EASIEST JOB IN THE WORLD! It’s easy to be a conservative pundit. The messaging is right at hand: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 2, 2009

Steadfast refusal to state the truth: In fairness, David Leonhardt has done some very good work on the health care debate. He has even described the vastness of our health care spending, as compared to that of comparable nations (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/23/09).

Grading on the merits, we’d give David a good solid B for his work to date in class. Grading on the pundit curve, he’d have to get an A-plus.

But this morning, Leonhardt’s column in the New York Times displays an impulse persistently found among liberals and among mainstream journalists. We’ll describe it as the steadfast refusal to enunciate the problem at hand.

Leonhardt’s piece is well worth reading. We’ll recommend all 1250 words. But despite the column’s ample length, Leonhardt never gets around to stating the actual size of our problem.

At one point, Leonhardt summarizes the state of play in American health care—the situation which will continue if no reform bill gets passed. Everything he says is true. But we’d have to say that, like so many before him, he fails to state the problem:

LEONHARDT (9/2/09): [F]rom an economic standpoint, the biggest risk seems to be that health care will be left unchanged and that we'll simply pretend we are as healthy, wealthy and wise as can be.

We're not. The United States is the only rich country in the world without something resembling universal health insurance. Medical costs already take a big whack out of workers' paychecks, and Medicare's budget is growing at an unsustainable rate. Despite all this spending, we too often receive inadequate care.

Emergency room care and certain cancer treatments are among the best in the world. But management of chronic diseases isn't nearly as good. Senior citizens and children are less likely to receive vaccinations here than in some other wealthy countries, a recent analysis found. Americans face higher risks of being killed by a medical error or harmed by a medication error.

All true. In fairness, Leonhardt does manage to say that “medical costs take a big whack out of workers' paychecks,” and that “Medicare's budget is growing” too fast. But Jesus Christ! Is there a Newsroom Law? Like so many others before him, Leonhardt fails to note this:

Total spending on health care, per person, 2007:
United States: $7290
United Kingdom: $2992
Average of OECD developed nations: $2964
Japan: $2581

If you’re sane, you may see that those data constitute American health care’s “elephant in the room.” In fact, those data are more like a herd of wooly mammoths—ancient beasts which recently thawed as global warming advanced.

Leonhardt fails to mention that herd in that passage, even as he gives the impression that he’s summarizing our plight. In fact, at no point in this morning’s column is the herd of mammoths described. This giant problem—so vast and so stunning—goes unmentioned. Again.

Why does that matter? Duh! Here’s why:

LEONHARDT: Persuading Americans that health care needs reforming was always going to be hard. It depends on making people see the logic in a series of hypotheticals. If we don't reduce the growth in costs, we will leave our children with a crushing tax burden. If we do reduce costs, our paychecks will be fatter. If we reward quality of care instead of quantity of care, fewer people will die an early death. This isn't easy stuff.

“Persuading Americans that health care needs reforming was always going to be hard.” Of course, that task becomes especially hard when you keep refusing to tell those Americans about the size of their problem! In this paragraph, Leonhardt mentions the fact that health care costs may someday produce a “crushing tax burden;” he once again notes that the cost of health care comes out of peoples’ paychecks. But once again, he completely fails to note the mammoth size of the herd in the room. He fails to say how much extra money currently comes from those paychecks.

Any sane person who stares at those data will perhaps draw an obvious inference: Americans are somehow getting looted in their health care spending. But with stunning regularity, American citizens simply aren’t told about that remarkable situation. Politicians of both parties don’t tell us; journalists ignore the mammoths too. After that, we wring out hands! How hard it is, we sadly say, to get the public to understand the need for basic change!

If Americans understood the size of their looting, it would presumably be much easier to persuade them that they need change. But big interests don’t want Americans to see or think about those data—and politcians of both major parties agree not to go there. Republicans never mention those data. Democrats sometimes do so, but only in passing.

With apologies: When did the late Senator Kennedy ever tell us average folk about those data—about what they so plainly suggest? For a week, pundits all told us how much he loved us. But when did he tell us the truth?

Might we state what is merely obvious? The entire political world is in thrall to the interests who execute that looting. Question: Why do journalists steadfastly refuse to state the problem too?

Special report: Message: We don’t care!

PART 2—EASIEST JOB IN THE WORLD: Being a conservative pundit is the easiest job in America.

In large part, that’s because of the conservative movement’s very clear messaging—messaging the movement has been actively pushing for at least forty-five years.

We intelligent liberals may be surprised when this messaging drives our debates (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/1/09). But that’s a measure of our political dumbness. Despite our endless claims to brilliance, the other side’s leadership has been much smarter—and much more industrious—over the past many years.

