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Print view: Zeleny told the story one way. Then, he told it another
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RULE BY CHURCH LADY! Zeleny told the story one way. Then, he told it another: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MAY 24, 2011

What Bill Clinton proposed: Can it possibly help progressive interests when progressives let themselves go dumb? Here is Digby, who is increasingly losing her way due to her tribal loathing:

DIGBY (5/23/11): So I've been hearing that conservatives can't be racists because some of their best candidates are black. I wonder how this fits into that thesis. Here we have a major social conservative on the subject of Obama's trip to Ireland:

She then played tape of a dumb, lost soul. But the gigantic dumbness of her own statement, the one we’ve highlighted, represents a major fall.

Can it possibly help when our intellectual leaders succumb to the lure of The Dumb? Earlier yesterday, we were struck by a Digby post about Bill Clinton and Social Security.

In her post, Digby listed the names of some of the people who will appear at the “Peterson Foundation’s 2nd Annual Fiscal Summit.” Participants will include Bill Clinton and Gene Sperling, who served as National Economic Adviser during Clinton’s second term. Speaking of the listed participants, Digby then wrote this:

DIGBY (5/23/11): Gosh I wonder what they're going to say? It's a little bit odd that they were unable to find even one person who hasn't advocated cuts and partial or total privatization of Social Security but I guess it's possible that all 70 percent of the American public who are against that already had plans.

*Yes Bill Clinton certainly did entertain that idea.

Dear lord, how good the snark felt! As proof that Clinton did “entertain that idea” (an instant step back from “advocacy”), Digby linked to this fuzzy, 2005 report by the San Francisco’s Chronicle’s Carolyn Lochhead.

Question: Did Bill Clinton ever advocate “partial or total privatization of Social Security?” In fairness, Digby’s post let progressives enjoy a good solid cry; in response, some commenters blustered and yelled about the vast vile perfidy. But Lochhead’s report is very fuzzy, especially when she makes this very dumb claim: “Although their approaches differed, what Clinton said then and Bush is saying now—about the program's condition and what it will take to fix it—are strikingly similar.”

Please. Since Clinton made a formal proposal about Social Security during the period in question, we thought progressives might want to review what he actually proposed.

Clinton’s proposal was made in the 1999 State of the Union address. The next day, Amy Goldstein made some classic misstatements about Social Security in her front-page Washington Post news report. (“Social Security is expected to run out of money when the trust fund that pays retirees' checks is depleted in the year 2032.” Then as now, utterly hopeless.) But here is Goldstein’s account of Clinton’s actual proposal, in which he recommended how to use those looming federal surpluses.

Please note: The savings accounts Clinton proposed would have been in addition to regular Social Security benefits:

GOLDSTEIN (1/20/99): The largest part of the plan would pour nearly two-thirds of the federal surplus into Social Security over the next 15 years, and invest a portion of that money in the market. While shifting some money into stocks, this approach would satisfy liberals by leaving intact the program's basic character as a safety net that provides a guaranteed monthly retirement check to all Americans.

The other part of the initiative would create a new type of individual savings program, devoting $500 billion from the federal surplus to give most working people seed money to open their own retirement accounts. The government also would help match people's personal investments as they built up those accounts over time, giving more money to those with low incomes. This approach might satisfy GOP desires to rest more of the nation's retirement system on private savings accounts, though it would not go so far as to privatize the Social Security system itself.


The plan Clinton laid out is the most recent phase of an effort he began a year ago to find a way to safeguard the long-term future of Social Security—and to make reform of the nation's largest entitlement programs, including Medicare, a part of his legacy.

In last year's State of the Union address, he challenged Congress not to spend any of the budget surplus until the government dealt with Social Security, an idea resented by many Republicans who favor using at least a portion of the money for a tax cut. Clinton then began to try to galvanize public support to restructure the retirement system by convening a series of "town meetings" and a White House conference last month.

Started in the depths of the Depression in 1935, Social Security is expected to run out of money [sic] when the trust fund that pays retirees' checks [sic] is depleted in the year 2032. The program is funded through payroll taxes and right now has more money coming in than it pays out to retirees. But that will change once the baby boom generation begins retiring in about a decade.

