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Daily Howler: How dumb is our political discourse? Let's check out the role of the Dems
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THE COURIC SHOW (PART 3)! How dumb is our political discourse? Let’s check out the role of the Dems: // link // print // previous // next //

MUST-READ WP: Yesterday, this intriguing report by the Post’s Jay Mathews dominated the top of that paper’s front page—complete with the photo-of-smiling-child which always accompanies such efforts. Mathews discusses a low-income Virginia elementary school which has now restored its standing in that state’s high-stakes testing program. We think this report helps us ponder the operation of No Child Left Behind (good and bad). It helps us examine the way such stories tend to be reported (good and bad). And if you chase down this school’s official test scores, you’re led to some astounding incompetence on the part of the Virginia Department of Ed. Our question: Could a bureaucracy which posts such incoherent “report cards” possibly be doing anything right? We’ll examine this must-read front-page report in detail all next week.

GUM AND SCOTLAND: Chris Matthews has been a wreck for years—capable of outstanding work (as on Wednesday night’s Hardball), but also devoted to trashing Big Dems—as when he worried, on Tuesday night, about Hillary Clinton’s troubling conduct during the State of the Union. Simply put, the man often seems to be out of his mind. Here he is after Bush’s Address, closing the 10 PM hour:

MATTHEWS (1/31/06): I did notice that Hillary Clinton tonight—and this will drive her people crazy—was chewing gum. I don`t quite get that. We will find somebody to defend that. We will get reaction to the gum-chewing of Hillary Clinton and the president`s speech tonight from a man who may want to succeed him, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. I want to hear him on Hillary`s bubble gum.
Bubble gum! Matthews has a jones about Clinton that simply won’t let his soul go (just as he did about Al Gore, with a disastrous consequence). And yes! During Tuesday’s 11 PM hour, the talker did question Saint Giuliani about his troubling gum allegation. By the way: A Nexis search finds no other record for “Hillary AND gum” this week. Inane discussions of Clinton’s facial expressions are now a thoroughly standard part of State-of-the-Union pundit culture. But even in the kookiest cable reserves, no one else conjured this outrage. Matthews is in a class by himself when it comes to attacks on Big Dems.

Yep! When it comes to kooky attacks against Dems, Chris is the world’s biggest nutball. He has been since the late 1990s, when he spent two years taking down Gore while Career Liberals stared into air. Matthews is erratic, unbalanced, irresponsible, often false. But increasingly, so is the liberal web, which now (after years of ignoring the talker) is devoting itself to luridly stating—and misstating; and overstating—the gentleman’s manifest sins. On Monday, for example, Matthews played some softball with Tom DeLay—as he always does when he lands such big interviews. (He even fawned to HRC when he interviewed her a few years back.) Result? The liberal web began overstating. “It’s stunning how far he’ll go to protect his friend Tom,” Atrios wrote.

Correctly, Atrios felt that Matthews was (somewhat) soft on the subject of DeLay’s golf trip to Scotland. But was it really “stunning” to see “how far he would go” in support of his buddy? In the segment which immediately followed the interview, Matthews spoke with Charlie Cook. The pair began by rolling their eyes at DeLay’s explanation for his trip:

MATTHEWS (1/30/06): Charlie, we just interviewed Tom DeLay down in Texas. I mean, we had it on tape there obviously. And a couple points came up. I want you to tell what you think might be decisive. When I asked him about Scotland—let`s take a look at this tape—when I asked him about Scotland and whether he was over there fighting religious—a little sarcastic—religious repression in Scotland, here was his answer.

MATTHEWS (videotape): Are you worried that the Democrats will be able to use iconic pictures--that`s probably a fancy word—but graphic pictures, like golfing in Scotland, to bring you down?

DELAY (videotape): I’ll bet—sure. They`ll try all that. I mean, they want to lie about what`s going on. I`m very involved in the international affairs whether it be Israel or against the religious persecution in China or for Taiwan against China or getting persecuted Jews out of Russia. I`ve been involved in a lot of foreign affairs. Yes, when I go over somewhere for that I take a day off or a half a day off, and I play golf.

MATTHEWS: Well, they skipped the part in that tape about where I asked is there religious repression in Scotland. That is the problem.

COOK: You know, there might be a good answer for your question, but that wasn’t it. I mean, I hope the next time somebody asks him that question, there`s a little bit better answer because that just didn’t make any sense.

MATTHEWS: He said he met with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who`s been out of office for more than—well over a decade, and is a very elderly woman. And that`s England, by the way.

COOK: Not Scotland.

MATTHEWS: It`s a little weak. Well, we`ll see. Let me ask you about the other guys with problems...

The interview was soft—but they always are. The subsequent review was modestly critical—but readers of the liberal web weren’t told. The next night, Chris was troubled by gum. And on Wednesday night, he was strong throughout, challenging Bush on the war.

Matthews has been deeply erratic for years—and has badly damaged Big Dems in the process. His personal slimings have often been severe—and no, he doesn’t do this to Republicans. But do we want to overstate too? Do we want to play the fool along with him? Do we want to pick-and-choose the information we decide to hand to the rubes? After years of ignoring this major player, fiery liberals have begun to attack him. But alas! After years of saying nothing at all, we now rush to say too much—and to say things that misstate the problem. So it goes when leaders cease to lead—and try on the fancy, silken costume of the loud, fast-talking demagogue.

Special report: The Couric Show!

