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Print view: Progressives can't build a winning movement with flyweights like Maddow in charge
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HOW TO BUILD A LOSING MOVEMENT! Progressives can’t build a winning movement with flyweights like Maddow in charge: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JUNE 3, 2011

The harsh bigotry of high expectations: Aw heck. Let’s talk about something constructive for once—not that it leads anywhere.

On May 28, the New York Times published this front-page report about the best age for kindergarten. According to a range of experts, many kids are being pushed into kindergarten even though they’re just too young.

(Headline: “Too Young for Kindergarten? Tide Turning Against 4-Year-Olds.”)

This morning, a K-12 art teacher from Gotham offers a sane reaction:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (6/3/11): Here's a simple solution to the problem of too-young children in kindergarten: Restore kindergarten to what it was before we went off the rails in this country, sucking the joy and life out of learning and school by viewing education solely through the narrow lens of tests, tests and more tests.

The fact that parents of means are choosing to hold their children back until they are as old as 6 proves that kindergarten has morphed into first grade. Four-and-a-half and 5-year-olds are simply developmentally unable to perform the tasks that are being asked of them.

Kindergartners' days should be filled with learning and fun that is accomplished through music, dance and movement, art-making, storytelling, read-alouds, pretend, dress up, blocks, play of all varieties, a multitude of science explorations, and, yes, a nap.

Such kindergartners will emerge well prepared for first grade, and guess what? They will do better on standardized tests down the road.

According to this teacher, some kids are being asked to do too much from their very first days in school. They are “developmentally unable to perform the tasks that are being asked of them.”

What happens to kids who get treated this way? The Times’ second letter comes from a CUNY professor:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (6/3/11): What is so sacred about the academic year? There is sufficient anecdotal evidence that the October-, November- and December-birthday kindergarten children may be at a disadvantage and become so frustrated that they ''turn off'' school at a very young age. Children of this age develop at different levels, not on a straight path.

In the past, admissions to, and promotions in, elementary school were two semesters a year. In this system there would be opportunities to advance by half a year, and if a student needed to be held back, only one term, not a full year, would be lost.

If children are asked to do too much, they may “become so frustrated that they ‘turn off’ school at a very young age.”

In our experience teaching in Baltimore, this sort of thing happens all the time with kids from low-literacy backgrounds, even with older children. They are constantly asked to read books they can’t yet read, to do math they can’t yet do. They become frustrated. They’re embarrassed; they cry. What do you think you’d do?

From a million miles away, journalists, experts and candidates have often prescribed “raising standards.” They would make the work harder for these kids. Or something—it’s never real clear.

In our experience, they do this from many miles away, not knowing what they do.

Visit our incomparable archives: In her Los Angeles high school, Gabriela was asked to do too much. For our five-part treatment of a superb news report, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/1/06.

Special report: In search of a winning movement!

PART 4—HOW TO BUILD A LOSING MOVEMENT (permalink): This week’s pitiful Meet the Press did produce one good outcome. It was good to see the Post’s Ruth Marcus get battered around.

By name!

During the program’s discussion of Medicare, Marcus played all the scripted cards. Quite plainly, she said Democrats have engaged in “Medi-scare” in opposing the Ryan plan. “Sadly,” this approach worked in the recent New York House race, she “regretted to inform” David Gregory.

Marcus never bothered explaining what was wrong with Democrats’ claims about Ryan’s plan. We were simply told that they were dissembling, just as Bill Clinton did in the mid-1990s. (This too is a bogus, scripted claim—but it rolled off Marcus’ tongue.) Most egregiously, Marcus issued these scripts from one of the “liberal” seats in the four-pundit panel. This gave the impression that everyone must agree that the Dems are dissembling again.

That said, Marcus has always been a mess when it comes to fiscal issues. This time, though, she got smoked, by several liberal pundits.

Hurrah! Steve Benen wrote Hurrah! Steve Benen wrote this clear, accurate post about Sunday’s Medicare segment. Benen even named Marcus by name, assigning her the featured role in the “soul-crushing discussion.” Paul Krugman then quoted a chunk from Benen’s piece, and Marcus got named once again.

There was more to come.

On Wednesday, Marcus swung back into action, fancying herself a dramatist. As these Dowd-chasers often do, she offered this “imaginary conversation” between Obama and Ryan. This practice almost guarantees that no one will have the slightest idea what point the pundit is trying to make. That said, Marcus seemed to make all kinds of weird suggestions in her deathless one-act play. In response, Benen smacked her by name once again. So did Jonathan Chait.

Amazingly, this is unusual practice. Marcus is a major Washington press corps insider. She’s a fixture at the Washington Post, a newspaper which has traditionally given good jobs at good pay to many career liberal writers. Through most of the past twenty years, people like Marcus were free to churn any conservative bullroar they pleased, knowing that our liberal careerists would politely look away.

Nor has this egregious practice been confined to big stars at the Post. Marcus has always been awful on fiscal matters, but then again, so was Tim Russert, the long-time host of Meet the Press. Russert specialized in scripted misstatements about Social Security; he spewed these misstatements around for a decade. But Meet the Press builds press corps careers. When did you see your fiery heroes challenge the gong-shows of Tim?

