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Daily Howler: Russert bungled Social Security, as he has done through the years
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IT TAKES A VILLAGE BURGHER! Russert bungled Social Security, as he has done through the years: // link // print // previous // next //

DIGBY’S LAMENT: We thought Digby was quite eloquent in this recent, maddening post. We were struck by her frustration with the types of “hissy kabuki” which make up so much of our public discourse. Our view: This bad-faith discourse will prevail any time a middle-class democracy hands the reins of its public discourse to corporate-picked multimillionaires. Simply put: You simply can’t run a middle-class democracy with a millionaire press corps.

Why have these “hissy kabukis” persisted? In part, because high-profile liberal pundits allow it. They look away from this kind of kabuki—and they’ve done so for many years now. Their jobs are too good, too soft, too comfy, to jeopardize by tough, stinging comment. The people cited by Digby can say what they please. At the highest levels of our journalism, the village’s “liberals” won’t comment. (Paul Krugman excepted, of course.)

We liberals have to teach ourselves how to see the way our “mainstream spokesmen” often refuse to fight. Until we learn to see their compliance—until we describe their compliance, out loud—the bogus discussion that Digby laments will rule our discourse, our lives.

Final point: We’re reading a new book—you may have seen it reviewed—about the rise of kooky-conservative power. We don’t know when we’ve seen a book whose author seemed to work so hard to keep you from seeing the truth of his subject. Many liberals will work quite hard to keep their place inside the village. It’s maddening when that kabuki persists—but some of our best friend permit it.

By the way, here are some definitions of “burgher,” courtesy of American Heritage:
1) A citizen of a town or borough.
2) A comfortable or complacent member of the middle class.
3) A member of the mercantile class of a medieval European city.
In what appears below, we think of that comfort and complacency. And then, there’s that love of the mercantile.

Special report: Russert happens!

PART 2—IT TAKES A VILLAGE BURGHER: Tim Russert didn’t ask about climate change at Wednesday night’s Democratic debate. We had no time for a topic like that. But we did have time for these ruminations. To Russert, these things really mattered:

1) Russert found time to ask John Edwards (for the ten millionth time) about his troubling haircuts.

2) He found time to present the latest 24-style hypothetical—and to play “gotcha” with Hillary Clinton, employing an old Sean Hannity trick. (You get your guest to disagree with a quote. Then, you try to embarrass your guest when you reveal who said it!)

3) He found time to bore the world with a question (to Dennis Kucinich) about a municipal problem in Cleveland—a problem which occurred in Cleveland in 1978.

4) He found time to collect a Bible passage from each of the hopefuls—after leading with the latest RNC-scripted suggestion about the troubling lack of faith among these bad vile Democrats. (“Before we go, there’s been a lot of discussion about the Democrats and the issue of faith and values. I want to ask you a simple question...”)

“There’s been a lot of discussion about the Democrats and the issue of faith and values!” And yes, that’s true, there has been such discussion—among the nation’s pseudo-conservative hacks. But then, Russert has increasingly become a parody of a corporate-selected, multimillionaire mogul. And this is before we consider the bungled discussion he led Wednesday night about Social Security, his favorite topic—the topic on which he has misled the public, and roiled our politics. over the past many years.

How inept is our multimillionaire press corps? Let’s start with Russert’s introduction of this topic at Wednesday’s debate:
RUSSERT (9/26/07): And we’re back at Dartmouth College talking to the Democrats. I want to talk about Social Security and Medicare.

The chairman of the Federal Reserve, the head of the Government Accountability Office, have both said that the number of people in America on Social Security and Medicare is going to double in the next 20 years—there are now 40 million; it’s going to go to 80 million—and that if nothing is done, we’ll have to cut benefits in half or double the taxes. That is their testimony.

Senator Biden, in order to prevent that, would you be willing to consider certain steps? For example, back in 1983, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, Patrick Moynihan and Bob Dole got together and changed the retirement age. It’s going to be going up to 67 in a gradual increase.

Right now, you pay tax for Social Security on your first $97,500 worth of income. Why not tax the entire income of every American? And if you do that, you’ll guarantee the solvency of Social Security farther than the eye can see.
“I want to talk about Social Security and Medicare,” Russert said at the start of this segment. And then, just like that, for whatever reason, he switched his field to a (largely bungled) discussion of Social Security only. The absurdity of this approach should be obvious; everyone agrees that the real problem with future entitlements concerns the costs of Medicare, not of Social Security. Indeed, the former head of the federal reserve had said this to Russert just three days before the self-impressed burgher led Wednesday evening’s debate. On Sunday morning’s Meet the Press, Alan Greenspan laid out the shape of the entitlement problem, as even the Greenspans now limn it:
RUSSERT (9/23/07): Do you believe either political party has stepped up to the crisis we face with Social Security and Medicare in the coming years?

GREENSPAN: I do not.

RUSSERT: How big a crisis will that be?

GREENSPAN: Social Security is not a big crisis. We are approximately 2 percent points of payroll short over the very long run. It's a significant closing of the gap, but it's doable, and doable in any number of ways.

