FOR OPENERS: Yikes. What a week!
UNIVERSAL NON-COVERAGE: To our ear, Paul Krugmans rhetoric is a bit shrill as he whacks Obama this morning. But Krugman is certainly right on the facts concerning Obamas health plan. This brings us back to the way the press corps novelizes our White House campaigns—forces its preferred narrative frameworks onto our White House races.
In his opening sentence, Kruggers states a fairly obvious fact. However you might judge its merits, Obamas health plan wouldnt cover everyone. Indeed, its a fairly obvious difference. In their own health care plans, Clinton and Edwards require all adults to purchase insurance; Obama does not. (He does mandate that all children be covered.) Everyone has understood this fact since these plans were released.
Today, lets not discuss the merits of these health care proposals; lets restrict ourselves to those basic facts. And lets discuss the way the press corps hammers its unyielding frameworks around our presidential campaigns.
In the last Democratic debate, Obama made his standard claim: Hillary Clinton refuses to give straight answers to tough questions. In rebuttal, Clinton criticized the fact that Obamas health plan doesnt cover everyone. When she stated this fairly obvious point, this exchange occurred:
OBAMA (11/15/07): Well, let's talk about health care right now because the fact of the matter is that I do provide universal health care. The only difference between Senator Clinton's health care plan and mine is that she thinks the problem for people without health care is that nobody has mandated—forced—them to get health care.
That's not what I'm seeing around Nevada. What I see are people who would love to have health care. They, they desperately want it. But the problem is they can't afford it, which is why we have put forward legislation we've put forward a plan that makes sure that it is affordable to get health care that is as good as the health care that I have as a member of Congress.
WOLF BLITZER: All right.
OBAMA: That's what the American people are looking for. That's what they deserve. And that's why I intend to provide as president of the United States.
CLINTON: Wolf, I—Wolf, I cannot let that go unanswered. You know, the most important thing here is to level with the American people. Senator Obama's health care plan does not cover everyone. He starts with children, which is admirable—I helped to create the Children's Health Insurance Program back in 1997. I'm totally committed—
OBAMA: That's not true, Wolf.
CLINTON: —to making sure every single child is covered. He does not mandate the kind of coverage that I do.
Obamas statements here were striking. In a year when Dems have stood against torture, Obama has to torture the facts pretty hard to claim, I do provide universal health care. Having criticized Clinton—as he endlessly does—for failing to give the public straight answers, he made a fairly odd factual claim. His statement didnt seem to be true.
Result? Wolf Blitzer stared into space, pretending that nothing had happened. Senator Obama, we're going to have a lot more on health care, he said. But the harried host never returned to Obamas claim—never asked Obama to defend, explain, or flesh out his statement. Meanwhile, did you see any subsequent fact-checking of Obamas claim? No. Of course not. You did not. In the vast sweep of the mainstream press, such fact-checking didnt occur.
Why didnt your mainstream press corps react to Obamas factual statement? Surely, everyone except Kevin Drum understands the answer to that. The reason for the silence is plain; the press corps continues to work from a favorite old script, one they have no plan to abandon. In this time-honored narrative, the Clintons—and Gore—are the worlds biggest liars. And under the long-standing rules of this game, everyone else can say any damn thing they want—as long as it makes the Dem front-runner a liar. George Bush played under these very same rules at that first, crucial Bush-Gore debate.
Does anyone except career liberal writers fail to grasp how this system works? Presumably no—and yet we liberals and Dems have allowed this punishing, dishonest narrative to shape our discussions for the past fifteen years. At that first Bush-Gore debate, for example, Bush endlessly misstated the facts—calling Gore a liar as he did so! I'm beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator, Bush said at one point, responding to one of Gores accurate statements. It's fuzzy math! But host Jim Lehrer stared into space, making no attempt to challenge or clarify. And by the next day, the press corps was rummaging through the transcript, warning us about the places where Gore had allegedly said something wrong. They had their script—and had no plan to drop it. That very same script was acted out as Obama, challenging Clintons truthfulness, tortured elementary facts.
This punishing framework has driven our lives for the past fifteen years. (Were in Iraq because of it.) And yet, good career liberal still look away, pretending they dont understand this. The Washington press corps exhausts itself writing 3000-word essays on health care, they say. When journos are forced to talk about trivia, they do so as a way to avoid saying who has what it takes.