(Russert was recruited for his journalistic career by right-wing CEO Jack Welch. Liberals agreed not to say this.)

At any rate, it was a very good thing this week when Marcus got smacked around by name. Progressives can’t build a winning movement by deferring to players who undermine the public’s grasp of budget issues. Does Marcus know how wrong she has been? We don’t have the slightest idea. But liberals have to learn to kick up at these high-ranking players.

Marcus is awful on Medicare. But then again, so is Rachel Maddow, our latest progressive TV star. You can’t build a winning movement this way.

What has been wrong with Maddow’s work? Let’s return to what Chuck Schumer said in the one sane segment on Sunday’s Meet the Press.

With unusual clarity, Schumer said several major things about the Medicare debate. He said the Republicans, through Ryan’s plan, would end Medicare as we know it. In this key part of his discussion, he explained what the Dems want to do:

SCHUMER (5/29/11): There are three choices:

One is to do nothing. One is to preserve the benefits but change the delivery systems and not let some of the providers, like the drug companies, get away with so much. And one is to end Medicare as we know it. Democrats are in the second one, Republicans are on the third one. Until Mitch McConnell abandons the third one, we are not going to get a budget deficit agreement. It's that simple.

And I got, was in touch with Bill Clinton last night. He agrees completely with what I said. There's no difference between Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Steny Hoyer, Chuck Schumer, Senate and House Democrats. The difference is between us and Republicans.

There are three choices on Medicare, Schumer said. Republicans want to end the program as we know it. Democrats want to “preserve the benefits but change the delivery systems and not let some of the providers, like the drug companies, get away with so much.”

All big Democrats want to do that, he said—from Obama and Clinton on down.

The fact that Democrats want to do that doesn’t mean their approach is correct, of course. On the merits, would it be better to leave Medicare as it is? We’d love to hear that question discussed by people who know what they’re talking about—by Paul Krugman or Dean Baker, let’s say. Or by Robert Reich, who briefly discussed this matter on last evening’s Last Word, saying the exact same things Schumer said in that clip.

In what ways is Medicare entangled with our deficit problems? Do we actually have a deficit problem? Should we just return to the Clinton tax rates? We’d love to hear such questions discussed on the merits—but you don’t get that from Maddow.

What do we get on the Maddow program? In the last two weeks, we’ve gotten a series of silly discussions in which Maddow seems to posit two choices about Medicare, not Schumer’s three. According to Maddow’s apparent framework, Democrats can vote to kill the program, or they can vote to leave it completely alone. Maddow has shown very little awareness of the third choice Schumer described. Nor does she seem to know that Schumer was right in his remark about party agreement. Rightly or wrongly, major Democrats do seem to agree on the approach Schumer described—an approach in which benefits remain unchanged while costs of the program are lowered.

Maddow has staged a series of clueless discussions in the past week. Serious liberals and progressives should be angry to see such fly-weight discussions conducted by Our Own Rhodes Scholar.

How clueless have Maddow’s discussions been? Consider what happened last Wednesday night, one day after the Democrats won that New York House election.

Maddow was clueless, as always. First, she interviewed Kathy Hochul, who had won that special election. To the extent that she was asked, Hochul basically voiced the same view Schumer would later express:

HOCHUL (5/25/11): I think [Ryan’s] plan scared voters before I even was on the scene. You know what? The idea of breaking the promise that we made to our seniors over 45 years ago doesn’t sit well with people. People paid into this program since their high school job. It’s not a charity program.

Now I understand the need to get the underlying costs driving health care up under control. But that does not mean you touch the beneficiaries. It means you go after the underlying cost of health care. And that’s another whole topic and I have some ideas on that as well, as do thoughtful people in Washington.

Maddow didn’t ask for details. But soon, she was speaking to Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), whose rhetoric regarding Medicare she lavishly praised. Maddow asked a fairly clueless question—a question in which she seemed to say she had spotted some moles. In reply, Israel advanced the same position Schumer would later advance:

MADDOW: You have been—you have not only been on message, you have helped define the Democratic message on this. When I asked him about Medicare today, Senator Reid volunteered had Democrats had found lots to cut from Medicare in health reform.

Your colleague in the House, Steny Hoyer, said Medicare is on the table. Former President Clinton at an event with Paul Ryan telling Paul Ryan to call him, saying that Democrats should feel free to go after Medicare themselves. He hopes they won’t feel constrained in doing that.

How is the whole message discipline thing coming along among Democrats on this?

ISRAEL: When it comes to terminating Medicare, there’s no daylight between any Democrat. The Republicans began their negotiations with the end of Medicare. We will not talk about the end of Medicare.

The problem with the Republicans is that they began their negotiations with the end of Medicare. We will not sit at the table and talk to them about the end of Medicare.

Now are there things that we can do? Yes. Let me give you one example. Why aren’t we authorizing the secretary of health and human services to negotiate volume discounts for pharmaceuticals in the Medicare program, just like the secretary of veteran affairs does? Those are common sense steps that we can do to take down costs.