PART 3—AS THE DEMS CRASH AND BURN: How dumb is American public discourse? Last Thursday and Friday, the Today show tried to discuss the ballyhooed Abramoff scandal. But alas! On Thursday, Katie Couric seemed to lack the first clue about the basic facts of the case (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/30/06). Result? On Friday, Tim Russert was dragged in to “clarify”—and he served up a “clarification” about as clear as a bucket of mud (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/31/06). We would suggest a quick review of the Today program’s two worthless constructs:

Construct 1: On Thursday, Couric said that “Democrats took money from Jack Abramoff, too.” But uh-oh! Narrowly construed, that statement is false—and Katie seemed to be utterly clueless when Howard Dean challenged her statement. Construct 1 was simply wrong—which led to Russert’s appearance.

Construct 2: On Friday, Matt Lauer, speaking with Russert, offered a second construct. According to Lauer, 34 percent of donations from Abramoff’s clients went to Dems in the past several years. (Russert roundly endorsed this presentation.) But uh-oh! What exactly was supposed to be wrong with accepting a donation from one of Abramoff’s clients—from groups which are completely legitimate? Neither Lauer nor Russert tried to explain. They contented themselves with the stock explanation: This is a bipartisan scandal. The “scandal” is “bipartisan,” the hapless men said (“Democrats can’t wash their hands of this”)—though neither man tried to explain why such donations were a “scandal” at all.

Could our press corps be more inept? (And might we note that all three correspondents are paid millions of dollars per year for such outings?) A viewer of this hapless show wouldn’t even know what the “scandal” was supposed to be. But he would have heard the key talking-point: The “scandal” involves both parties.

Please note: These hapless constructs are Standard Press Fare. They’re the same constructs presented by the Post’s Deborah Howell as she floundered about on this case one week earlier. We’re told there’s a “scandal”—and that it’s “bipartisan”—but we aren’t told what the “scandal” consists of. And by the way, one obvious point: This is precisely the message the RNC wants to get out in this burgeoning matter. Under the circumstances, this is clearly the most helpful construct the RNC can possibly hope for. And yes, a string of millionaire scribes have recited it for the past several weeks.

Readers will have to decide for themselves if our millionaire pundits are really this clueless. (For ourselves, we’ll have to warn you: The incompetence of this overpaid gang is so vast that it’s always a factor.) But here at THE HOWLER, we’ll make one last point as we conclude our review of this matter. Yes, Couric performed like a total incompetent—and Matt and Tim were little better. But readers should also consider the role the Dems have played in this dumb mess.

Why has the RNC message prevailed? In part because the RNC has churned a clear, easy message (as usual). The numbers they’ve offered are perfectly accurate—and they’re easy to recite. Indeed, even Couric knew the numbers on Thursday—although she seemed to be thoroughly clueless when Dean voiced his complaint:

COURIC (1/26/06): Let me just tell you, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Abramoff and his associates gave $3 million to Republicans, and one—Republicans—and $1.5 million to Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader—

DEAN: Katie, not one—not one dime—

COURIC: Harry Reid. So this—

DEAN: Not one dime of Jack Abramoff's money ever went to any Democrat. We can show you the FEC reports. We'd be very happy to do it. There's a lot of stuff in the press that the Republican National Committee has been spinning that this is a bipartisan scandal. It is a Republican-financed scandal. Not one dime of money from Jack Abramoff ever went to any Democrat. Not one dime.

COURIC: Well, we'll obviously have to look into that and clarify that for our viewers at a later date.

Even Couric knew the numbers! (And she tried to drag Harry Reid in the stew.) She just didn’t seem to understand Dean’s objection—although these facts had been loudly debated, in the Howell case, for two weeks at this time.

Why did Couric know those numbers? Because the numbers are easy to recite—and because they had been widely pimped by the RNC, as Dean noted. As usual, the RNC had done a good job broadcasting its preferred construct. And the DNC? What was their message? On this program, Dean clearly understood the facts—but he doggedly stuck to a narrow point, offering no larger clarification. Three days later, he went on Fox News Sunday—and he painted Harry Reid as a crook, just as Couric, RNC-primed, had been trying to do on Today (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/30/06).

How inept is the current Dem Party? They persisted this week in a startling habit. As we saw them do last year in the Soc Sec debate (links below), we saw them go on Sunday TV and broadcast the other side’s points!

The RNC talking-point is clear: This is a bipartisan scandal. But just what is the Dem claim? For our money, Dean was unhelpful on Thursday—and astounding three days later..

In conclusion, is it too much to ask that our DNC become a source of clear, helpful statements? Is it too much to ask that the DNC become a place the public can go for the truth? (This is an obvious stance for our party, given the endless, clownish dissembling of Republicans under George Bush.) Why is our public discourse so dumb? The greatest fault here lies with Couric and Russert, whose work on these programs was utterly hapless. But the DNC has been hapless here too—as it’s been for a very long time.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Week after week, major Dem spokesmen went on TV and recited Bush’s Soc Sec numbers. They kept misstating the “transition costs” of Bush’s proposal; indeed, a long string of Democrats went on TV and set the costs lower than Cheney had done! Our question: In the modern day, do you know of any major org which behaves in this puzzling way? Do you know of any big org which misstates facts in a way which cuts against their proposals?

Cheney had copped to a (lowball) figure for those transition costs—and Democrats kept understating that! To see a string of Dems flounder this way, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/29/05. To see Obama understate Cheney, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/4/05. To see Dodd misstate in grievous ways, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/5/05. But then, there are many such howlers in last year’s archives. Just enter “Cheney AND trillion.”