25 January 2000
Our current howler (part II): The $91 question
Synopsis: Michael Kelly says voters are over-informed. Wed like to know what hes been reading. (PLUS: Imus and Stahl do Iowa. Do not miss!)
Campaign Reform: Let's Pretend
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 1/19/00
Commentary by Al Gore, Bill Bradley
Democratic presidential forum, C-SPAN, 1/5/00
Commentary by Don Imus, Lesley Stahl
Imus in the Morning, MSNBC, 1/25/00
Tonight: Windy With Gab Flurries
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 1/24/00
Michael Kelly has no use at all for good government types he's
been seeing. He scorns the thought that we actually "need
more serious discussion of the issues." He's amazed that
someone might want more debates. He asks: "Does anyone believe
the nation needs to be exposed to more Steve Forbes, more Orrin
KELLY: At no other time in the nation's history has the electorate
been so redundantly informed as it is now. We are awash in
information about the candidates, about their views on
the issues, about their public and private lives. Odd then,
this call for more.
At THE HOWLER, we'd like to know what the scribe has been reading.
We have watched every candidate forum, here at our sprawling World
Headquartersand we don't have the slightest clue about many basic
points of dispute. Take, for example, an exchange that occurred
at the January 5 Democratic debate. Bradley voiced a basic complaint
about Gore; according to Bradley, Gore doesn't accurately describe
the program with which Bradley would replace Medicaid. Responding,
Gore held his ground, referring to a "$150-a-month voucher"
which he had already cited:
GORE: ...I do talk about what has been proposed as a replacement
for Medicaid. And it is entirely inadequate. Let me tell you why,
Peter. He says, use this capped voucher to buy into the Federal
Employee Benefit Program. Look here in New Hampshire [holding
up list]. There are about a dozen different insurance policies
that are under the Federal Employee Benefit Program. Not a single
one of them can be purchased for anything close to $150 a month...
Replying to Gore, Bradley made an intriguing point about Medicaid
costs in Tennessee:
BRADLEY: Al is saying all the time about the $150 cap. That's
not a cap; it's a weighted average. Some places will be more,
some places will be less. And I might point out that the average
Medicaid cost in your home state of Tennessee is $91 a person.
So you can say that the people of Tennessee haven't been very
generous. But you can't say that my proposal would deny health
care to Americans who need it.
It sounded as if Tennessee's Medicaid recipients could be covered
for less than $150 per month, freeing up money for use in other
states where health costs may be higher. Is that accurate? Here
at THE HOWLER, we don't have a clue, because host Peter Jennings
shooed the discussion along, complaining that each of the hopefuls
had already devoted two minutes to the health care topic. Two
minutes! We later learned that Jennings was wishing he could tell
viewers about stuff from backstage (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/10/00).
At any rate, we never saw any follow-up discussionon air or in
printof Bradley's response to Gore.
By the time the hopefuls met on January 17, Gore seemed to
imply that, even where Medicaid recipients could buy into
health plans under Bradley's proposal, they would have large additional
out-of-pocket expenditures. Bradley didn't address this claim
in his response to Gore (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/24/00). Have
you seen anyone ever review this exchange? On our sprawling campus,
According to Kelly, voters today are simply awash in information
on issues. But here at THE HOWLER, we don't have a clue about
these basic health care disputes. Under Bradley's plan, could
Medicaid recipients in Tennessee get coverage for $91 a month?
Would they have to pay out-of-pocket after that? Here at THE HOWLER,
we don't have a clue, because moderators like Jennings hurry hopefuls
along, and because journalists haven't raised a finger to clarify
these points of contention. Journalists write about manners and
style, ignoring major policy issues. Does Bradley's trademark
health plan make sense? Or has Bradley built his presidential
campaign around a large plan he can't defend? One would think
that political reporters would want to explore such fundamental
questions. But Kelly's comments to the side, today's voter has
no possible way to answer these questions, which go to the heart
of Bradley's competence. Voters can't hope to judge Bradley's
plan because the Washington press has refused to explore
That's right, folks: journalists have simply refused to explore
the facts of the health care debate. But they've made up for their
sloth in another way; they've actively lectured on manners.
