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SPINNING BIO (PART 4)! Finale on Frist! And we tidy up yesterday’s chaos:


FRIST IN THE HEARTS OF HIS COUNTRYMEN: Bill Frist’s bio can be spun several ways. You can make Bill Frist the saintly surgeon—the do-good doctor crossing the seas to care for the poor of Sudan. Or you can make Bill Frist a bit of a nut—a guy who thinks he’s “predestined” to sit in the White House, and who knows how to go about getting there. But then, a major pol’s bio is easily spun—and your press corps simply loves to spin them. That’s why we’ve always said that major pols should be judged by their votes and their policy stands, not by the biographical fluff out of which pleasing tales can be conjured.

What do we find when we look at Frist’s policies? That matter can barely be covered here. But the sensitive surgeon who swoops down on Sudan does have a clear voting record. In his recent profile of Frist in The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn laid out the goods:

COHN: Frist has voted with Trent Lott 90 percent of the time over the last eight years, making him one of the Senate’s most conservative members. On nearly every important vote during his tenure, Frist has voted with the Republican leadership: for banning partial-birth abortion, against raising the minimum wage, for convicting Bill Clinton on impeachment charges, against the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms, and for the Bush tax cut. Notably, Frist’s conservative record holds even on his signature issue, health care. In 1996, Frist voted to strip the Domenici-Wellstone mental health parity bill of a core provision, one prohibiting insurance companies from imposing stricter limitations on coverage for psychiatric illness. That same year, Frist voted against a Democratic initiative that would have restored $18 billion in Medicaid cuts.
Such a brief summary can’t do justice to Frist, but it gets us where the rubber meets the road. Does Frist help old ladies carry luggage off planes? When pundits direct you to topics like that, they’re trying to keep you from turning your gaze to actual topics that matter.

In the years to come, any number of spinning pundits will tell you Boy’s Life tales of Frist’s character. They’ll do that for an obvious reason; as Deborah Orin recently noted in the New York Post, “many Republican strategists see Frist as the ideal post-Bush presidential candidate in 2008—a man who’d keep the party on the ‘compassionate conservative’ path and lock in the longtime GOP majority that Bush guru Karl Rove dreams of.” And, to help get Frist into the White House, they want you to see him as the good doctor—the man who helps the poor and the lame. They’ll tell you he carries those bags off those planes. They’ll praise his forty-page letters to strangers (hoping you won’t see that as a bit weird). They’ll even give you Frist the pious—reciting the Sermon where Jesus did, “electrifying” a tour group “with his simple faith and devotion.” Again, we don’t know when we’ve heard a weirder piece of political puffery.

David Brooks gave you Frist on the Mount. But Frist’s character can be spun several ways, just like his biography. In talking about that voting record, for example, Cohn makes this observation:

COHN: So how does a man with no history of conspicuously partisan behavior before 1994 end up with such a conspicuously partisan voting record in the years since? One answer is that Frist is determined to win, and, as he did in his 1994 campaign, he’s willing to act like a conservative firebrand if that’s what it takes….[O]f the eight former medical colleagues I interviewed, not one believes that Frist’s voting record [on abortion and stem cells] is indicative of his true thinking. “I saw his comments on television just before Christmas, but I want to see what he really does,” says Gus Vlahakes, who trained with Frist at [Massachusetts General Hospital] and remains a friend today. “If I had to take a guess, I’d say he’s starting from a more moderate viewpoint than his recent comments would suggest.”
In short, the good doctor can be spun as another slippery pol—a man who votes his ambition. Indeed, when Michael Kranish profiled Frist for the Boston Globe, he was told the same sort of thing by a longtime Frist friend and associate:
KRANISH: Norman Shumway, Frist’s mentor at Stanford University, says he believes his longtime friend made a carefully conceived political decision. Frist’s opposition to therapeutic cloning is “ridiculous,” Shumway says, and he can't believe that Frist, who left Boston to be on the cutting edge of medicine with heart transplantation, would oppose such a promising avenue of research.

Why did Frist oppose therapeutic cloning? “I think the Republicans do not want to alienate the far-right component,” Shumway told Kranish. “I think this is what he is being careful about.” Hmm. People who know the good doctor best seem to say he’s become a slick pol.

What’s Bill Frist like? We don’t have a clue. But pundits are going to spin Frist hard, trying to sell you a sanctified sawbones. They’ll tell pleasing tales that make little sense; they’ll even give you Frist on the Mount. But Frist’s slightly odd bio can be spun several ways. Our advice: Make them stick to his policies. Tomorrow: Spinnin’ bio with Kerry.

