Howling Dog Graphic
Point. Click. Search.

Contents: Archives:

Search this weblog
Search WWW
Howler Graphic
by Bob Somerby
E-mail This Page
Socrates Reads Graphic
A companion site.

Site maintained by Allegro Web Communications, comments to Marc.

Howler title Graphic
Caveat lector

10 November 1999

Our current howler (part III): Don’t ask, don’t tell

Synopsis: After the forum, Margaret Carlson explained why the pundits weren’t talking about substance.

Commentary by Margaret Carlson
Capital Gang, CNN, 10/30/99

Critical Condition
Geoffrey Cowley and Bill Turque, Newsweek, 11/8/99

What kind of Democrats are they? Nancy Gibbs, Time, 11/1/99

Gore Attacks Bradley Prescription for Health Care’s Ills
Bob Davis and Laurie McGinley, The Wall Street Journal, 11/8/99

The New Hampshire Face-Off
Editorial, The Washington Post, 10/29/99

The Gore-Bradley Debate
Editorial, The New York Times, 10/29/99

Commentary by Al Gore, George Will
This Week, ABC, 10/31/99

Bush Falters in Foreign Policy Quiz
Terry Neal, The Washington Post, 11/5/99

What sorts of judgments will pundits make if they analyze the Gore/Bradley health plans? Who's right about the costs of Bradley's plan? Frankly, we don't have a clue. We don't know, for example, if the Emory study is right—if Bradley's plan would cost more than he thinks. Our analysts continue to probe and prod the three articles that were published this Monday.

No, in the wake of the Democrats' town hall forum, there was no way to expect an instant resolution of the Gore-Bradley health care dispute. But it wouldn't have hurt if pundits had offered some modest attempt at an overview. Instead, they gabbed about the hopefuls' clothes, and endlessly told us who had seemed more authentic. A Manichean struggle was fought for their souls. Who would win—subjectivity or trivia?

And in the midst of all the pointless chatter, pundits came up with various theories as to why they weren't talking about substance. For example, Margaret Carlson appeared on Capital Gang three days after the town hall debate. She offered this surprising take on why the pundits were talking up style:

CARLSON: One of the things is, because [Gore and Bradley] don't differ on issues, as you say, is that we're spending a lot of time talking about the shade of blue in their shirts and like there's the Center for the Study of Budget Priorities, there's now schools of thought studying boredom and stiffness and who's going to cope with it better.

Other pundits said that voters just don't care about "issues" this year. And many pundits acted as if the dispute was just strange—they were amazed that hopefuls would actually care whether a health plan would bust up the budget.

Carlson was right on one key point. Pundits were debating the shade of blue in Gore's shirt; Mary McGrory said it was "gunmetal blue," another pundit (Tony Blankley?) said "steel." But nothing could have caused this vapid discussion except a devotion to things that don't matter. Is it true that the hopefuls "don't differ on issues?" At the forum, Gore challenged Bradley repeatedly on health care—and every survey being conducted shows health care at the top of the voters' concerns. Let's just say it—the celebrity pundits like talking about clothes. They couldn't care less about health care plans—and don't intend to discuss them.

But before we leave the town hall forum, one point of substance really must be discussed. That is the very basic matter of how hopefuls are "spending the surplus." In this area, the press corps has fallen back on old habits, critiqued by THE DAILY HOWLER before (see postscript). Here's how Newsweek framed the debate the week after the Bradley-Gore forum:

COWLEY AND TURQUE: Unfortunately, no one knows how much Bradley's plan would cost; the estimates range from $650 billion over ten years to $1.2 trillion—a figure that could devour the entire projected budget surplus.

This, of course, is how Gore framed the problem at the town hall forum. Bradley's plan would spend the entire non-SS surplus, leaving nothing for other priorities. The construction has become the press corps norm. Nancy Gibbs, in Time's preview of the forum:

GIBBS: While [Gore] would dip into the projected surplus to pay for his own health care and poverty programs, he is not as free-spending as Bradley, whose health-care plan alone could consume most of the non-Social Security surplus for the next 10 years.

Bob Davis and Laurie McGinley, in the Wall Street Journal's health plan story this past Monday:

DAVIS AND MCGINLEY: Now, with a projected $1 trillion surplus over the next decade—apart from Social Security—it is far from clear which priority Democratic voters will find more attractive: Bradley-style universal health care or Medicare preservation, a la Gore...[Bradley] estimates the cost [of his health plan] at $500 to $650 billion over 10 years, which would bite deeply into the surplus but not exhaust it.

But that, of course, is only true if the surplus actually exists. And as we've pointed out before, almost all major publications have explained a basic point about current surplus projections. The non-SS projection is based on the assumption that the 1997 spending caps will be honored in future years—and almost no one believes that will happen. That's right, folks. If federal spending rises at just the rate of inflation, the projected non-SS surplus is virtually wiped out.