For example, listen as Kelly continues along in the passage we've
KELLY (continuing directly): We are awash in information about
the candidates, about their views on the issues...Odd then, this
call for more. And especially odd coming from Gore, whose major
contribution to the history of debates has been to show that a
skilled demagogue can use a debate quite as effectively as a 30-second
attack commercial to distort his opponent's record and malign
his opponent's character.
Kelly says that Gore has been a demagogue, distorting and maligning
poor Bradley. Kelly's charge is a serious charge in this Year
of Living Decorously. But you can scan Kelly's column as much
as you likehe doesn't provide specific examples of the serious
misconduct he alleges. Kelly says Gore has demagogued Bradley,
but he provides us exactly no examples. (Of course, if the voters
were so well-informed on the issues, it wouldn't do Gore much
good to "distort" them. But never mind minor problems
Kelly's approach has been quite common among major press corps
pundits. Routinely, pundits complain about Gore's critiques of
Bradleyoften using the strongest languagewithout supplying a
single example of what Gore has said that is wrong. In
doing so, the pundits engage in the same negativity which they
constantly say they despise in the hopefulsand the voting public
goes uninformed about basic facts of the health care debate.
Tomorrow: Major pundits tell us who's naughty
and nice. They don't bother to tell us who's right.
Clueless in the morning: The pundits are out in the
wake of the Iowa caucuses, telling us what results "mean."
We urge you to notice obvious factit's unclear that the results
"mean" a thing. Roughly ten percent of eligible voters
took part; Alan Keyes, therefore, received 14% of 10% of eligible
Republican voters. In a rational world, this would "mean"
that Keyes gets a certain number of delegates, and virtually nothing
But fish gotta swim, and birds gotta flyand pundits have to
speculate. Some have less info than others. This morning, Don
Imus somehow got it into his head that only 2000 Iowa Democrats
had taken part in the caucuses. He kept showing a screen with
Anyone who had read a word about Iowa would have known there
was somethin' bad wrong with these numbers. (The numbers represented delegates selected at the caucuses, not voters or attendees.) But Imus belabored
the point for hours. Here he was, about two hours in:
IMUS: All right, there were fewer that 2000 votersfewer than
2000 people participating in the Democratic side of this stuff
last night in Iowa. Bradley got 1269 votes! 1269 votes and he
was running and screaming and hugging everybody
BERNIE: You mean Gore.
IMUS: and sweating like James Brown
IMUS: Bradley had 698 votes, and 33 people couldn't figure
out what they wanted to do so they were uncommitted. But I mean,
I don't think that that means a lot.
Maybe he's better at measuring sweat than he is at counting
up voters. But hold on, folksit got better. Lesley Stahl came
on in the 8 o'clock hour, and Imus presented his thesis:
IMUS: Well here's what I don't understand, why GoreI mean,
I realize there weren't that many people who were able under the
rules to participate in the Democratic side of this, but I mean
he got 1200 votes and Bradley got 600. What does that mean?
Did you expect Stahl to straighten Don out? Sorryyou still
don't understand this celebrity press corps:
STAHL: Isn't it stunning? That 1200 and 600 and these kinds
of votes can force candidates like Hatch out of the race, and
determine the whole beginning of the campaign?
Lesley didn't have a clue either. (Be sure to buy her book.)
Obviously, there are many pundits who would have known that Imus'
numbers were totally wrong. That doesn't mean that their speculations
will hold a lot of water. And remind us, please, to scold Matt
Cooper when we see him in Manchester later this week. Cooper was
quoted by Howard Kurtz in the Post; Kurtz was mocking the "media
primary" in which "journalists magically divine whether
a victory is sufficiently impressive:"
KURTZ: "It's more alchemy than science, more prophecy
than reporting," says Matt Cooper, Time's deputy Washington
bureau chief. "I admit it's a sort of a goofy exercise in
many ways, but I don't know what the alternative is."
Luckily, we do know what the alternative is. It's obviousgo
off the air. Report the basic facts of the Iowa voting, and
then put on a sitcom. Those basic facts would include: how many
votes each hopeful got; how many delegates each hopeful won; how
many Iowa voters turned out; and the date of the New Hampshire
primary. Pundits don't know if Iowa will affect New Hampshire,
and they don't have a clue what the Iowa vote "means."
And Imus? Amazingly, we'd all be better off if he'd just play
his songs about the size of the president's penis.