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WHY LIBERALS LOSE! We said that liberals need Master Narratives. Last night, two pundits showed why: // link // print // previous // next //

TOMORROW: At last! Yesterday, C-SPAN’s video links began working again, and we want to show you what Gene Robinson said about Darling Condi and that Naughty Barbara Boxer. So what the heck! We’ll offer that report tomorrow—along with a short Oscar run-down.

WHY LIBERALS LOSE: It’s great to have a few Master Narratives, and the Pseudo-Conservative Outrage Machine has spent four decades creating them. The press corps is driven by liberal bias! And: Liberal elites hate your red-state values! And: For liberals, it’s all about political correctness! These simple messages provide key frameworks for pseudo-conservative complaints of all kinds. They place trivial gripes in a large, crucial context. For that reason, you hear them recited all the time.

Just yesterday, we mentioned the need for the liberal web to develop controlling Master Narratives for liberals. Why do Dems, libs and centrists need Master Narratives? Consider what happened on Scarborough Country when USA Next was discussed just last night.

The stage was set for a Big Liberal Triumph. Amazingly, Scarborough had assembled a panel which featured two liberals and only one conservative. And how absurd was the conduct at issue? USA Next’s attacks on the AARP had been so absurd that even Scarborough rolled his eyes at the pseudo-con group as he introduced the discussion. (“They went so far as to say AARP supports gay marriage and is anti-soldier.”) Here was the perfect chance for liberal spokesmen to state the obvious: Conservatives keep making a joke of your discourse. These groups keep trying to treat us like fools. The controlling point for the liberals was obvious: There they go again, dear viewers! But liberals have failed, in the past many years, to establish any Master Narratives. So note what happened when Scarborough began by throwing to Air America’s Rachel Maddow:

MADDOW (2/24/05): USA Next has said they want to spend $10 million against AARP. Now, they don’t want to spend $10 million promoting the president’s plan on Social Security. They literally want to spend $10 million tearing down AARP. I do think it’s kind of funny that they decided to do it by saying that AARP loves gay marriage—that was a real surprise to me. I think that was an unusual choice. But you know, with $10 million, you can probably make anything stick. I just want to know who funds these guys.
At the very best, that gets a C-minus. Given the chance to state a Large Theme—conservatives constantly peddle this nonsense—Maddow fell back on a weak, tired line: I want to know where their money comes from. But readers, who gives a sh*t where their money comes from? Unless you explain what’s wrong with what they’re saying and doing, it just doesn’t matter who gives them their money! But Maddow made little attempt to say what was wrong with what USA Next said. (Her talking-point seemed to be: “USA Next has $10 million.” Why should a voter care?) This had been the Perfect Chance to say that they’re trying to treat you like fools, just the way the always do—but Maddow settled for a weak alternative. But then, so did liberal talker Joe Madison when he was asked to opine:
MADISON: I wanted to jump in on this if you don’t mind. And that is: I think there should be a legitimate debate about this. But you know, you do not attack AARP. Look, I’m old enough now to not resent my elders who get into movies at half price because they have an AARP card. Look—they are for seniors. They are pro-seniors. They’re an excellent group. It’s amazing how this group didn’t come after them when they supported President Bush on the medicine, the prescription legislation that came out. They didn’t try to destroy them then. I mean, each group can agree or disagree with a position and fight for it. But this is not an honest debate. This is a group that likes to trash and burn and quite candidly, I’m like the other individual. Who’s funding these people? And let’s have an honest debate about this.
“Quite candidly,” Madison didn’t the know the name of “the other individual” whose weak question he finally echoed. But note how weak his answer was. “You don’t attack the AARP?” Why not? “This is not an honest debate?” In what way? Madison never said what was dishonest about USA Next’s claims, and he missed the chance to state the Large Narrative. He fell back on the same weak, beside-the-point line: I want to know who gives them their money.

In similar settings, conservatives almost never fail to state a Large, Controlling Narrative. This shows us liberal bias in action! Or: This is the work of those snobby liberal elites! But you have to hunt and scratch to find a Big Narrative in what Maddow and Madison said. Each of the pundits got two separate chances to hit the ball out of the park on this topic—and each pundit settled for weak, ground-ball singles. In her second turn, Maddow persisted in asking weak questions. Is there a rule against making assertions when our spokespeople go on the air?

MADDOW: If you want to have a debate about Social Security, why is the debate then about AARP?

MADISON: And gays.

MADDOW: AARP is a private membership organization—and gays, exactly; that was a wild card—35 million members. And USA Next, which won`t disclose their funders, wants to take a million members away from AARP. They are not talking about Social Security. They are just trashing the seniors group. Why are they doing it? Who is funding them, and when are the Republicans going to say whether or not they agree with this?

President Bush should denounce these ads. And the fact that he hasn`t makes all of us who are concerned about this very suspicious about who is funding this.