With the shift of $2.7 trillion from the projected surplus to the trust fund, and the expected higher earnings from the stock market, the White House estimates the program would remain solvent until 2055.

Clinton said he would like to find ways to make the program last until 2075, but White House officials did not name any of the more painful steps that would almost certainly be required to do that, such as cutting benefits or making people wait longer to enter the program.

In fact, the White House plan would make the basic program more generous and presumably slightly more expensive. It would increase benefits for widows and eliminate a provision that now phases out Social Security payments for beneficiaries who continue to work and earn more than a specified amount.

The administration did not specify exactly how much money the government would give people for their private savings accounts, which would be funded using 11 percent of the budget surplus over the next 15 years. The basic idea is that the government would give a flat sum to everyone who decided to open an account. Then, trying to address liberal beliefs that the poor deserve more help, the program would create a sliding scale to match some or all of the personal money that people invested in their accounts.

Gene Sperling, Clinton's top economic aide, said that the program would not be available to those with the highest incomes but that most working families would qualify.

Even relatively liberal policy experts who praised the concept said it had a flaw. "My biggest concern is, how do you keep such a program going if the surplus goes away?" said Marilyn Moon, an Urban Institute economist and public trustee of the Social Security system.

Let’s review:

In the 1998 State of the Union, Clinton said the projected federal surpluses should be applied to Social Security’s long-range balance sheet. In this way, he blocked the House GOP’s proposal for a large tax cut.

In 1999, he made his full proposal: 62 percent of those federal surpluses would be used to strengthen the program’s finances, thus extending the life of Social Security by some twenty years. Some of that money would be invested in the stock market—but it would be invested as a federal fund under federal direction, not as part of individual “private accounts.” Other funds would be used to help citizens establish savings accounts—savings accounts which would operate in addition to their regular Social Security benefits, which would not be cut.

That was Clinton’s proposal for the use of those looming federal surpluses. After Chris Matthews sent George Bush to the White House, this new president had a different idea; he used those projected federal surpluses for his massive tax cuts. Whatever one thinks of Clinton’s proposal—Candidate Gore didn’t agree with several parts of the plan—the Clinton proposal was vastly different from anything Bush ever did.

Yesterday, Digby treated progressives to a good solid cry; in response, some commenters bellowed and wailed. Question: Does anyone know what progressives gain when we take this self-pitying route?

Who is Carolyn Lochhead: We’re not familiar with Lochhead’s work, although the piece which provided Digby’s “evidence” is hopelessly weak. That said: In 2009, a Daily Kos poster complained, in some detail, about Lochhead’s “history of articles that slant slyly to the right.”

“Carolyn Lochhead…misleads on Health Care Reform.” So said the Daily Kos headline. To review the piece, click here.

Special report: Any given Sunday!

PART 1—RULE BY CHURCH LADY (permalink): Jeff Zeleny almost seemed upset by the way the story has been told.

On the front page of yesterday’s New York Times, Zeleny reported that Indiana governor Mitch Daniels will not be running for president. According to Daniels, the idea was vetoed by his wife and by the couple’s four daughters.

Eventually, Zeleny provided a bit of context. He helped us see how this family’s story had been misreported—“in Indiana,” that is:

ZELENY (5/24/11): The Daniels family saw a glimpse of the spotlight when Cheri Daniels agreed to make a rare public speech at the spring dinner of the Indiana Republican Party. Her appearance touched off stories about the couple's divorce in 1993 and Mrs. Daniels's decision to move briefly to California with another man, whom she married in 1995. Two years later, she remarried Mr. Daniels.

In Indiana, Mr. Daniels has been portrayed as the father who raised his four daughters when Mrs. Daniels moved away. A review of the divorce file in Boone County Court showed that Mrs. Daniels tried to take her daughters, 7 to 13 at the time, to California, but that Mr. Daniels blocked her effort with an emergency appeal to the court.

He also tried to block her effort to buy a house, court records show, but a judge overruled his request. She moved back to Indianapolis and had joint custody of the children until the couple remarried.

