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Title: Clinton speaks

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JIM LEHRER: Mr. President, Senator Dole has come pretty close in the last few days to accusing you of lying about his position on Medicare reform. Have you done so?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Absolutely not.
       -Presidential debate, Hartford, 10/6/96

Does the GOP budget contain Medicare cuts? Incredibly, we have been debating this topic for almost two years now. And, with Republican attacks on President Clinton's "character" for daring to use the term "Medicare cuts," this semantic dispute is now in the middle of the GOP White House campaign.

Since they first made their balanced budget proposal in early 1995, Republican leaders have aggressively said there are no "cuts" in their Medicare proposals. And they have loudly objected to Democratic presentations which use the offending term "Medicare cuts."

In particular, attacks by Speaker Newt Gingrich and RNC chairman Haley Barbour have involved invective rarely used by major leaders. Gingrich has routinely accused Clinton of lying to the public in his reference to Medicare "cuts."

When a major leader is attacked as Clinton has been, he is owed a careful look at the record. In this case, if we examine the Speaker's attacks on Clinton for daring to use the term "Medicare cuts," a question is raised as to just whose flaws have been revealed in this endless discussion.


FOR THE RECORD, THE BASIC FACTS in this endless dispute are comically easy to state. There is absolutely nothing complex about the facts in this ongoing muddle.

Fact: Both parties propose spending less money in future years than it would cost to keep running the current Medicare program. This is the fact to which Democrats refer when they talk about Medicare "cuts."

For example, the GOP currently proposes spending $7100 per Medicare recipient in the year 2002. This compares unfavorably with a current CBO estimate; according to the CBO, it will cost $8090 per recipient in 2002 to keep running the current Medicare program.

Whether one feels comfortable calling that kind of proposal a "cut," we should consider another fact in evaluating the charge that Clinton has been lying. Fact: White House spokesmen have routinely used the term "Medicare cuts" to describe their own proposed Medicare plan. If Democrats are lying in their use of this term—which Gingrich has asserted on many occasions—then they're not only lying about the GOP plan. They've been lying about their own program too!

During one five-week period this past spring, for example, three White House spokesmen, on three major news shows, all used the term "cuts" to describe their own program. The same term they applied to the GOP plan was unambiguously applied to their own.

For example, on CNN's Late Edition on May 8, Treasury Undersecretary Larry Summers described the White House budget proposal:

We've got a budget on the table—seven years, [use of] CBO [projections], entitlement cuts, with tax cuts, with large expenditure reductions, with middle-class tax cuts of the kind [the Republicans] favor...

A moment later, host Frank Sesno asked Summers to elaborate on the kinds of "Medicare savings" involved in the two parties' plans. Summers said, of the White House proposal:

The administration's had $124 billion in cuts on the table. The problem is that the Republican majority has insisted on a whole set of other steps that would raise premiums.

Summers was hardly the only spokesman talking about White House "cuts." On PBS' NewsHour on June 6, for example, Dr. Laura Tyson, head of the National Economic Council, said of the White House budget plan, "We have put on the table $124 billion of cuts in Medicare." Three days later, on ABC's This Week, Treasury chief Robert Rubin said, of the White House Medicare plan, "The kinds of cuts that [Clinton] has proposed will extend the trust fund by ten years to the middle of the next century."

All three spokesmen were clearly referring to "Medicare cuts" in the White House plan. The same terms they applied to the GOP program, they plainly applied to their own.

Nor was this different from the language Clinton used in describing his Medicare program. For example, here is Clinton at a major January 9, 1996 press conference, just as the budget talks between White House and Congress were nearing their unfruitful end:

Good afternoon. As you know, we have just completed another long afternoon with the Republican and Democratic leaders in the Congress. We have arrived at a point where, clearly, all sides have agreed on enough cuts to both balance the budget in seven years...and allow a modest tax cut.

Given the limited number of programs involved in the talks, the president here has clearly said that all sides have agreed to make Medicare "cuts." His next sentences make the point even plainer:

Unfortunately, the talks have not yet succeeded because we do still disagree on the level of cuts in the programs of Medicare [and] Medicaid...The Republicans still wants cuts in Medicare and Medicaid that we believe are well beyond what is necessary to balance the budget.

Clinton is not claiming that Republicans are cutting and Democrats are not. He clearly says that Republicans are cutting the Medicare program too much—beyond what is needed to balance the budget. But it remains clear throughout the president's press conference (and at his follow-up press conference January 11) that Clinton is asserting that Republicans and Democrats are both proposing Medicare "cuts."

Since the president's January 9 press conference, Gingrich has repeatedly accused Clinton of misleading the public in referring to GOP "cuts." He has made the charge in the most personal terms, even to groups of high school students. He has said the budget talks broke down in January because it's impossible to negotiate with someone so dishonest. He has said it's impossible to have a national dialogue with someone so willing to misstate the facts.

But the Speaker has never been asked the obvious question raised by his charge. If the Democrats are lying when they talk about "Medicare cuts," why do they apply the same term to their own program? If the Democrats are lying about the GOP plan, why would they lie about their own program too?

