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23 March 2001

Our current howler (part IV): Never mind

Synopsis: Does the tax cut add up? The discussion is over. Have you seen one intelligent treatment?

Richard Berke, The New York Times, 3/11/01

Tax Cuts: The True Issue
Robert J. Samuelson, The Washington Post, 3/7/01

Child Care
Andrew Sullivan, The New Republic, 3/19/01

We really thought it captured the age. On March 11, Richard Berke was pandering hard in a New York Times page-one lead story:

BERKE (paragraph 1): In the seven short weeks of his presidency, George W. Bush has transformed how the White House and elements of the sprawling government operate in ways that contrast sharply with those of Bill Clinton and other past presidents.

(2) It is no accident that a bust of Dwight D. Eisenhower is perched to the right of Mr. Bush’s desk in the Oval Office. Not since the general’s days in the White House, some veterans of past administrations say, has a president so reorganized a government to function with the crisp efficiency of a blue-chip corporation.

Pander note: "short" appears in paragraph one to help us marvel at Bush’s achievement.

That aside, Berke’s is roughly the three millionth article banged out from the current, controlling template—that Bush has cleaned things up after Clinton. The key words are "crisp efficiency." Those are the words that let you know that Bush is being praised for what follows. Trust us: without those words, you wouldn’t quite know what to make of the rest of Berke’s piece.

In paragraph 3, Berke reports that the Oval still flies an American flag, and that Bush still gets the biggest chair. But when he describes the changes Bush has made, you could almost think he was mocking Bush if "crisp efficiency" hadn’t signaled you different:

BERKE (4): [T]hose common threads [the flag and the chair] do not reveal the fundamental ways—besides ideology—that Mr. Bush differs from Mr. Clinton and many other modern presidents. These include the time he devotes to his job (far less than Mr. Clinton), the authority given to his vice president (Dick Cheney acts as a chief operating officer), the interplay among staff members (they must follow a dress code and rules on cordiality) and the use of pollsters (they have been kept out of the Oval Office).

Aides have to dress well, and they must be polite, and pollsters can’t go in the Oval. (Pander note: How can Berke know that?) And Bush doesn’t spend too much time on the job. You wouldn’t quite know what Berke was saying if he hadn’t told you: Bush is efficient. Bush, in fact, is crisply efficient, just like those big business firms.

Here at THE HOWLER, we all perked up when Berke made his key proclamation. We’ve been following the tax cut and budget proposals, and so we eagerly scanned ahead. We hoped that Berke would let us know if Bush has been "efficient" at that. Indeed, it didn’t take long to find our passage; Berke knew the budget was big business too. In 7 and 8, he told all about it. Here’s what the sage Timesman said:

BERKE (7): The recent release of Mr. Bush’s budget blueprint underscores a telling difference between Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton. By Mr. Card’s estimation, Mr. Bush devoted "in the neighborhood of five hours" to meetings to discuss his budget proposal. By contrast, Gene Sperling, who for years was a top economic adviser to Mr. Clinton, said the former president spent at least 25 hours in official meetings assembling the budget in his first weeks in office, and 50 hours more in more casual settings.

(8) Mr. Bush left it to Mr. Cheney to preside over a small group of aides who actually drafted the proposal.

Berke told us how many hours it took. He told us who did the work on the plan. There was only one thing he forgot to explain. He didn’t explain if the budget adds up.

Hay-yo, everybody! Hay-yo! Gaze on the soul of the press corps! Has President Bush been "crisply efficient" if he spent five hours and it doesn’t add up? Ever since the cut was proposed, Dems have been saying it doesn’t. As we’ve seen, poor Tim Russert has strained for weeks to try to figure those Dem numbers out. If the numbers don’t add up, it’s hard to say Bush was "efficient."

So we couldn’t help chuckling as the goggle-eyed Berke gushed on about Bush’s crisp work. Berke knows how many hours it took. He knows what they wore when they worked on the deal. He’s sure that the gentlemen all were polite. But he never says if the numbers make sense. It doesn’t seem to cross his mind that it wasn’t "efficient" if it doesn’t add up!

