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SCRIPT NEVER SLEEPS! Marcus wants to tackle a problem—a problem she doesn’t define: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 6, 2006

WHY NOT THE BEST CONTINUED: Sometimes we think the SEC must “have photos” of the nation’s sportswriters (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/5/06). Why else would a smart scribe like King Kaufman write something like this, about the way poor Auburn got jobbed back in 2004:
KAUFMAN (12/4/06): There are a lot of reasons why a team might find itself in the title game, and almost none of them have anything to do with football. Florida's strength of schedule? Auburn is wondering where that argument was two years ago...
Where was that argument two years ago? Keeping Auburn out of the title game! In 2004, three conference champions emerged undefeated—USC, Oklahoma and Auburn. Why did the Trojans and Sooners play for the title? Because of Auburn’s laughable strength-of-schedule! In 2004, Auburn played three non-conference games—against Louisiana-Monroe, The Citadel and Louisiana Tech. (Yes, you read that correctly—The Citadel!) By contrast, Southern Cal had played—and defeated—Virginia Tech, Colorado State, BYU and Notre Dame. (The Trojans played an extra “kick-off” game in August.) You’re probably thinking: Yes, but Auburn had to play all those tough SEC conference games! Against the SEC’s fabled programs! Against Mississippi State, for example, which managed to lose to Maine that year—at home. Against Mississippi, which lost to Memphis and Wyoming. And of course, against Kentucky, which lost, at home, to Ohio. To Ohio, kids—not Ohio State.

In short, Auburn had played a string of ding-dongs. According to the Sagarin computer, USC played the country’s 7th-toughest schedule in 2004; Oklahoma’s schedule was 13th-toughest, and Auburn’s came in number 60. But so what! The SEC has never stopped crying about the injustice that was done to its champion. Two years later, even Kaufman has forgotten how absurd this complaint really was.

By the way, there may be a good reason why Auburn played such cream puffs. In 2002 and 2003, the program had made a mighty mistake—it had opened with Southern Cal each year, getting its ears pinned back each time. In 2003, Auburn had been top-ranked in some pre-season polls—until the Trojans came to town and ground them into their state’s red clay. (23-0—at Auburn.) By 2004, for whatever reason, Auburn had become more reality-based. Instead of playing the mighty Pac-10, the War Eagles played three honey-dip doughnuts—then created victim tales about the way the dastardly Yankees wouldn’t allow them their shot at the title. Indeed, Michael Wilbon is still so upset that he suggested, in Monday’s column, that the SEC might have left the BCS if they’d been done that way this year. “There’s no question the SEC is the best league,” Wilbon typed. But then, he types that every season.

In short, the press corps’ coverage of college football is often just as irrational as its coverage of politics. But readers, which conference has been best this year? Funny you should ask that! As we noted yesterday, Sagarin currently has the Pac-10 number 1—with the SEC a grateful second. The compilation which follows may help you see such ratings can come from:

The most direct way to compare the major circuits is by the results of their (infrequent) battles. Here at THE HOWLER, we do it like this: First, we list all the games a conference has lost against non-conference foes. Then, we list all the games it has won against: 1) The other BCS teams, and 2) non-BCS teams in the Top 25. In short, you get penalized if you lose to a puddle of grits—but you get no credit for beating such programs. You do get credit for beating a non-BCS team if it’s in the current Top 25.

Sadly, the major circuits schedule few games against each other. Here are the current won-lost records one gets by applying this system:
Big East: 11-8
SEC: 9-7
Pac-10: 8-9
Big 10: 7-12
ACC: 4-19
Big 12: 3-15
The ACC and Big 12 have been woeful. Beyond that, one might want to consider the caliber of non-conference teams played. How have the circuits done against current Top 25 teams, for example? Omigod! When we ask that potent question, the Pac-10 starts movin’ on up:
Against teams in the AP’s current Top 25:
Pac-10: 5-7
Big 10: 2-5
SEC: 1-5
ACC: 1-6
Big 12: 0-3
Big East: 0-4
The Pac-10 has played twelve games against teams in the Top 25—twice as many as the larger, but timid, SEC. Beyond that, the mighty conference won five of those games—if only UCLA had held on at South Bend!—more than the other major circuits combined. When a conferences scores such mighty victories, it starts to move up in computer rankings. The human voters, like blocks of lard, rarely seem to notice, of course.