The fact is, as we have noted above, both parties propose spending less in future years than it would cost to maintain the current program. And in both parties, this is a type of budget proposal that has always been described as a "cut."

Just how natural is it for politicians to describe the GOP Medicare plan as a "cut?" So natural that Republicans and conservatives not under direct party discipline have often described the plan this way too. As we shall soon see, it has taken a rigid form of semantic correctness, directed from the Speaker's office, to discipline obedient members of Congress not to talk about "Medicare cuts."

Indeed, such name brand conservatives as George Will, Charles Krauthammer, William Weld, Warren Rudman—even Dole national chair Vin Weber—have all used the term "Medicare cuts" in recent weeks to describe the GOP plan. But this has not stopped Republicans from calling President Clinton a liar for using the very same language.

But ironically, if you want to find a leading conservative talking about GOP Medicare cuts, one need look no further than Gingrich himself, in the weeks before the 1994 elections. Example: on October 2, 1994, Gingrich went on Meet the Press to discuss the GOP "Contract with America." The future Speaker seemed completely at ease with talk of entitlement cuts:

TIM RUSSERT: Congressman Gingrich, if I could talk—if you could—looking at this chart—this is the year 2002, where you said you [will] have a balanced budget. Could you explain to our viewers what areas of the budget you could seek cuts in?

GINGRICH: Sure. I would say to our viewers that we have to look at transforming virtually every area of the budget except Social Security...You've got to look at defense, you've got to look at law enforcement, you've got to look at every entitlement.

Continuing, Russert pressed Gingrich specifically: could he balance the budget without entitlement cuts? The response was unequivocal:

RUSSERT: What I'm asking you very specifically is, can you balance the budget without making entitlement cuts?

GINGRICH: The answer, of course, is no. That's a nonsense question. The fact is, we're going to have to change entitlements dramatically.

And that was the way the Speaker spoke shortly before he became the head of the Congress—describing as "nonsense" the very idea that you could balance the budget without entitlement cuts. But somehow, the cuts that were a given in 1994 had become a lie by 1995. How did the congressman-now-become-Speaker change his stance on this matter so quickly?


THE REPORTING ON THIS HAS BEEN DONE by David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf in their invaluable book, "Tell Newt to Shut Up," which describes the first year of the 104th Congress. In their chapter on the Medicare debate, which they call "War of Words," they detail the startling transformation in which Gingrich stopped talking about entitlement cuts, and instead began to call other folks liars for daring to use such terms.

By March 1995, Maraniss and Weisskopf report, the newly ascendant GOP Congress found itself with a political problem. By this time, the public was becoming more concerned about GOP proposals for Medicare. In particular, many voters were disturbed to hear the party was proposing to "cut" the popular program.

GOP pollster Linda DiVall conducted a series of focus group sessions, looking for ways to describe the plan that would prove less disturbing to voters. In March, DiVall reported to the House GOP leadership. She explained what words and phrases seemed reassuring to voters, and what words and phrases presented the program in a more threatening light.

For example, said DiVall, voters should not be told that the party was "changing" Medicare; they should be told that the party was "preserving" the program. And more than anything else, she said, the party should never use the disturbing word "cuts" in describing its Medicare plan.

DiVall's recommendation would require significant changes in the language of GOP leaders. In 1995, both parties proposed spending less money in future years than it would cost to continue the Medicare program; and this was a type of spending adjustment that had always been described as a "cut." The GOP leaders were experienced legislators who had always spoken that way in the past (see Gingrich on Meet the Press). Now they began studying new, sweet-sounding phrases in pursuit of improved polling numbers.

To teach themselves to use the new phrases, according to Maraniss and Weisskopf, the GOP leaders made an agreement: they would fine themselves a dollar every time they slipped, in private conversation, and used the word "cut" in describing their plan. So they learned to stop describing their program in the traditional way that still, in truth, struck them as natural. Their proposal could no longer be described this way, because with the public that produced bad results.

This then is the story of how Speaker Gingrich stopped speaking as he had on Meet the Press, and instead began calling President Clinton a liar when he talked about GOP "cuts." The president kept speaking as both parties always had, using the term "cuts" to describe both parties' programs. But now, when he talked about GOP "cuts," Clinton was denounced as a liar—denounced for using the very same language the Speaker had used months before!

So: are there "cuts" in the GOP program? It depends on what you mean by the term. Both parties propose spending less than it would cost to continue the current program. And this will not only mean reduced future spending; it will likely mean reduced services too.

Reasonably enough, both parties used to call that a "cut," until the GOP got its poll-driven data. Now, the GOP calls it new, pleasant things—and it calls President Clinton a liar.

Is President Clinton deceiving the public when he talks about GOP "Medicare cuts?" If so, a lot of people, in both major parties, have been lying to the public on this matter as well—including the irate Speaker Gingrich, before his party adopted new ways of speaking for the purpose of obtaining better spin.