Weeks have gone by since the question was raised. Our columnists have now stopped pretending to limn it. And have you seen one discussion—excluding Paul Krugman’s—that even attempted to reason it out? We told you this all through the election—our public discourse is now about manners and clothes. Richard Berke, playing liveried servant, was polite when he wrote this piece too.

Crisply efficient anonymous sources: Speaking of courtesy, take Berke’s nugget statement:

BERKE: Not since [Eisenhower’s] days in the White House, some veterans of past administrations say, has a president so reorganized a government to function with the crisp efficiency of a blue-chip corporation. (Emphasis added)

Berke never said who those "veterans" were. Any chance that they work in the current adminstration? It’s always more civil inside the club if you just let the boys grade themselves.

The occasional update (3/23/00)

Strangers in the night: Paul Krugman has offered intelligent, aggressive critiques of the tax cut. Typical of our half-witted age, they’ve all gone completely undiscussed. Consider Robert Samuelson’s review of the cut, which appeared in the Post on March 7. "Do Bush’s budget numbers add up," he explicitly asked in one part of his piece. In the first paragraph of his treatment, the scribe said this: "the critics’ case is wildly overstated." But when he took us through the numbers, he didn’t say a word about tax extenders; he didn’t mention retroactivity; he didn’t mention the AMT; and he didn’t say a single word about the SS and Medicare trust funds. In short, Samuelson’s treatise failed to mention almost every critique the Dems have made. In the Post, this is known as the bright stuff.

Meanwhile, the age’s grinding political correctness was revealed in the section on distribution. Here is the opening salvo:

SAMUELSON: The political problem is that most federal taxes are paid by a small constituency of the well-to-do and wealthy. In 2001 the richest 10 percent of Americans—those with incomes above $107,000—will pay 68 percent of the income tax and 52 percent of all federal taxes, estimates the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. With its across-the-board rate reductions, Bush’s plan gives them the largest dollar cuts. Citizens for Tax Justice, a liberal advocacy group, estimates that the richest one percent get 31 percent of the income-tax cuts (slightly below their share of income taxes, 36 percent). Democrats are aghast; they want smaller tax cuts to concentrate benefits on households under $100,000.

But Dems aren’t "aghast" at that part of the plan; Dems are aghast at the overall plan, in which high earners get a much larger share. And what does Samuelson think about the parts of the plan which favor high earners? He thinks that Bush should drop them! In fact, he’d even roll back Bush’s cut in rates for the very top earners:

SAMUELSON: I would cut today’s top rate of 39.6 percent only to 35 percent, not 33 percent, as Bush proposes...

Like Bush’s critics, I think the long-term budget projections are too uncertain to enact his full tax package now; so I would defer action on his other proposals (abolishing the estate tax, marriage-penalty relief, new charitable deductions).

Those crazy Dems may be "aghast," but as it turns out, he supports their proposals.

Which brings us to Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan never met a flim-flam on taxes he didn’t buy wholesale—even Steve Forbes can take Sullivan down (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/18/00)—and it’s interesting to note that he too feels he must slam Dems in the course of endorsing their proposals. After explaining his full-bore support for the estate tax, Sully scolds lefties like this:

SULLIVAN: I wish Bush understood this. He’d have an easier time winning support for his admirably broad tax cut if he didn’t kowtow to plutocrats at the same time. Leftist demagoguery about the "wealthiest 1 percent" would also be undercut, and the entire package would look far fairer if it weren’t for a tax break for the super-wealthy. For good measure, trillions in future tax revenue would be retained rather than frittered away on Bill Gates’s kids, helping prevent deficits that could tar conservatism for a generation.

In SullyThought, how would "leftist demagoguery" be undercut? "Leftist demagoguery" would be undercut if Bush didn’t kowtow to plutocrats! (If someone "kowtows to plutocrats" and you point it out, you’re guilty of "leftist demagoguery.") Meanwhile, "leftist demagoguery" about the top one percent would be scotched if Bush didn’t give so much to the top one percent! Hay-yo! According to Sullivan, retaining the estate tax "would make the entire package look fairer." Actually, no—it would make the entire package be fairer. It’s the age—Sullivan calls Bush critics naughty names. In the next breath, he agrees with their proposals.

Don’t tell Rush, but all the pandering is now done to the right. In the course of agreeing with Bush’s critics, it’s the law now—you first must demean them.