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24 January 2000

Our current howler (part I): Guess book

Synopsis: Despairing of ever acquiring real info, our analysts finally ventured a guess about the Bradley health plan.

Commentary by Al Gore, Bill Bradley
Democratic presidential forum, MSNBC, 1/17/00

Our analysts finally ventured a guess about the Bradley health plan. It finally hit them, like a shot, at the "black-brown" Dem debate (1/17). Gore again critiqued Bradley's plan, as he'd first done back in October:

GORE: One way not to get [to universal health insurance] is by eliminating Medicaid and by providing an inadequate, $150-a-month voucher in its place. A couple of friends are here today that I met recently...Both of their children get Medicaid. Both of them as parents would be eligible for health coverage under my plan. Neither they nor their children would get Medicaid under Senator Bradley's plan, and both of them would be given a $150-a-month voucher, and there is no place available here in Iowa that you can buy coverage that would give them the prescription drug benefits that their children get now, the hearing and vision tests that they get now, and does not have a $4000 expense out of their own—up to that—out of their own pocket that they would have under the plan that they would have to purchase in Iowa with the voucher.

Gore's statement was not perfectly clear; we weren't sure that we knew what it meant. That we chalk up, in large measure, to the work of moderators in the Dem debates—moderators like the two on this day, always eager to move on to new topics. But what did we understand Gore to say? We understood him to say that, under the health plans that Bradley's proposal made available, these parents would have to pay substantial sums to replace the health care they currently had. Is that true? Or would Bradley's plan give them health care without substantial out-of-pocket expense? If the latter, it would be easy to say. Bradley did not seem to say it:

BRADLEY: Well, I mean this is a song we've heard before in this campaign. This is not a "voucher." It's a weighted average. It will be different in different states. It will change over time. Everyone who has Medicaid now will have access to health care but they'll have access to health care in a federal system which is the same system that provides for our Congressmen and our Senators. Take Medicaid in Iowa, though. Take the CHIPS program. About 10% of the kids eligible are now covered. Take if you want to get dental care. In the city of Des Moines there are two dentists who accept Medicaid patients. That's not good enough.

But could those current Medicaid recipients get covered under Bradley's plan without large out-of-pocket expenses? Bradley hadn't answered. And it finally dawned on our struggling analysts: essentially, Bradley hadn't answered this question over the course of three solid months. Our analysts finally drew a conclusion—there were basic problems with his health plan that Bradley can't address. After three solid months of suspending our judgment, our analysts finally drew a conclusion—Bradley's plan probably didn't add up.

But is that true? Are we sure that's the case? No, we aren't sure at all. And the fact that our analysts still don't know is an indictment of our impoverished public discourse. On October 27, Gore critiqued the Bradley plan at Hanover, in the Democrats' first debate. And since then, we've conducted our daily critique of five major national newspapers (WashPost, WashTimes, NYTimes, USA Today, WSJournal). But the press corps' refusal to cover this topic—its utter refusal to explore basic issues—has left us struggling to puzzle out facts from snippets of the Dem debates. In each debate, limited time went to the health care dispute, as moderators hurried to move things along; we assembled hints of comprehension from the hopefuls as the forums flew past. But virtually nothing has ever appeared in the papers or journals to explain these two plans. Essentially, the press corps has simply refused to explain this fundamental policy issue—an issue which ranks near the top of the list in every survey of voter concerns.

The voting now is about to start, and voters still have no guidance. We can't imagine how voters can possibly evaluate the Gore and Bradley plans. But there's one thing a newspaper reader has gotten—a drumbeat from the press corps on manners. In recent weeks, an array of top pundits have called Gore names for daring to criticize Bradley's health plan. Gore is "brutal," and "ruthless," and a "demagogue" too—there's "nothing he won't say," they've informed us. They bear well-known names—Broder and Alter among them—and their lectures on manners therefore carry special weight. But there's one small thing they haven't done—they haven't told us what Gore has said that is actually wrong. In column after column, as they say Gore's been brutal, they fail to say if he's been right or wrong. That doesn't matter to this hardy band. Experts on manners (and on GroupThink; and on spin), they simply refuse to waste their time informing their readers on substance.

As such, this dispute provides a textbook example of our profoundly impoverished public discourse. On display is the press corps' technical incompetence; its disdain for substance—and its rank and astounding hypocrisy. The press corps tells us every day how much it hates those negative ads. Pundit Dimmesdales decry rude hopefuls who dare to "attack" one another. Meanwhile, major pundits call hopefuls harsh names—but never say if the hopefuls are right. The three-month-long coverage of this health care debate paints a picture of an addled press elite—an elite that refuses to address major issues, and whose utter, howling technical incompetence is matched by its spiritual corruption.


Tomorrow: Michael Kelly says voters are over-informed! We'd like to know what he's been reading.

Where the voting takes three hours: The Iowa caucuses? They're a study in the resilient human instinct for anti-democratic procedure and irrational thought. First, the two parties establish voting procedures designed to lower turn-out. Caucuses keep voter turn-out down, heightening the parties' control of the outcome. Then, media figures announce their intention to decide what the results "really mean." Pundits have prepared us, in the past few weeks, for the riot of interpretation that will follow the voting. With fondness, scribes nostalgically recall the time when Gary Hart, with 17 percent, "defeated" Walter Mondale, who only had 49.

Pundits will waste a lot of time telling us what the numbers "mean." That wasted time could be spent on issues. But issues are boring, and they're hard.