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10 February 2000

Our current howler: Letting McCain be McCain

Synopsis: Did McCain distort Bush’s budget plan? Two Times scribes won’t seem to tell us.

Bush and McCain Vie on Truth
Peter Marks, The New York Times, 2/8/00

Bush and McCain, Sittin' in a Tree, D-I-S-S-I-N-G
Frank Bruni, The New York Times, 2/9/00

Commentary by John McCain
Hardball, MSNBC, 2/9/00

Put on the Defensive, Bush Talks Tough As McCain Rides High on His Victory
Frank Bruni and Marc Lacey, The New York Times, 2/4/00

Sorry—the analysts are off on two engagements today, and we postpone till tomorrow our Nursing Home Special. But we've been chuckling here as the New York Times tries to explain the dispute over John McCain's recent ad. Here's the text of McCain's disputed ad, which aired widely in New Hampshire:

MCCAIN AD: There's one big difference between me and the others. I won't take every dime of the surplus and spend it on tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthy. I'll use the bulk of the surplus to secure Social Security far into the future.

McCain later explained that the ad referred to use of the non-Social Security surplus (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/7/00). How were viewers supposed to know that? In his interview, no one asked, and McCain didn't say.

In fact, Bush's plan uses the entire $2 trillion Social Security surplus to pay down debt and "secure Social Security," just as McCain's plan does. When McCain appeared on the NewsHour last week, he badly misstated the Bush proposal:

MCCAIN: [Bush] has not one penny for Social Security, not one penny for Medicare, not one penny for paying down the debt.

The statement plainly seemed to be false. Bush's plan has 200 trillion pennies, in payroll taxes, for paying down the debt. But Jim Lehrer didn't seek explanation.

Anyway, Bush complained about McCain's ad, and we've chuckled as the New York Times has attempted to judge the matter. It's heresy now in the travelling press corps to suggest that McCain is less than straight-shooting, and the Times has really had a time refereeing this recent dispute. Peter Marks was the first to try. In a 2/8 "Ad Campaign" report, he started off with some background:

MARKS: On Friday, [Bush] introduced a sharply worded 30-second spot that attacks [McCain] for what Mr. Bush says were distorted advertisements about his tax-cut plan in an earlier advertisement by the McCain campaign.

Marks quoted the text of Bush's complaint:

MARKS (quoting Bush ad): "John McCain's ad about Governor Bush's tax plan isn't true, and McCain knows it"...

Later, we got an overview of the dispute:

MARKS: What started this video set-to was a McCain advertisement, titled "Every Dime," that ran in New Hampshire and later in South Carolina. In it, Mr. McCain says that "the one big difference between me and the others" is that "I won't take every last dime of the surplus and spend it on tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthy."

Bush has said McCain's ad isn't true. Marks knows what part of McCain's ad is under dispute. Did you think he would try to judge who's right? Sorry—here's what he wrote next:

MARKS (continuing directly): The Bush and McCain campaigns have offered dueling tax-cut proposals. Mr. Bush's plan is for $483 billion in cuts over five years; Mr. McCain's amounts to less than half that. Mr. McCain's plan has criticized Mr. Bush's plan as not reserving, as he says his does, money to protect Social Security. Mr. Bush's spot, however, never explains what is not truthful about Mr. McCain's original commercial...

It's true—Bush's ad doesn't "explain what is not truthful," but surely Marks understands the Bush complaint. Does Marks think the complaint is on target? In this passage, Marks takes a pass. He never tells us what he thinks, seeming to feign ignorance of what Bush is saying.

The next day, we found the Times' Frank Bruni struggling to explain the mess too:

BRUNI: Much of the acrimony [between Bush and McCain] began with Mr. McCain's assertion, in a television commercial that ran in New Hampshire and South Carolina, that Mr. Bush's tax cut frittered away the entire surplus on tax cuts for the wealthy and did not save any money for Social Security.