OFF THE MOUNT: We’re sure that Bill Frist is a perfectly fine guy—many, many folks seem to like him very much—but Frist Spin wants you thinking he’s saintly. But that sanctified stuff seemed to take a back seat when he carved up Jim Sasser in his first Senate race. The 1994 campaign was rough. In one comical example, Frist ran into some opposition at the Nashville Kiwanis, where members took him to task for his “Ballad of Two-faced Taxin’ Liberal Jim.” Paula Wade described the radio ad in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “The song, a tuneless ditty reminiscent of Boy Named Sue, refers to President Clinton as ‘slick Willie’ and Sasser as ‘two-faced Jim’ and ‘taxin’ Jim,’” she wrote. “[O]ne elderly Nashville Kiwanis Club member [told] him to have more respect for the presidency.” On another occasion, Frist scalded Sasser for a vote on a crime bill amendment. In a press release, the gentle man who strode the Mount said that “Tennesseans can’t trust Jim Sasser to represent their interests, unless they are murderers.” Is Senator Frist a saintly surgeon? You’ll hear it spun again and again. We suggest you slipslide the silly stuff and stick to what matters—Frist’s policies.

The Daily update

TAX CUT CHAOS: Start by disregarding most of what you read in yesterday’s irate “Daily update.” How big are the tax cuts in Bush’s new budget? Chaos reigned in American papers as journalists reported those tax cuts this week—and chaos reigned at THE DAILY HOWLER. How big are the tax cuts in Bush’s new budget? If you read one story this week, you thought you knew. If you read two stories, you weren’t really sure.

Consider Tuesday’s USA Today. In a page 5 article, William Welch laid a new, surprising price tag on the Bush tax cuts:

WELCH (2/4/03): In a historical context, the deficits expected this year and next would top the previous high borrowing mark of $290 billion, set in 1992 under the first President Bush…The president says more tax cuts, totaling $1.5 trillion over a decade, are needed to get the economy moving, even if that means borrowing money to cover lost revenue.
That was more than twice the size of the tax cuts Bush proposed in early January. And wouldn’t you know it? On the very same page, Judy Keen and Lawrence McQuillan were still using that previous number:
KEEN AND MCQUILLAN (2/4/03): The two comprehensive budgets Bush has proposed since he took office reflect…

* His Republican belief that government should not raise taxes on the wealthy to add programs for the poor. Bush won’t pare his $670 billion tax-cut proposal, which would give the richest the most relief, in order to spend more.

Say what? According to Keen and McQuillan, Bush “wouldn’t pare his $670 billion proposal.” According to Welch—writing on the very same page—Bush’s cuts ran to twice that amount.

The same problem obtained in Tuesday’s Post. On page 6, Jonathan Weisman thumped the new, big number:

WEISMAN (2/4/03): In the face of burgeoning budget deficits, the president has proposed new tax cuts that would cost the Treasury nearly $1.5 trillion over 10 years, on top of the $1.35 trillion tax cut passed in 2001. The tax cuts’ potential impact on government enterprises has caught many supporters and detractors by surprise.
But others seemed stuck in the past. On page 4 of the same paper, Spencer Hsu said that “President Bush’s overall $2.23 trillion fiscal 2004 plan” was “crimped by an economic slowdown, a $674 billion tax cut proposal and deficit spending.” And on page 1 of that day’s Post, Amy Goldstein and Mike Allen also seemed to pump the old number. They made no mention of the new, large tax-cut figure, but they did refer to “Bush’s request for $670 billion worth of additional tax cuts.”

Dueling numbers were also displayed in AP reports. On Tuesday morning, newspapers using David Espo’s report said this: “Documents released by the Office of Management and Budget put the cost of tax-cut proposals at $1.3 trillion for the years 2004 to 2013.” But Martin Crutsinger’s corresponding report didn’t mention a new, large amount of tax cuts, only referring to “Bush’s $670 billion in new tax cuts.” (Crutsinger’s Day Two reports did refer to $1.3 trillion in cuts.) Meanwhile, the New York Times presented no new price tag and no suggestion that Bush’s tax cuts had grown. Indeed, a number of articles used the month-old numbers; on Wednesday, for example, Jonathan Fuerbringer referred to “the president’s decision to seek another big 10-year tax cut of about $670 billion, which is included in his new budget.”