In a statement on Sunday to The Indianapolis Star, Mr. Daniels sought to clarify that episode, saying they had raised the children together. ''The notion that Cheri ever did or would abandon her girls or parental duty is the reverse of the truth and absurd to anyone who knows her,'' he said.

This story has been wrongly portrayed “in Indiana”—or so it seemed from Zeleny’s account. In fact, Cheri Daniels only “moved briefly” to California when she divorced her husband in the early 1990s; she soon moved back to Indianapolis and helped him raise their girls. Topping off his reappraisal, Zeleny quoted Daniels defending his wife. The notion that she would abandon her girls is the “reverse of the truth,” he had said.

Reading Zeleny, you would have thought that this story was bungled by journalists “in Indiana.” But where did many people get the impression that Cheri Daniels abandoned the kids, apparently for three years? Uh-oh! Many people got that impression in a May 12 report by Jeff Zeleny! On that day, Zeleny had played Church Lady on the front page of this same New York Times.

Here’s how Zeleny told the story, all of thirteen days ago. Granted, the Timesman was “in Indiana” when he filed his report:

ZELENY (5/12/11): While much is known about Mr. Daniels in Republican circles, where he is viewed as a fiscally focused, budget-cutting, pragmatic-thinking conservative, there is one period of his life that has remained almost entirely private—until now.

He has been married twice—to the same wife.

Should he run, that chapter in his life would no doubt be picked over in public and become a part of the personal narrative that springs up around any serious candidate: in this case a three-year gap in their marriage in the 1990s, when she filed for divorce, moved to California with a new husband and left Mr. Daniels to raise their four daughters, then ages 8 to 14. She later returned and remarried him.

He has discussed it only once publicly, telling The Indianapolis Star in 2004: ''If you like happy endings, you'll love our story. Love and the love of children overcame any problems.''

Should Daniels run, this story “would no doubt be picked over in public,” Zeleny wrote, as he himself picked it over in public. That said, let’s review a contradiction:

“In Indiana, Mr. Daniels has been portrayed as the father who raised his four daughters when Mrs. Daniels moved away.” So clucked Zeleny, yesterday morning. He forgot to add a basic fact—that’s the way he himself told the story, just twelve days before!

But so it goes when the nation’s Church Ladies seize control of a White House campaign. The ladies have been clucking hard in recent weeks about the sins of the vile Cheri, who even carries a Frenchified name, a name which reeks of sweet perfume. Only naturally, Michelle Cottle has been leading the way, continuing her long campaign to succeed Cokie Roberts as establishment Washington’s official ranking Church Lady. But Church Ladies come in both genders these days—and they seem to be a bit slow to admit their own mistakes.

Yesterday, we uttered low mordant chuckles as we reviewed the way Zeleny adjusted his copy from two weeks before. But that’s how the Church Ladies play.

The Church Ladies love to stick their long noses into other folks’ underwear drawers. Beyond that, they love to make a campaign so dumb, so fatuous, so inane, that even they can find it intriguing. This low-IQ system has worked very poorly for liberals and Dems in the past several decades. But we liberals now seem to love the dumbness too, as we saw in yesterday’s Salon, when Justin Elliott authored this long, dumb report about Newt Gingrich’s jewels.

The dumbness of our political culture is a thing to behold—and a threat to the nation. That cultural dumbness got Clinton impeached; it then sent George Bush to the White House. But as pseudo-liberals have emerged from the woods in the wake of that latter disaster, we too have developed an obvious taste for The Dumb. Our editors seem to think that their liberal readers are dumb, and they rush to serve them piffle. This system will never work well for our side, but it feels very good going down.

Our political culture swims in The Dumb; The Dumb is now our cultural ruler. On any given Sunday, this fact becomes abundantly clear in the Washington Post’s Outlook section. This past Sunday, the section led with a tribute to The Dumb, as a silly TV producer compared the various Republican hopefuls to a long list of American sitcoms. But The Dumb appeared all through the high-profile section, as is true many weeks.

Any given Sunday, The Dumb rules the Post. This culture works poorly for progressive interests—and for America’s future.

Coming: Long on sitcoms, Bok on Stewart, and other great gifts to The Dumb