By the way: After Obama made that odd statement, did you see any of those 3000-word reports about health care? No. Of course not. You did not. In the real world, your press corps refuses to function that way. It just keeps promoting the stories it loves. And even now, in its Very Favorite Narrative, its Clinton who is always truth-challenged.
Thats the press corps favorite narrative. The favorite narrative of career liberals goes like this: Oh, kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss! Now that Ive proven that I wont tell the truth, cant I get into The Club?
THIS WAS PERMITTED AS WELL: On October 3, 2000, Bush was allowed to say any damn thing he pleased—as long as his statements made Gore a big liar. But then, this remains the standard procedure. For example, here was Edwards, calling Clinton untruthful, at the start of the Russert/Williams debate, the one where hopefuls were prompted by the moderators, all night long, to pig-pile on rhymes-with-bitch Clinton:
RUSSERT (10/30/07): Senator Edwards, you issued a press release, your campaign, and the headline is: "Edwards to Clinton: American People Deserve the Truth, Not More Double-Talk on Iran." What double-talk are you suggesting that Senator Clinton's been engaging in on Iran?
EDWARDS: Well, first, good evening. It's wonderful to be here. Let me talk a little bit about what I see as the choice that voters have.
And then finally, she said in our last debate that she was against any changes on Social Security—benefits, retirement age or raising the cap on the Social Security tax. But apparently it's been reported that she said privately something different than that. And I think the American people, given this historic moment in our country's history, deserve a president of the United States that they know will tell them the truth, and won't say one thing one time and something different at a different time.
Say what? Clinton had said, in the prior debate, that she was against any changes on Social Security? By any normal standard, that was simply untrue; no, in fact, she hadnt said that. But so what? Neither Russert nor his trophy-wife, Williams, asked Edwards to explain or defend his remark. Indeed: After Edwards made this apparent misstatement, heres what his enabler said:
RUSSERT (continuing directly): Do you stand behind the word "double-talk?
EDWARDS: I do.
If you call the Dem front-runner dishonest, whatever you say is permitted to stand. This narrative has ruled our discourse since 1992. Career liberals still agree not to notice.
By the way, did you see any 3000-word reports about Social Security generated by that exchange? We did not. Were reliably told that they start to kick in thirty minutes after dropping your acid.
DONT CONSIDER THE SOURCE: In this mornings Post, cartoonist Tom Toles goes after the way his paper reported those endless, bogus tales about Obama—bogus tales in which people pretend that Obama is a secret Muslim, a tool in a Muslim conspiracy. We dont entirely agree with prevailing critiques of this Perry Bacon front-page report. Lets go through the pros and the cons.
The problems began with the headline, as rendered in our hard-copy Post: Obamas Muslim Connections Fuel Rumors About His Faith. (Obama, of course, is a Christian.) Though a phrase like bogus tales would likely be better than rumors, wed have to say this: The Post may well have assumed that people would know that these rumors were false. In his second paragraph—his second sentence, in fact—Bacon said that Obamas a Christian. The Post may have assumed that people would know, from the start, that these rumors didnt have a foundation.
That said, this article is notably weak, in ways which begin right in that headline—a headline which puts the best possible face on the generation of these stupid, false stories. Yes, these particular stories have afflicted Obama because of his Muslim connections (an exceptionally poor choice of words). But the formulation in that headline puts these false stories in the most innocent light. It suggests that theres some sort of rational reason for the propagation of these bogus tales—that its somehow happening in an innocent way, a natural misunderstanding. It ignores the existence of the crackpot, dishonest underworld of the kooky-conservative right—a world which papers like the Post have ignored for the past many years.
Earth to the Post: Theres a crackpot, kooky-conservative world which has been generating crazy, fake tales for a very long time. Some of this is done by pure crackpots; they may even believe the things they say. But some of it is done by hustlers who are simply trying to stampede the crackpots. At any rate, this has gone on for a very long time—back to the days when crackpots were being dragged onto cable TV to say that the first lady murdered a whole bunch of people. Shamefully, the Post looked away from that outrage back then. Eight years later, the Post continues to act like a rube in the face of these latest deceptions.