Medicare is a wholly different issue... We're going to double the size of the retired population, and by all of the analysis I go through in the book, it's very evident to me that we are not able to actually deliver on the Medicare we are promising...
The problem lies with Medicare, Greenspan said, voicing an utterly standard analysis. But for whatever reason, Russert quickly turned Wednesday’s segment into a discussion of Social Security. He blathered ahead with his typically useless data about the number of future recipients—and about the typical age of death back in the mid-1930s. None of these facts are even slightly relevant to a real discussion of Social Security, as pundits have made clear many times, especially during 2005, when Bush’s privatization plan hit the deck. (Duh. These useless facts are already part of the future funding formulas!) But Russert rolled out his standard old cant—and drove the discussion away from Medicare, the actual source of future problems. Why did he do this? We have no idea; there seems to be no partisan reason. But we’ll offer a suggestion: Inevitably, this is the type of self-impressed, bungled work a middle-class democracy will get—if its lets its major news orgs be run by a mogul elite.

You might call this Nantucket-style journalism. The deeply self-impressed Burgher Russert provides such work in spades.

Because yes, Russert has done this forever. Back in January 2000, he monopolized a Republican debate with his own set of facts about Social Security, blathering on until Alan Keyes heroically told him to shut his big yap. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/8/04, with a link to real-time reporting.) That summer, he and Joe Klein staged a savage and stupid discussion, trashing Candidate Gore in the strongest terms because he wouldn’t go along with Bush’s privatization (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/7/07). In such discussions down through the years, Russert has sometimes been overblown and inept; often, he has been openly partisan. Inevitably, he has adopted the positions favored by Republicans, and by upper-class journalistic elites. (By general acknowledgment, wealthy media elites had come to favor privatization by the time of Campaign 2000.)

But Russert thoroughly bungled this discussion Wednesday night; indeed, he had created a pointless discussion as soon as he turned a segment about “Social Security and Medicare” into a discussion of Social Security alone. Beyond that, a thoroughly jumbled discussion ensued—so jumbled that it was basically useless even as a debate about SS alone. Basic question: How many viewers knew what the candidates meant when they kept talking, without explanation, about “raising the cap” and “lifting the ceiling?” Very, very few, we would guess. And Russert made no attempt to clarify any of this as the long discussion unfolded. He was too busy looking for ways to spring his “gotchas,” to recite his irrelevant data.

Honesty forces us to note that some of the candidates were quite hopeless too. Most hopelessly, here is Obama, joining Russert in reciting a piece of pure RNC cant:
OBAMA (9/23/07): My personal view is that lifting the cap is much preferable than the other options that are available. But what’s critical is to recognize that there is a potential problem.

As I travel around Iowa and New Hampshire I meet young people who don’t think Social Security is going to be there for them. They don’t believe it’s going to be there for them.

And I think it’s important for us, in addition to getting our fiscal house in order, to acknowledge as Democrats that there may be a problem that we’ve got to take on.
There are no words for how awful that was. For the most part, young people “don’t think Social Security is going to be there for them” because they’ve been deceived, for year after year, by an army of pseudo-conservative dissemblers who are given free rein by our sad, hapless press corps. But there was Obama reinforcing this framework—and Edwards quickly jumped in to support what Obama had said. (Three cheers for Richardson, who noted the very conservative growth estimates which produce Social Security’s small projected shortfalls.)

Greenspan explained it to Russert on Sunday. Social Security is easy to solve; Medicare is the real future problem. But so what? Russert has become a pure buffoon in the years since he was air-lifted off to Nantucket. He now presents the eternal image of the pompous, uninformed, self-righteous burgher. He knows that Dems should be more godly. And he knows what to pay for a haircut.

After the debate, another store-bought Nantucket denizen loudly asked college kids in his audience if they thought they’d ever get SS. But then, Chris Matthews is a long-standing numbskull too—and he pummeled Clinton in his post-debate hour, as he has done to Major Dems ever since his patron, Jack Welch, allowed him to become a “Lost Boy of the Sconset.” What does a middle-class democracy get when it hands control of its public discussion to a bunch of corporate-picked multimillionaires? Russert’s performance was gruesome this Wednesday—and Matthews was there with Howard Fineman to fawn to this great island man.

WE DON’T KNOW IF THIS IS ACCURATE: For the record, we don’t know who said this, or when:
RUSSERT: The chairman of the Federal Reserve, the head of the Government Accountability Office, have both said that the number of people in America on Social Security and Medicare is going to double in the next 20 years—there are now 40 million; it’s going to go to 80 million—and that if nothing is done, we’ll have to cut benefits in half or double the taxes. That is their testimony.
Does Russert refer to Bernanke and Walker? We can’t find where they made the statements Russert gloomily paraphrases. But surely, no one has said such a thing about the fate of SS alone. Russert staged a hopeless discussion. But how about an occasional cite when we’re offered such high-powered “testimony?”