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11 February 2002

Our current howler (part III): He still ain’t right

Synopsis: The secret of Sullivan’s attacks on Krugman takes us back to October 2000.

A Retirement Fable
Paul Krugman, The New York Times, 10/11/00

The secret of Sullivan’s attacks on Paul Krugman lies in the world of October 2000. On October 3 of that year, candidates Bush and Gore staged their first debate. Here’s the first thing Bush said:

JIM LEHRER: Governor Bush, one minute rebuttal.

BUSH: Well, we do come from different places. And I come from West Texas. I’ve been a governor. A governor is the chief executive officer and learns how to set agendas. And I think you’re going to find the difference reflected in our budgets.

I want to take one-half of the surplus and dedicate it to Social Security, one-quarter of the surplus for important projects, and I want to send one-quarter of the surplus back to the people who pay the bills. I want everybody who pays taxes to have their tax rates cut.

That’s the very first thing Bush said, in the debate which decided the election. His statement was baldly inaccurate. At the time he made this presentation, Bush was actually proposing a tax cut of $1.3 trillion—and $475 billion in new spending. He was not proposing that we take "one-quarter of the surplus" for "important projects" and "one-quarter of the surplus" for his tax cut. In fact, his tax cut was three times the size of new spending. And this presentation was a variant of the nugget statement he was making out on the stump all the time. Bush was saying this every day. What he was saying was false.

Why was Bush misrepresenting his proposals? He was misstating for an obvious reason—to counter Gore’s criticism of his budget plan. According to Gore, Bush was devoting so much of the surplus to tax cuts that there wouldn’t be sufficient funds for new programs. Bush wanted to pretend that this wasn’t the case—so he lied to Jim Lehrer and to the public. (Lehrer never seemed to care.) In fact, he misstated his budget again and again, all through that autumn’s campaigning.

And what does this have to do with that boy who simply just plain ain’t right, our newest tough-talking tinpot, Andrew Sullivan? Simple. In the fall of 2000, there was one major place in American media where you could expect to learn about Bush’s misstatements. That place, of course, was "Reckonings," Paul Krugman’s column in the New York Times. On September 13, on September 24, and again on October 1, Krugman tried to explain the problem with Bush’s standard budget pitch. On October 11, after the first debate, he touched on the problem again:

KRUGMAN: Mr. Bush has made an important political discovery. Really big misstatements, it turns out, cannot be effectively challenged, because voters can’t believe that a man who seems so likable would do that sort of thing. In last week’s debate Mr. Bush again declared that he plans to spend a quarter of the surplus on popular new programs, even though his own budget shows that he plans to spend less than half that much. ("No fuzzy numbers!" roared the crowd—but these are his own numbers.)

The details on this Krugman construction? One quarter of the surplus was $1.15 trillion. Bush’s new spending was $475 billion.

But Krugman—still new to the political game—misconstrued something in that passage. Why wasn’t Bush’s "really big misstatement" being challenged? It had nothing to do with voters being unable to imagine that Bush could tell such a whopper; in fact, voters simply weren’t being told about the Bush misstatement. Bush’s big misstatement was going unchallenged because the press corps—for reasons which only they can explain—were choosing to ignore it. As noted, Krugman explained the problem three separate times before the October 3 debate. But when Bush opened his mouth to start Debate I, his Standard Whopper came flying right out. And no one but Krugman—no one at all—ever bothered taking note of his error.

It isn’t as if the press didn’t know the size of Bush’s new spending. On October 4, Richard Stevenson limned it in the New York Times; "Mr. Bush’s [budget] proposal calls for $475 billion in additional spending over 10 years," he wrote. Glenn Kessler and Ceci Connolly discussed it, too. "Depending on how one does the math, Bush proposes $450 billion to $550 billion in new spending," they wrote in the Washington Post that same day. In the October 5 Los Angeles Times, Ron Brownstein and Peter Gosselin noted that Bush called for $382 billion in new spending in the areas of education, health care, prescription drugs and defense. Everyone knew it, all overt the press corps. What Bush kept saying about spending "one quarter" was absolute, simple, prime hooey.

But all over the country, scribes found ways to avoid citing Bush’s misstatement. Krugman had spelled it out three separate times—but scribes knew enough to lay low. Amazing, isn’t it? Bush said he was devoting one quarter to tax cuts and one quarter to new spending. The Post and the Times both knew it was rot. But neither paper bothered mentioning this in their helpful "fact check" reports. Which almost surely brings us back to Sullivan’s attacks on Paul Krugman.

Make no mistake—at a time of high approval ratings, conservative forces are trying to consolidate power. Krugman’s column—still uniformly ignored, by the way—remains the one last place you can go to read facts about Bush budget bullroar. And the tough-talking tinpot at has now been tasked to take PK down. There’s one last place you can see real facts. Andrew Sullivan doesn’t want it to last.

Next: More on the Krugman War, and a look at Sully’s soul-mate, Ann Coulter.

The Daily update (2/11/02)

Axis of spinning: In the 10/3 debate, Bush’s statement was false. In the State of the Union, he was merely disingenuous:

BUSH: Good jobs depend on sound tax policy. Last year, some in this hall thought my tax relief plan was too small, some thought it was too big.

But when those checks arrived in the mail, most Americans thought tax relief was just about right.

Thank you, Goldilocks! Fairy tales aside, at least two parts of that presentation are true. Some did think Bush’s plan was too small. And some did think that the plan was too big. And it may be true that, when those rebate checks arrived in the mail, most Americans thought the plan was just right.

But they shouldn’t have. In fact, the rebate checks have nothing to do with whether Bush’s plan is too big or too small. You simply can’t judge the size of the plan based on those checks from last summer. Most American don’t know that, of course, and Bush took this opportunity to mislead them in his SOTU address. It looks like certain habits die hard, even at a time when people, badly frightened, deserve something better from their prez.

But other habits die hard, too. You didn’t see press types complaining about this presentation, except at The New Republic ("Notebook," February 11). Other timorous, knock-kneed pundits are just watching Bush’s numbers in those wonderful polls. They didn’t do their jobs on October 4, and they don’t plan to start doing them now.

"He can honestly represent his positions on foreign policy because they command the support of the public," TNR said. "He misrepresents his position on economics because they don’t." Maybe it’s time for other press types to insist that Bush give up this old pleasure. Put it this way—since we’re talking about sacrifice at time of war, maybe it’s time for Bush to give up the fun which comes from his rank budget bullroar.