To their credit, some editorial pages have made this point in the wake of the town hall forum. The Washington Post, in its Day Two editorial, said this about the health care debate:

THE WASHINGTON POST (10/29): Both candidates, moreover, like to say that their proposals can be paid for out of the non-Social Security budget surplus...But the surplus projection is based on the assumption that Congress will respect the spending caps agreed upon two years ago. There is not the slightest chance of this.

The analysts cheered here at HOWLER World Headquarters. And then they spied this, in the Times:

THE NEW YORK TIMES (10/29): Neither candidate admitted that there may be no $1 trillion surplus outside of Social Security. That estimate assumes that Congress will live under existing budget caps and cut most federal programs by 20 percent or more. Voters deserve to hear what existing programs the candidates would squeeze out to make room for their new ideas.

Indeed, we liked the Times editorial more than the Post's because it raised the matter of a future president's role. Would a President Bradley or Gore stick to the caps? It strikes us as extremely unlikely. But, if candidates are going to talk about using the surplus, it's a question that ought to be asked.

But don't plan on seeing that happen. Just consider who asks the questions around here! For example, Gore appeared on ABC's This Week the Sunday after the forum. He made his standard complaint about Bradley's plan; it "uses up the entire surplus for the next ten years and doesn't save anything for Medicare." It was the perfect spot for some smart pundit to pop the question about the caps. Here's what George Will asked instead:

WILL: The Washington Post, which is not a nest of right-wingers, says that you too have spent the entire surplus with your proposals.

GORE: Not true. Not true.

WILL: Bill Bradley says it's promises without price tags.

GORE: Not true. I put price tags on everything.

Will referred to a pair of news stories about the total cost of Gore's plans, not to the question of spending caps. Cokie Roberts quickly raised a real concern about money; she asked about that crazy salary paid to—who else—Naomi Wolf.

Does it matter if our public discourse makes sense? If so, scribes should inquire about these basic budget matters. All of the candidates ought to be asked. But we won't be holding our breath at THE HOWLER.


Tomorrow: We finally leave the Dem town hall forum, revisiting one troubling matter.

All in the family: The analysts found themselves lustily cheering as they read Michael Kelly this morning:

KELLY: We [journalists] are so relentlessly mindless. Reporters like to picture themselves as independent thinkers. In fact, with the exception of 13-year-old girls, there is no social subspecies more slavish to fashion, more terrified of originality and more devoted to group-think.

We made a note to telephone Kelly and suggest we meet for that root beer we've been planning. But Kelly, writing about the Bush pop quiz flap, quickly went on to say this:

KELLY: Thus, the Hiller interview is played big because it fits—neatly, mindlessly—into a template of the campaign, which is it self a template of an older template: Bush is a know-nothing; Republicans are mostly know-nothings.

Is that how the Hiller interview has been played? In fact, pundits have almost uniformly complained about Hiller's questions. On The NewsHour last Friday night, Paul Gigot, Mark Shields, and Jim Lehrer all seemed to agree—there was an "ambush, gotcha quality" to the "ankle-biting" questions, which "gave journalism another black eye." All three implied they wouldn't have known the answers. These views have been almost uniform. On The News with Brian Williams Friday night, Leon Panetta called the interview a "cheap shot," and Stephen Hess offered this:

HESS: I thought it was rather interesting how few other candidates came forward...The only one who released his press secretary was Al Gore, whose press secretary said, "Oh, my man knows the answers to that." I must say that reminded me of the movie Election...Reese Witherspoon was always raising her hand saying, "I know, I know the answer to that," and by the end of the movie you were thinking, "Oh gee do I hate that young woman."

Ouch! On Capital Gang, the topic wasn't even discussed; in the "outrages," Robert Novak complained about the "wise guy reporter," and Margaret Carlson said it was "Gotcha." On Meet the Press, William Safire said "Gotcha"—"fun" but "phony," and Doris Kearns Goodwin said most people would identify with Bush, not the reporter, and seemed to say that the interview had been orchestrated by Democrats! Monday night, Robert Woodward, on Hardball, called the questioning "unfair." There was a fairly uniform view expressed, but it didn't comport well with Kelly's description.

By the way, Kelly echoed Hess when he said, "Only the campaign of Al Gore, the call-on-me candidate, was quick to say their teacher's pet would have aced the quiz." This point, too, was made over and over. Unfortunately, the group's thought wasn't true:

NEAL: While the campaign of GOP rival Steve Forbes decided not to say anything, the campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain took a subtle jab. When spokesman Todd Harris was asked yesterday if McCain would have been able to answer those questions, he answered: "Oh, definitely."

"We don't want to pile on," Harris said, chuckling, before adding: "Our feeling is, it was probably an unfair question that the governor was not prepared for and was not briefed on."

Luckily, Kelly and other scribes did know what to do. They pretended this exchange hadn't happened.