“Why are Democrats (and liberals) so bad at messaging? So bad at pushing back?” Rick Perlstein’s reader asked the right questions (same link). But before we start to answer those questions, let’s consider the potent messaging which comes from the other side.

It’s simple-minded—but it works. On our side, we stand in line to help. For decades, almost all conservative spin has derived from two simple messages. When you get to work with such clear messaging, being a conservative pundit is the easiest job in the world:

Big government never did anything right.
Liberal elites think they’re better than you are.

Almost all Republican spin derives from those two messages. The conservative movements has been actively pushing those messages at least since the time of Nixon. No matter what happens in the real world, the conservative pundit simply dreams up a response which derives from one of those notions.

It doesn’t matter how dumb the response might be. The response will sound familiar—will seem to make sense—if it conforms to those well-worn frameworks. You can dream up any damn thing. To many people, it will seem to make sense.

For that reason, being a conservative pundit is the easiest job in the world. If you doubt that, just watch Sean Hannity. There’s nothing so dumb that this talker won’t say it. But it almost always derives from those basic messages—from the world view defined by those points. For that reason, it seems to make sense.

What are the liberal world’s basic messages? Tomorrow, we’ll make a valiant attempt to figure that out. For now, let’s return to that conservative messaging.

It’s easy to be a conservative pundit—to keep driving those messages. Indeed, as long as liberals exist in the world, the second message listed above will just keep selling itself. Sadly but reliably, this is one way the world works:

Each morning, we liberals get into line on the sidewalk outside RNC headquarters. We take a number, awaiting our chance to drive that second conservative message. When our number is finally called, we bellow and wail about our own greatness—and about the stupidity, craziness, bigotry and evil of the average (white) tea-bagger. As the tea-baggers watch us act out, they see this message confirmed.

The RNC needn’t lift a finger. In our pseudo-liberal stupidity, we sell this message for them.

But then, their first message is fairly easy too. Most messaging is easy to sell—in a world where the other side is too lazy and dumb to bother pushing back.

“Big government never did anything right?” The message is simple-minded; in the literal sense, it’s just false. But the message is also built around a wide range of basic human experience—and long American tradition. From the time we threw the tea in the harbor, American values have included a disregard for distant central authority. We didn’t much like them revenuers either! If we may adapt an old line from Paula Poundstone: Did we [liberals] learn nothing from The Dukes of Hazzard?

Intelligent liberals may be astonished when this messaging keeps on keepin’ on—when voters respond in large numbers to fevered claims about a government takeover of health care. But then, pounding away at “big government” is as American as white lightnin’. And since government often does work badly—since government officials often are inept, just like everyone else—many citizens will have had some experience which seems to confirm this Big Message.

“Big government never did anything well?” As a statement, that’s basically false. But as a piece of messaging, that’s quite potent, whether we eggheads understand that or not. With great regularity, voters have heard variations on this message for the past fifty years—variations which often fold in the second claim, the one about liberal elites. When George Wallace talked about “those pointy-head government bureaucrats,” he was killing two parakeets with one country stone. He was describing a race of people who looked down on average people—and could do nothing well.

Voters have heard those conservative messages for a very long time.

It’s easy to be a conservative pundit. In fact, it’s the easiest job in the world! You get to work from very clear messaging. And you get to stand opposed by a lazy, inept, careless group—a group which hasn’t bothered to develop core messaging in a great many years.

Why are Democrats so bad at messaging? That reader asked a good question.

Tomorrow—Part 3: Where’s the rest of us? In search of the Great Liberal Message.

Blind to that persistent message: The evidence suggests that, for all our admitted brilliance, we liberals simply don’t understand the way Big Messaging works. Last Monday, even our smartest, most valuable player seemed bollixed by the way the messages of “Reaganism” just keep on tickin’. But then, our side rarely seems to know—or care—about the way we geniuses keep getting our keisters kicked by gangs of “crazy” tea-baggers.

What follows will be unfair in one sense—let’s make that clear from the jump. On one level, what Steve Benen said about the RNC’s new ad was completely sensible—and perfectly accurate. You see, Michael Steele is fronting a new health care ad—and, on one level, it doesn’t make sense. But on another level, the ad makes perfect sense—on the level of basic messaging.

To see the full text of the ad, click here. The ad starts off like this:

STEELE/RNC AD: When you disagree with Washington, how come they act like it's your problem?

That's what the Democrats have done with health care. They say you're the problem.

How about a different way? A focus on things we can all agree on?

I'm Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican party. Join us in supporting a new seniors' bill of rights.

To see Steve’s post on the ad, click this. Again, let’s be clear: On one level, Steve’s post makes perfect sense. His post is perfectly accurate.

We’ll start with that post tomorrow. After that, we’ll scour the countryside—in search of our liberal messages.