The Republicans won’t do that because they like to protect the pharmaceutical industry, just like they like to protect the big oil industry. They want to terminate Medicare in order to fund tax cuts for big oil.

So there are common sense steps that we can discuss. But, again, forgive me for being repetitive, but I am for message discipline—we as Democrats, we are Democrats because we promote and defend Medicare. They are Republicans because they want to terminate Medicare. And that is the dividing line.

For good or for ill, that’s the Schumer line. There will be no beneficiary cuts—no talk about ending Medicare (as we know it). But there are common-sense ways to bring down costs, like getting rid of the GOP’s kickback to Big Pharma.

Is this the right approach on the merits? We’d like to see Krugman or Baker asked. Is this the best approach on the politics? That’s a decent question too, depending on who you ask. In fact, there are many good questions a host might ask about the unfolding Medicare fight. It’s just that Maddow doesn’t seem up to the task of staging such discussions.

What did she do last Wednesday night? She helped us locate the traitors! In this remarkably dumb presentation, she cherry-picked from an interview with Nancy Pelosi, making it seem that she stood opposed to Reid on this matter. And then, she zeroed in on the traitor Clinton, who had said a few pointless words to Ryan that day, in passing:

MADDOW: Republicans are trying to kill Medicare. Republicans are trying to get rid of it. They are trying to force old people to buy private insurance instead. Americans like Medicare. Older Americans like Medicare. Younger Americans like Medicare. Older Americans like the idea of younger Americans having Medicare too when they get old.

Asked recently if Democrats in the House had an alternate plan for Medicare as a response to the Paul Ryan plan, Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, responded by saying yes. Yes, she said, we House Democrat have a plan in response to Paul Ryan. We have a plan, she said. It’s called Medicare.

As you just heard from Harry Reid, the Democrats’ leader in the Senate, the message from him is more nuanced. Even on the day that he forced Republican senators onto the record to vote for or against the wildly unpopular Paul Ryan plan, if you are pro-Medicare and you’re worried about whether Democrats are going to give up this "We love Medicare, they want to kill it" message-in-the-bottle Christmas present that Paul Ryan and the Republicans have just given to Democrats, I want you to consider one other thing. Consider this exchange caught on tape by ABC News today backstage at a Washington, D.C. event.

The two players here are Paul Ryan himself, and Democratic former president Bill Clinton. Watch this.

(Start of video clip)

RYAN: Hey, Paul Ryan.

CLINTON: How are you?

RYAN: I’m doing great.

CLINTON: Good to see you.

RYAN: Good to see you, too.

CLINTON: I’m glad we won this race in New York. But I hope the Democrats don’t use it as an excuse to do nothing on Medicare.

RYAN: My guess is it’s going to sink into paralysis is what’s going to happen. And you know the math. I mean, it’s just—we knew we were putting ourselves out there. But you’ve got to start this. You’ve got to get out there. You’ve got to get this thing moving.

CLINTON: If you ever want to talk about it, give me a call.

RYAN: Yes, I’ll give you a call. Thanks.

(End of video clip)

MADDOW: I’ll give you a call. Yeah, I want to talk about it. Let’s get in cahoots.

Mr. Ryan explaining that he, and maybe Bill Clinton, in his words, just need to get this thing moving.

To watch this whole segment, click this.

Was Reid’s approach “more nuanced” than Pelosi’s? Not really—unless you cherry-pick Pelosi’s remarks in the way Maddow did. (For a full account of what Pelosi said, just click here.) Meanwhile, Maddow’s sense that Clinton had perhaps been overheard betraying the tribe struck us as surpassingly dumb. (For ourselves, we were most struck by Ryan’s first words, which suggested that he had never met Clinton before.)

In the eight days since she aired that report, Maddow has authored a series of clueless attempts to discuss the whole Medicare question. She keeps presenting two choices, not three; according to Maddow, Democrats can join Republicans in voting to “kill Medicare” or they can leave the program alone. But Maddow is hopelessly over her head in her current nightly assignment. She was sold to us by the corporate boys as Our Very Own Rhodes Scholar. But she isn’t up to the task of discussing Medicare, on the merits or on the politics.

Is the Democratic approach right on the merits? Are they taking the best approach on the politics? We would love to see those discussions. But Maddow isn’t up to the task. She is vastly over her head in her current assignment.

(At least she doesn’t goose-step around calling Laura Ingraham a “slut.” Big Ed will be back on Monday!)

Above all, Maddow’s a self-adoring child—and a superb self-promoter. She’s very good at building a clubhouse atmosphere; gullible liberals get the feeling that they’ve been invited to join a very cool club. But once we get inside that clubhouse, the discussions are very dim.

It was good to see Marcus name-called this week. Maddow didn’t do that, of course. She likes to hand us silly shit about what “the Beltway press” are doing—with no names mentioned, of course. She will name-call big players like Marcus when the purple cow flies past the moon.

In our view, Maddow has turned out to be a wasted draft pick. Progressives can’t build a winning movement with flyweights like this at the helm.