“Why are they doing it?” the talker asked. But instead of asking the question, why didn’t she state the obvious answer: Because pseudo-con groups like USA Next make a joke of our important debates all the time! But no—Maddow kept asking questions, not making statements. “Why is the debate about AARP?” Would it kill a liberal spokesperson, just once, to state a few clear Larger Points?
MADDOW REVISED: Joe, this group is doing what these conservative groups always do—they’re throwing out a set of smears so they can change the subject of this debate. They don’t want to discuss Bush’s horrible ideas for Social Security—so they create these ludicrous attacks on the AARP, just as they did when they invented a series of bogus claims about Kerry’s war record last summer. But this is what these well-funded, conservative groups always do—and they make a joke of our democracy as they do it. No, the AARP doesn’t hate the troops, and you’d have to be silly to think that they did. Voters have to reject these slime-ball techniques—and they have to punish President Bush for pushing this kind of nonsense.
But Maddow and Madison weren’t up to the task. They had a chance to score a Big Win. But alas—they just kept asking questions.

By contrast, in this morning’s Times, Paul Krugman does what these two pundits didn’t; he clearly states the larger point about these attacks on the AARP. He ends up stating the key, clear point: They do this sh*t all the time:

KRUGMAN (2/25/05): It's tempting to dismiss this as an exceptional case in which right-wingers, unable to come up with a real cultural grievance to exploit, fabricated one out of thin air. But such fabrications are the rule, not the exception.

For example, for much of December viewers of Fox News were treated to a series of ominous warnings about "Christmas under siege”—the plot by secular humanists to take Christ out of America's favorite holiday. The evidence for such a plot consisted largely of occasions when someone in an official capacity said, "Happy holidays," instead of, "Merry Christmas."

So it doesn't matter that Social Security is a pro-family program that was created by and for America's greatest generation...Right-wingers will still find ways to claim that anyone who opposes privatization supports terrorists and hates family values.

Right-wingers do this sh*t all the time! We told you yesterday—the liberal web needs to develop some Master Narratives. Last night, Maddow and Madison showed how weak our spokesmen can be when they don’t have Large Stories to offer.

THE POST’S HALF-HEARTED RESPONSE: As you know, when we say “jump” at THE DAILY HOWLER, the Washington Post tends to ask, “How high?” On Tuesday, we said it was time for the Post and the Times to publish longer, front-page stories about the substance of the Social Security debate. One topic we described: “How could Social Security be made fully ‘solvent’ without a switch to private accounts?”

Result? The Post got good-and-scared when we spoke, and they rushed a front-page piece into print. To read Jonathan Weisman’s piece, just click here. But here’s what was wrong with his effort:

First, a minor but inexcusable point. What follows is the way Weisman described the funding problem that has to be solved. Alas, this is the scribe’s second paragraph, right on page one of the paper:

WEISMAN (2/24/05): At its heart, Social Security's future financial shortfall is a basic math problem: The benefits owed over the next 75 years are $3.7 trillion greater than what it will have collected to make those payments. But how economists propose to solve that problem has had more to do with their vision of the nation's largest social insurance system than mathematics.
Hopeless! Weisman adopts the projections of the SS trustees as fact, saying that the funding shortfall is $3.7 trillion over 75 years. But that is only one of several major projections—and it results from extremely gloomy assumptions about future economic growth. Writing like this verges on malpractice. If the Post wants to report on the substance of SS, would it kill them to tell their readers the truth—that there are several major projections about the funding shortfall, and this projection is the gloomiest? Would it kill the Post, in paragraph 2, to avoid such a gong-show misstatement?

Most likely, Weisman presents this misleading summary because his editors asked him to do too much. He tries to cover too much in this single report—both “the liberal approach” and “the conservative response”—and as a result, he leaves out basic info about the ongoing debate. For example, just how big is that $3.7 trillion? The number itself is hard to process—and Weisman never compares it to other key budget numbers, like the size of the Bush tax cuts or the size of Bush’s prescription drug plan. Shouldn’t Post readers be allowed to know that the total cost of Bush’s tax cuts dwarfs the SS funding shortfall? Important Dems keep noting this point—but it’s inexcusably absent from this piece. That may be because Weisman is trying to cram too much into this stand-alone article.

And because Weisman tries to do too much, he leaves out other basic information. At one point, he suggests that the “tinkerer” plan of Robert Ball is creating the most interest among major Dems. But note the hopeless way he describes it:

WEISMAN: More attractive has been the ultimate "tinkerer" plan from Robert M. Ball, a former Social Security commissioner. Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, has made Ball's plan his own, and its nip-and-tuck approach to the problem has influenced the stance of AARP, the powerful retirees' lobby.

Ball would take four initial steps: lift the cap on taxable wages to 90 percent of all earnings, or about $145,000; slow annual cost-of-living benefit adjustments; cover newly hired state and local government workers; and dedicate all inheritance taxes levied on estates worth more than $3.5 million to Social Security.

“Those steps would ensure full Social Security benefits through 2078,” Weisman goes on to suggest. But what would these “steps” actually look like? Ball and Obey would “slow annual cost-of-living adjustments,” Weisman writes—but he doesn’t say how large these “adjustments” would be! How much would Ball cut future benefits? It does no good to describe his plan unless you answer that obvious question. But Weisman doesn’t answer the question—not in the text we have quoted, not in the chart he provides.

As usual, the Post acted fast when they heard us complain. But alas! They acted too fast, and they did a weak job in the process. Would it have been too much for the mighty Post to devote a series of articles to the many topics Weisman reviews in this piece? Apparently, yes—it would be too much. Weisman’s report is well worth reading. But it’s a grudging effort, with too much crammed in, reflecting the point that rules this discussion—the major powers who run your newspapers simply don’t care about this matter. They don’t care if you know the relative size of that shortfall—or about what Robert Ball has proposed.