So what was up with those tax cuts? For voters, it was virtually impossible to tell. USA Today and the Washington Post said the cuts totaled $1.5 trillion. The AP said $1.3 trillion. Meanwhile, other writers at the same orgs were using old numbers, and the New York Times didn’t seem to suggest that any new cuts had been proposed.

What in the world was up with those cuts? Heroically, the AP’s Espo gave the fullest explanation of where the new, larger number had come from:

ESPO: President Bush called for $1.3 trillion in new tax relief over the next decade in the budget he sent the Republican-controlled Congress on Monday, featuring proposals to accelerate and then make permanent the cuts lawmakers approved two years ago, as well as his highly contested plan to slash taxes on corporate dividends...

The cost of speeding up the 2001 tax cut provisions was put at $213.7 billion through 2013…

Bush’s plan for eliminating taxes on certain dividends—paid from funds on which corporations have already paid taxes—would cost $385 billion, the budget said…

Permanent extension of tax cuts approved in 2001 was estimated at $588.4 billion.

Since Bush had proposed “accelerating” the tax cuts in his January package, the bulk of the new tax cuts came from a rather unremarkable source. Bush had proposed making the tax cuts from his 2001 package permanent, as he had long been expected to do. This appears to be the primary source of the sudden jump in the size of the tax cuts.

There was nothing startling about this proposal—but at least Espo said where his new number came from. Others didn’t bother. For example, Welch used a large new number (see above) without explaining what had produced it, and others at his very own paper didn’t seem to have gotten the word. This left readers (and us) at a loss to explain the big new number—a number which appeared in some stories and seemed to be contradicted in others. (On Wednesday, Welch again used the new, larger number, again without explaining its origin.) But the biggest problem was at the Post, where Weisman did seem to explain the new number—and in doing so, “explained” it wrong:

WEISMAN (2/4/03): In the face of burgeoning budget deficits, the president has proposed new tax cuts that would cost the Treasury nearly $1.5 trillion over 10 years, on top of the $1.35 trillion tax cut passed in 2001. The tax cuts’ potential impact on government enterprises has caught many supporters and detractors by surprise.

If enacted, they would end for the vast majority of Americans the taxation of inheritances and eliminate taxes on interest, capital gains and dividends.

According to Weisman, Bush had “proposed new tax cuts” which “caught many supporters by surprise.” And Weisman seemed to imply that the new, large number had come from Bush’s proposal to eliminate taxes on interest and capital gains in addition to dividends. As we noted yesterday, the Post editorial page was railing against that “stealth” proposal, calling it “a Trojan horse of private savings accounts” that “could have effects far greater than the president’s related move to eliminate dividend taxes.” The Post may be right in that assessment, but this proposal doesn’t seem to be the source of the new tax cut number. As others have explained (including writers in last week’s New York Times), the large revenue losses from this “stealth” proposal won’t start until a decade has passed. Finally, why didn’t the Times suggest that Bush had made new tax cut proposals? Because the “liberal” Times went easier on Bush than other big newspapers did. On Monday, the Bush Admin presented a five-year budget (2004-2008). Other papers used other Bush numbers to create their new, ten-year budget assessments. But the Times was more polite to Bush, sticking with the five-year time span the White House preferred. (The large revenue losses from making the 2001 tax cuts permanent don’t occur until after 2008.) By the way, why didn’t the Times even note that Bush had proposed making the cuts permanent? Presumably, because the Sunday Times had correctly said that this would be in Bush’s budget. At the Times, they weirdly assume that their brilliant readers will remember all past jots and tittles. But if you read about Bush’s budget in Tuesday or Wednesday’s Times, you still are waiting to be told about the proposal to make the cuts permanent.

By the way, how easy was it for a scribe explain where the big, new numbers had come from? At the Los Angeles Times, Warren Vieth made it look awfully simple. Vieth unveiled a new tax cut figure—and explained where the figure had come from:

VIETH (2/4/03): [The budget’s] centerpiece is a package of new tax cuts that the budget documents said would total $1.3 trillion over 10 years. That includes more than $600 billion by eliminating the double taxation of dividends and accelerating the effective date of previously approved tax cuts. Much of the rest would result from making permanent Bush’s first big tax cut initiative—a $1.35-trillion package that Bush pushed through Congress in 2001 but which is scheduled to expire in 2010.
That highlighted passage saved a lot of chaos, but other papers didn’t bother. But then, ’splainin’ ain’t what your press corps does best. Your press corps is best spinnin’ bio.