In fact, this kooky-con deception machine acts in various ways. It spreads inane claims about policy matters. (If we lower tax rates, we get more revenue!) It says Democratic leaders are murderers—or secret Muslims, in the grip of a troubling world conspiracy. But in large part, this isnt an innocent process—and it has gone on for a very long time. The Post worked hard, in yesterdays piece, to pretend that it still doesnt know this. (We note that the Post now has a tougher, sharper, more appropriate headline atop its on-line report.)
Others are less timid—and more informative. In The Nation, Chris Hayes dug into this right-wing smear machine in a recent report. Yesterday, though, the Post played it dumb—and safe. Meanwhile, Toles wants the Post to call these bogus tales lies. But it isnt clear that thats true either. The kinds of crackpots who keep shaping our discourse often believe their crackpot tales. They do so with the Posts acquiescence—and this has gone on a long time.
STILL ACCEPTABLE AFTER ALL THESE YEARS: Though it isnt just the Washington Post, after all. The entire, spineless upper-end press corps has rolled over for these crackpots, for years. Example: This exchange, involving our greatest straight-talker, occurred on Tuesday nights Charlie Rose:
JOHN MCCAIN (11/27/07): I have to be frank. [History] will not treat this administration kindly on climate change or spending. I cant tell you the number of times I called over there and begged that they veto these spending bills. And what it did was it turned off our base. Our Republican base became disenchanted. Weve presided over the largest increase in the size of government since the Great Society, and we didnt pay for it. And I think—
ROSE: We didnt pay for it because we had a tax cut that did not give us the revenue?
MCCAIN: Tax cuts—tax cuts increase revenues. The tax cuts, the revenues increased because of it. The spending outpaced the tax cuts. By—well, ask David Walker, the head of the Government Accountability Office. Trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities. But what we needed to do was have the president veto these bills. And the tipping point, the tipping point in everything in life was the Bridge to Nowhere...
McCain told Rose that he had to be frank. Seconds later, our greatest straight-talker rattle a standard crackpot claim. And he flipped his historical stance in the process. In Campaign 2000, McCain aggressively opposed the Bush tax cuts because they were fiscally irresponsible.
But then, you also saw one of our highest-end journalists acting as if this made perfect sense. Rose didnt question the ludicrous thing this straight-talking solon had told him. Nor did he challenge McCains giant flip-flop; that just isnt part of the narrative. Indeed, people like Rose have accepted this sort of lunacy for many years. McCains claim comes from the deepest nether-world of utterly crackpot pseudo-conservatism. But so what? On Tuesday, our highest-end journalist didnt say boo when our greatest straight-talker talked crap.
AN UNFORTUNATE MOMENT: We were thrilled to see Naomi Klein on Countdown last night. But before she appeared, an unfortunate moment occurred as Keith previewed her segment:
OLBERMANN (11/29/07): The Iraq war as economic reset, as described by our guest, the author of The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein. And Paris Hilton finally responds to the misquoted story that suggested she was taking up the cause of drunken elephants in Africa. Just when you thought she couldnt make a bigger fool out of herself, she does. These stories ahead...
This has long been this programs blind spot. Good lord, Keith! Just read what you said!
For the record, the Post finally reviewed The Shock Doctrine on Sunday. The piece was apparently written in crayon, in an area sand box. [Klein] goes so far as to suggest that economists and policymakers are willing to deliberately precipitate crises to push their agendas, the shocked reviewer says at one point. Suggests? She pretty much comes out and says it! At any rate, were quickly assured that Kleins claims are overstated—indeed, that shes often palpably unfair. (Argued examples are notably absent.) But dont worry! Despite its limitations, The Shock Doctrine is a valuable addition to the corpus of popular books that have attempted to rethink the big ideas of our post-Cold War age. So it all works out well in the end.
When we returned to the Post after four days last week, we were struck by how childish its work often is. (This review was one example.) Increasingly, this is a D-plus, C-minus newspaper, a throwback to the famous old days when gentlemen from the finest families killed time in academes greatest halls.
Special report: Flat earth liberal!
BE SURE TO READ EACH THRILLING EPISODE: Kevin Drum limned Halperins silly piece—and proved hes a true Flat Earth Liberal:
PART 1: Nothing has changed, Kevin says. But then, hes a true Flat Earth Liberal. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/27/07.