Is the SEC the best league this year? They could be—it’s hard to tell from such limited data. In fact, the SEC won three of four games from the Pac-10 this year—and things like that never happen. Of course, all four games were SEC home games, staged where the risk-averse circuit loves playing. Meanwhile, sports writers love to tell the world that the SEC is always the best. We don’t know when they crafted such dreams. It couldn’t have been on the long-ago day when Maine’s Black Bears came growlin’ into town. It must have been on the glorious day when The Citadel fell before Auburn.

SCRIPT NEVER SLEEPS: The first thing we noticed in today’s Ruth Marcus column was her “third-rail” script-point. Marcus wants to tackle the Social Security “problem”—and she offers some time-honored phrasing:
MARCUS (11/6/06): [I]f not now, when? Third-rail political issues such as Social Security benefit from—maybe even require—divided government, to share the blame. They can't be touched in an election year. They're difficult to do during a president's first term, if he—or she—wants a second. So 2007 offers the last, best hope for some time.
Is Social Security a “third-rail political issue?” That’s what Marcus’ cohort said all through the spring of 2000, when Candidate Bush proposed private accounts. Robotically, they praised the Republican hopeful for his “boldness”—even though private accounts had polled favorably for years, as many of them understood. (Links below.) Indeed, when Candidate Bush proposed his “bold” plan, it was immediately favored by large majorities in various polls, creating an utterly laughable situation. Mainstream pundits praised Bush’s “boldness”—for adopting a position which was widely favored. By contrast, Candidate Gore was savaged for his negative, poll-tested ways—for taking the less-favored position. Yes, the politics of Social Security has changed once again, as a result of last year’s debate. But in today’s press corps, script never sleeps. They’ve always called this issue “third-rail.” They don’t plan to type different now.

But we recommend Marcus’ column today for the insights it gives about Pundit Corps habits. Marcus wants to solve the SS “problem.” But what exactly is that “problem?” At no point in her piece does she say. A few weeks ago, her newspaper said, in a front-page report, that SS would “run out of money by 2040.” That claim, of course, was flagrantly wrong (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/20/06), but Marcus makes no attempt to explain the “problem” more clearly today. During last year’s debate, many economists and pundits said that there is no real “problem” with Social Security; the program’s modest long-term revenue shortfalls only occur if we assume a very low rate of growth on the part of the U.S. economy. Indeed, Marcus seems to know that the “problem” ain’t vast. That’s why she thinks we should “tackle” it!
MARCUS: [I]f not Social Security, then what? The political system right now is too broken, and relations between President Bush and congressional Democrats too frayed, to deal with the truly daunting entitlement issues, Medicare and Medicaid. Social Security is entitlement reform on training wheels.
Training wheels! Once, we were told to destroy the village in order to save it. Today, though, we’re told to fix certain problems—the problems which aren’t really there.

No, Marcus never says a single word about what the SS problem is. But land o’ goshen! She has thought long and hard about how we might “tackle” it! Marcus has pulled out all her dolls, and she has moved them around in her room. With apologies for the length of the excerpt, here’s the way to tackle the problem—the problem which may not exist:

MARCUS: Bush should give Democrats a structural advantage [on an SS commission]. In a twist on the Greenspan Social Security commission, the president would appoint five members from the executive branch or private life; the Senate majority leader would pick five from among sitting senators or private citizens; and the speaker of the House would similarly name five. But, as with the Greenspan commission, two out of each five would have to be from the opposite party. This would create a commission of eight Democrats and seven Republicans, and drive the membership in a centrist direction.

Why would the president stack the deck against himself? Because he'd be giving Democrats an offer they couldn't afford to refuse—or be perceived as refusing. Democrats couldn't complain about being rolled by a Republican-dominated panel. Given the toxic level of distrust between the administration and congressional Democrats, it may be the only way to get action. And Bush could protect himself against Democrats Gone Wild by requiring a supermajority of the panel to agree on recommendations.
Good grief! Of course, there’s an obvious flaw with her account of this scheme (in which she only frets about Dems Going Wild). Would this plan really force Bush to “stack the deck against himself?” Of course not! It would be easy for Bush to appoint a few Dems who support whatever “fix” he prefers; indeed, that’s what he did in his first term, when he appointed “registered Democrat” Robert Pozen to his Social Security commission. (Marcus’s phrase. She wrote about Pozen last year—quotes below.) At any rate, we still don’t get a single word about what the “problem” with SS really is. What problem would this supermajority be tackling? The reader is never told.