The commercial did not name Mr. Bush, but he was the clear target of it. Moreover, its claim was contradicted by the arithmetic and details of Mr. Bush's plan, at least as he and his aides laid it out.

According to Bruni, McCain's claim was contradicted by "the arithmetic and details of Bush's plan. " Does Bruni mean the $2 trillion Bush uses to pay down debt—is that the "detail" he means? But just as Bruni seems to say that McCain's ad is not on the mark, he says the ad is only contradicted by the Bush plan "at least as Bush and his aides laid it out." (Who else would "lay out" Bush's plan?) Bruni suggests there is some uncertainty about what Bush's plan really is. Does Bruni think McCain's ad was fair? He too seems strangely unable to tell us.

In our view, the McCain ad was misleading at best, an outright misstatement of fact at worst. (What McCain told Lehrer was plainly wrong.) But how do Bruni and Marks judge the ad? They're strangely unable to tell us. No one is forcing these two Times scribes to discuss the Bush complaint at all. But if they're going to raise the issue, why do they get so wobbly about it?

Meanwhile, on last night's Hardball, McCain said this in at a Clemson forum:

MCCAIN: Governor Bush takes the entire surplus and puts it into tax cuts. Not one new penny in Social Security, Medicare, or paying down the debt. We have a clear difference of opinion there.

Did the audience know that Bush puts 200 trillion pennies in payroll tax surpluses into paying down the debt? We'd guess the bulk of the crowd did not. But guess what? A tabloid talker didn't ask McCain to clear up his statement.

No. We don't think that:

     1) McCain is dishonest.
     2) McCain lacks character.
     3) McCain should remove himself from the race.

We do think that misleading statements should be clarified—we think important facts should be made crystal clear. And we also think one other thing. We think the press corps will sometimes pick and choose when it comes to those hated distortions.


Postscript (2/11/00): Back on the job, the analysts scolded us for missing an earlier Times effort to explain the ad flap—an article by Bruni and Marc Lacey on 2/4. On that date, the timid Times twosome were also tongue-tied when it came to defining Bush's gripe.

Bush had accused McCain "of running misleading television commercials," the writers said in paragraph one. They 'splained it a little while later:

BRUNI AND LACEY: Regarding the commercial, which Mr. Bush characterized as an unwarranted assertion that his proposal for a tax cut would endanger Social Security, Mr. Bush began the news conference with a sort of declaration of political war.

"I'm going to start right now by saying that any ad that's being run by John McCain that infers, implies or says that I don't reserve money for Social Security is Washington-style politics," Mr. Bush said.

"The people in this state are going to hear what the facts are," Mr. Bush added.

If so, they'll be well ahead of New York Times readers. Once again, Bruni and Lacey mysteriously fail to spell out this dispute's basic facts. The text we have quoted comprises their total discussion of the nature of Bush's complaint. A reader is never told what the McCain ad says, and is never told that Bush uses $2 trillion in surplus payroll taxes to pay down debt and "secure Social Security."

The timid two did manage to include this reply from McCain's straight-talking camp:

BRUNI AND LACEY: Howard Opinsky, a spokesmen for Mr. McCain, disputed Mr. Bush's accusation that Mr. McCain was running a commercial that unfairly characterized Mr. Bush's position on Social Security. Mr. Opinsky noted that while the spot maintains that Mr. McCain is the Republican presidential candidate who would most strenuously safeguard Social Security, it does not mention Mr. Bush.

The McCain ad is obviously referring to Gov. Bush, as Bruni later stated (see above). Of course, when he finally said this on 2/9, readers weren't told that McCain's camp had said different.

In summary: McCain's ad said Bush "takes every dime of the surplus and spends it on tax cuts." In fact, Bush's plan takes 20 trillion dimes from the payroll tax surplus and spends it to pay down debt and "secure Social Security." Times writers penned three separate treatments of this flap without ever describing that seminal fact. Our question is simple: Why not?