PART 2: Pundits avoid saying which hopefuls best? Spoken like a true Flat Earth Liberal! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/28/07.
PART 3: Sadly, Halperin cant seem to kick his life-long addiction to narrative See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/29/07.
In Part 4, we note the obvious: This press corps just cant discern character.
PART 4—A SOUL MAN: Perhaps luckily, we couldnt find our copy of What It Takes; it may even be that we never owned it. But Mark Halperin is most likely right about one thing; the thesis of Richard Ben Cramers book is [most likely] flawed. In his lengthy 1992 effort, Cramer looked at six different men who ran for the White House in 1988. And he adopted a massive conceit; he acted as if he could figure out which of them had what it makes to be president. We think thats a very dangerous notion—especially in a journalistic world which is so massively driven by script. Wouldnt we all be better off if journalists set their sites a bit lower? If they did try to write reports about health care? If they tried to report what a Big Pol has said? If they dropped the attempts at soul-gazing, at which they have so often failed?
That said, how good is Cramer at sniffing out character? Thats where the irony starts. In 1988, after all, Al Gore staged a run for the White House—and Cramer was pretty sure, based on one interview, that Gore didnt have what it takes. Indeed, by the time Campaign 2000 rolled around, Cramer seemed to have gotten himself a snootful as he told Gore biographer David Maraniss that, among other things, Gore wasnt even an interesting liar. (This was all based on one car-ride interview in Iowa, more than ten years before.) Cramer, the giant of character insight, seemed to have the scripts down cold—the scripts which were now driving the coverage of Campaign 2000. Indeed, he sounded a bit like David Broder as he complained about the way Gore had made him listen to boring policy talk. In this passage from The Prince of Tennessee, Maraniss relates what Cramer told him about that ancient car ride:
MARANISS (page 225): It was an interview doubleheader, with Jules Witcover, the political columnist and author, also crammed in the back seat. Witcover went first. I dont remember what Jules asked him, but Gore talked about his plan to reshape a missile system, Cramer recounted. Gore was so proud of himself and to him that was interesting. It struck Cramer that Gore went on and on, never considering the fact that he could talk about that subject forever and it was never gonna make a line in Jules column—but still he wouldnt shut up.
Isnt that sad? Gore went on and on and wouldnt shut up, thereby boring poor Richard Ben Cramer.
What lesson do we draw from Cramers rant? Just this: If this press corps has accomplished one thing in the past twenty years, it has displayed its stunning lack of skill at discerning character. Eight years ago, they were quite sure who had it! People like Cramer were ranting to Maraniss about what a big liar (and bore) Gore was. Meanwhile, they went on—and on; and on; and on—about Bradley and McCain, the Twin Authentics, one of whom is now telling the world that if you cut tax rates, you get extra revenue. And then, they bonded with Candidate Bush; they told us how plain-spoken he was. And oh yes! They all knew Bush had shown bold leadership when he suggested privatization of Social Security—and they knew that Gore was the worlds biggest *sshole when he said that it wasnt a good idea. They seemed extremely sure that they knew who had what it takes—and they were very sure who didnt. Today, Gore holds the Nobel Prize and Bush has occasionally seemed to dissemble, as when he bungled his way into war; it almost looks like they might have been wrong in their overwhelming Group Judgment. (To Halperin, this is now chalked up to the fact that Bush didnt lust after the presidency!) But even after their cosmic failure, nothing stops them from applying their scripts—from winking and nodding and trying to tell us who has what it takes in this bunch. And nothing stops our Flat Earth Liberals from pretending that this isnt happening. To Flat Earth Liberals, these marvelous journos just keep writing their detailed policy papers—and they keep trying, very hard, to avoid saying who has what it takes.
Just a thought: Given our multimillionaire press corps, it will often turn out that Democrats are the one who dont seem to have what it takes. These character judgments may well persist—unless we struggle, scream and yell, thereby taking the right to soul-search away from this pack of dummies. At any rate, Halperin has now sworn off the sauce; he says he wont be Crameresque any more, now that Bush has disappointed him so. But something tells us thats BS too. Its something we think we might have spotted in this gangs defects of character.