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Caveat lector

18 May 2001

Our current howler: Dishonest broker

Synopsis: Andrew Sullivan is perfectly honest about the dishonesty in the Bush budget plan.

Andrew Sullivan, The New Republic, 5/14/01

As readers may recall, we recently came right out of our chairs when Andrew Sullivan spoke in praise of downsizing (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/9/01). This part of his piece made us howl:

SULLIVAN: Since even the poorest today enjoy health and prosperity unknown to the middle class a generation ago, you’d think government’s role might shrink as the resources of private wealth make it increasingly unnecessary.

"Even the poorest today enjoy prosperity unknown to the middle class a generation ago?" If that’s true, of course, then the Brawling Brit’s comments all make better sense. But the statement, of course, is totally daft—a bizarre account of the modern economy.

But we couldn’t stop thinking about this piece, and we realized it deserved further comment. Our thoughts wandered back to Sullivan’s words on why Bush has to fib now and then:

SULLIVAN: Some commentators—at this magazine and elsewhere—get steamed because Bush has obscured this figure or claimed his tax cut will cost less than it actually will, or because he is using Medicare surplus money today that will be needed tomorrow and beyond. Many of these arguments have merit—but they miss the deeper point. The fact that Bush has to obfuscate his real goals of reducing spending with the smoke screen of "compassionate conservatism" shows how uphill the struggle is.

According to Sullivan’s article, Bush isn’t just fudging a figure now and then. He is "obfuscating" his actual goal, which is to reduce overall federal spending. He wants to downsize, but he just isn’t saying. And why does Bush behave in this way? Simple, readers—because he "has to!" We have "a culture of dependency—middle-class, corporate, poor—on the federal teat," Sully says. If Bush told the public what he was doing, there’s a good chance that they’d stop him from doing it:

SULLIVAN: [A] certain amount of B.S. is necessary for any vaguely successful retrenchment of government power in an insatiable entitlement state…Bush and Karl Rove are no dummies. They have rightly judged that, in a culture of ineluctable government expansion, where every new plateau of public spending is simply the baseline for the next expansion, a rhetorical smoke screen is sometimes necessary. I just hope the smoke doesn’t clear before the spenders get their hands on our wallets again.

Some of you may be surprised to see Sullivan speaking like this, upset as he was in a recent life about lying from inside the White House. Sullivan seems to endorse that strangest of outlooks. Pols can’t lie about having sex. They can lie about everything else.

It wasn’t just Sullivan’s Situation Ethics that stuck in our minds from this piece. As we’ve said, Sullivan’s overall theories would make better sense if his view of the economy were on point. But then, Sullivan has recently been a mark for every budget spin the right ever dreamed of. Early last year, Dick Armey took him to the cleaners but good with his jumbled array of flat tax fandangos (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/18/00, 1/19/00). And this article is littered with bumper stickers shipped in from various stations. Here is one of those shopworn spins; it’s one that always does make us smile:

SULLIVAN: The minute deficits became surpluses, in other words, the politicians started bribing the voters with their own money. The only relevant question is: Why do Dennis Hastert, Trent Lott, Dick Gephardt, and Tom Daschle know better than taxpayers how to allocate their own resources?

It’s a standard point, of course, but one that Sullivan has already answered. The voters don’t need Lott or Daschle at all; they know perfectly well "how to allocate their own resources." In fact, the voters want to "allocate their own resources" to the Medicare program, as they have shown a long string of pols in the past. That, of course, is exactly why Sullivan says that The Dub must engage in those smokescreens—rightly or wrongly, the voters don’t want their government programs sized down.

One last, utterly spurious point about Republican experiments with honesty. Sullivan recalls the mid-90s’ most ubiquitous spin when he talks about the first Gingrich Congress:

SULLIVAN: But a certain amount of B.S. is necessary for any vaguely successful retrenchment of government power in an insatiable entitlement state. Conservatives learned that lesson…when they tried to be honest about taking on the federal leviathan in 1994 and got creamed by Democrats striking the fear of God into every senior, child, and parent in America.

Did Republicans "try to be honest" in the mid-90s? The principal debate concerned the Medicare program; Republicans swore that Clinton was lying when he said they were "cutting" the program. This was the central rhetorical battle of the first Republican Congress. The GOP was just "reducing the rate at which Medicare would grow;" Wild Bill was lying through his teeth when he said they were "cutting" the program.

There’s good news and bad news in this theater for the now-situational Sullivan. The bad news? The GOP wasn’t being all that "honest" in the Medicare wars. As Maraniss and Weisskopf reported in great detail, Republican leaders found it so natural to call their Medicare proposal a "cut" that they had to train themselves not say it; as a penalty, they would throw a dollar bill in a hat each time they slipped up and said the word "cut." (Polling done by Linda Divall showed them which words they should be using.) And why did they find it so natural to call their program a "cut?" Because that’s what they had always called proposals of the type they were making. In 1995, both parties proposed spending less in future years than it would cost to continue the existing Medicare program. And, sensibly enough, pols of both parties had always called that kind of proposal a "cut." As the record makes perfectly clear, Clinton frequently called his own Medicare proposal a "cut;" he simply said that the GOP was cutting the program too much. But the GOP leaders created new language, and browbeat the helpless and cowardly press corps. Cravenly bowing to new GOP power, the weak little press corps put tail-between-legs and savaged Clinton for the naughty word "cut." It nicely fit the existing template, which said that Vile Bill had a major Truth Problem.

So there’s the bad news for TRB; the Republicans weren’t being all that "honest" back in 1994. But the good news is almost the same, dear friends! Even then, they knew you had to "obfuscate" a tad to get in a little downsizing. If Sullivan’s right about Bush’s present motives, the president ain’t the first dude who knew. But remember—this was the Medicare program, not sex. So the "obfuscation" was completely legitimate.

Visit our incomparable archives: For three detailed studies of the Medicare wars, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/20/99. "The Speaker’s New Language" is the longest treatment. "A Tale of Three Numbers" will seem to fly by. Also, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/18/99 and 8/19/99, to recall what happened when we decided to "slow the rate of growth" in the Medicare program by about half of what the GOP asked.