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9 November 1999

Our current howler (part II): Reach out and touch someone

Synopsis: How can voters bone up on substance? Tucker Carlson had a novel idea.

Commentary by Jeanne Meserve, Henry Aaron
Inside Politics, CNN, 11/2/99

Commentary by Tucker Carlson, Margaret Carlson, Judy Woodruff
Inside Politics, CNN, 10/27/99

Commentary by Juan Williams
Fox News Sunday, Fox, 11/7/99

Finally! We salute the three papers who have now published stories on the differences between the Bradley/Gore health plans—the major, important point of dispute that emerged in the Dem town hall forum. Yesterday, three major papers published detailed stories examining the health care dispute (see postscript). Our analysts, returned from their Washington sojourn, have hungrily fallen on these postings. Starved so long for substantive fare, they greedily wolf down the crumbs of nutrition now ladled out by the three papers.

But over the course of the past two weeks, there has been precious little mention of the Dems' major town hall dispute. Some of this press corps flight from substance has been chronicled in our pages before. On Washington Week in Review, for example—two nights after the town hall meeting—the band of pundits went on at length about differences in "style" between the hopefuls (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/1/99). But, except for one brief, fleeting reference, no one mentioned the substantive dispute that newspaper stories had headlined post-forum. A viewer wouldn't have known that disputes about health care had come up three times in the Gore-Bradley hour—or that papers the next day had almost all said it was the key area of substantive disagreement.

Sorry—in the two weeks since the town hall forum, substance has gone out the window. Pundits have argued about how programmed or authentic the two hopefuls seemed—and they've also had a great deal of fun telling jokes about Naomi Wolf (more next week). How much have they written about Al Gore's wardrobe? Calvin Klein dreams of getting clothes this much ink! The pundit class has embarrassed itself by its devotion to things that don't matter.

And even when pundits took stabs at health care, our analysts were sorely disappointed. Take a report on Inside Politics six days after the forum. Jeanne Meserve reviewed the basic differences in the two Dems' health care plans, and she stated the heart of the town hall dispute—Gore's claim that Bradley's ambitious plan would cost twice as much as Bradley says. Gore, remember, says Bradley's plan would crowd out spending for other priorities. Who is right about these numbers? Our analysts leaned forward, expectant.

They might as well have just snoozed in their sofas. "Experts say, don't get hung up on the numbers," Meserve said, and then she played tape of economist Henry Aaron:

AARON: There's not a hint of wild-eyed fiscal irresponsibility in Senator Bradley. Nor in Vice President Gore.

Maybe not, but which one is right? "Henry Aaron says the public already knows what it needs to," Meserve said, to our surprise. Then, more tape of Aaron:

AARON: What Senator Bradley has done is declare in unmistakable terms that reducing the ranks of the uninsured is his number one priority. And he's willing to put a lot of money behind it. The vice president has declared that this is an important issue, he's willing to put sizable resources behind it, but not quite as much.

And that was the end of the discussion about those numbers we shouldn't get "hung up on." And truth to tell, it would be hard to get "hung up" on the numbers here, because the numbers were never even mentioned in the colloquy between Aaron and Meserve. Would Bradley's plan cost $1.2 trillion, as Gore had suggested at the forum? If so, would that crowd out other priorities? The question was never asked or answered in the taped interview as presented by Meserve.

We were very much struck by the "What me worry?" aspect of this discussion. And we're amazed to hear someone say that voters "already know what they need to." We'll guarantee it: if a survey were done, voters would know nothing at all about the hopefuls' numbers. And they'd have no way to guess whose numbers were right—because the press corps hasn't yet tried to say.

But that "What we worry" approach to this matter was already clear in the press corps. Let's revisit the October 27 edition of Inside Politics (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/28/99). In their preview of the forum, Tucker Carlson and Margaret Carlson pointed out that Senator Bradley looks like he smokes a lot of grass. Then they assured a surprised Judy Woodruff that the forum wouldn't be about substance:

WOODRUFF: So you're saying we're not really talking about issues here, even though that's what these questions are about? It's going to be how are they relaxed, how are they comfortable?

MARGARET CARLSON: Well, a lot of television is how you come across. And there's no time in these forums to really marshal an argument or show how you would lead...You're really just conveying yourself or an idea of yourself in little more than sound bites.

For what it's worth, Carlson had given a perfect glimpse of how the press corps would cover the forum. For the next solid week, the pundits did focus on explaining which hopeful had seemed to be more relaxed. But responding to Margaret's vision, Tucker took matters further. The analysts roared when they heard him say this:

TUCKER CARLSON (continuing directly): Well, sure. If you want a detailed examination of their positions, the candidates' positions, you can read the newspapers, you can call the campaigns and get one. I mean people who are really interested in what the candidates thinks on specific issues probably already know by now. I think really absolutely the bottom line is appearance and form and temperament, etc. Those are the things that really count.

We thought this reply was astonishing. Again, the notion that voters already know what candidates think on specific issues is a fantasy out of bad civics texts. We hope it isn't even necessary to argue about this peculiar claim. But we were specifically struck by Carlson's idea of what an interested voter might do. If citizens want to know what Bradley thinks on an issue, they can call up Bradley's campaign and find out! What an outlook! This, of course, frees the pundit class to do what they've done ever since the Dem forum—to comment on hopefuls' demeanor and clothes, and tell us whose body language seemed more authentic.

Talk about "let them eat cake!" To these pundits, voters can call around for information themselves, while the pundit class discusses "form" and "appearance." But one thing must be said in fairness. The Carlsons called their shot this day, describing exactly how the press would react to the Bradley/Gore town hall forum.


Tomorrow: On Capital Gang, Margaret Carlson explained why the pundits hadn't talked about substance.

Biblio: A list of the Monday health care stories our analysts now greedily devour:

USA Today: Gore, Bradley conflict on health care remedy. William Welch.

New York Times: Health Care Brings Out Contrast in Candidates. Robin Toner.

Wall Street Journal: Gore Attacks Bradley Prescription for Health Care's Ill. Bob Davis and Laurie McGinley.

The Manchurian pundit: CelebCorps' skill at self-brainwashing grows by the day. On Fox News Sunday two days ago, Mara Liasson said the White House thought that Gore bested Bradley at the forum. Neatly programmed Juan Williams replied:

WILLIAMS: That's evidence of self-delusion. I think everybody and their mother think that Bill Bradley, just by standing up there and trying to be offer some vision, really out-pointed Al Gore, who was widely caricatured around the country as someone who was being instructed on how to look casual and relaxed and friendly and interactive...If you think Al Gore won that debate, I think you're trippin'. [Panel laughter]

It would be hard to overstate the dumbness of this comment. Gore was indeed "widely caricatured" around the country—by Williams' pundit class. But, as we've stated before, a Gallup poll was taken of New Hampshire Dems who actually watched the town hall forum. The results were widely reported: 39% thought Bradley won; 38% thought Gore won. 14% said the two were even. 9% had no opinion.

We've described in detail the way CelebCorps brainwashed itself about the Dem forum. By last Sunday, Williams thought the event had been such a rout that he had to resort to drug humor to drive home the point. He told viewers that "everybody and their mother" thought Bradley had won. He never mentioned the empirical data.

In any sector except the press corps, such groaning incompetence is cause for quick firing. Bridges fall down when engineers work like this. But we're lucky: engineers never do.