But we do learn one major thing; we learn what newspaper stories would say after this training-wheel problem is tackled. Why should Hillary Clinton head this commission? Dreamily, Marcus imagines:
MARCUS: For Clinton, the stakes are admittedly higher, but so is the upside. Sure, it's easy to imagine the ominous narration, "Hillary Clinton wants to slash checks for seniors," over the picture of a crying grandma. But some of Clinton's potential opponents serve in the Senate and might be swept along with the momentum of a bipartisan plan. And Clinton could use boldness on Social Security to combat her image as an overly careful, overly poll-driven calculator.
Shorter message for Clinton: In the Post, we’ll stop calling you “poll-driven”—the thing we called Gore—and start calling you “bold”—the thing we called Bush. Marcus can even forecast the headlines:
MARCUS: As it happens, the 25th anniversary of the executive order creating the Greenspan commission is Dec. 16. That would be a nice touch, too. And, Mr. President, senators, consider this headline that ran in The Post 16 months after the Greenspan panel was created: "President, on a Note of Bipartisanship, Signs Social Security Bill." Not a bad end to a troubled presidency—or a bad launching pad for a new one.
In Post headlines, Hillary would be called a “bipartisan!” If she agrees to “tackle” the “problem” which dare not say its name.

Two weeks ago, the Post ran a blatantly bogus account of what the SS “problem” is. Today, Marcus doesn’t even try to define the “problem;” instead, she dreams of the headlines after we’ve “tackled” it. Indeed, for her puzzling cohort, “bipartisan consensus” is The World’s Greatest Good. “A Commission Made in Heaven,” the headline says. This cohort’s rules are odd but clear: As long as we can agree on the fix, we don’t care if there’s a problem.

AND BRODER MAKES TWO: Right below Marcus on the today’s op-ed page, David Broder extends her approach. He praises the Baker-Hamilton gang for their comity/consensus/coming together/bonding—without ever saying a single word about what the commission has actually said! For all we know, their report says this, on page after page: All work and no play makes The Dean a dull boy. But so what! At least they “went over the recommendations word by word until everyone was satisfied” (as Alan Simpson is quoted saying). Granted that they agree word by word—what do their recommendations say? Are they worth a pitcher of spit? Broder never bothers to tell us. The only thing that seems to matter is the fact that all the members agreed. “This could be an example, not only of how to handle Iraq, but it could apply to immigration, Social Security and all those other things that have been hung up for so long,” Simpson is quoted enthusing.

It’s a large part of today’s Pundit Culture. For pundits like Marcus and Broder, consensus often seems to be all. Marcus doesn’t define her problem—and Broder doesn’t explain his solution. Blissful consensus is the one thing that counts. It seems to define the heavenly state in which modern scribes long to dwell.

POSIN’ RE POZEN: Last year, Marcus understood that Bush could find Dems who support his ideas for SS. “Pozen is a registered Democrat who served on President Bush's Social Security commission,” she wrote in this column. “Pozen’s plan...would let workers put 2 percentage points of the money they pay toward Social Security into private accounts.” Bush said four points—Pozen said two—but each man supported those private accounts. For the record, that “two percentage points” would be roughly sixteen percent of the money a worker pays to SS. Perhaps innocently, Marcus used the poll-tested phrasing—the phrasing which made it sound like Pozen was just talking nickels and dimes.

Today, Marcus suggests that Bush would be handing things over to Dems Gone Wild if he’s forced to appoint three Dems. Why do Post pundits type such pap? We don’t have the slightest idea. But Script Never Sleeps when the modern Post scribe tackles such dire fiscal problems.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Bush was “bold”—and Gore was poll-driven/much too negative. All Good Pundits knew to recite this. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/2/04, with links to previous work.