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17 July 2000

Our current howler: Whatever it takes

Synopsis: In other sectors, work like this is known by a legal term: "Fraud."

An Acquired Taste
James Fallows, The Atlantic Monthly, 7/00

Commentary by Bill Bradley
Presidential debate, CNN, 1/26/00


You talk about "all hat and no cattle!" Imagine! In the 1987-88 cycle, Gore took part in more than two dozen debates. And this is the example—the one example—Fallows alleges of lying? Fallows suggests that Gore "invented" his dispute with Dukakis about Nicaragua. In fact, he suggests it two times. But when Gore characterized what Dukakis had said on the subject, he was practically reading word-for-word from the Post. Dukakis' earlier remarks had been flagged on Meet the Press. And later on, Dukakis acknowledged that he should have said something different (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/14/00). You may not care about this matter. You may think Dukakis was right from the start. But the idea that Gore "simply or wholly invented" the dispute is simply absurd on its face. Most strangely, Fallows says Gore should have gone by an earlier statement, one Dukakis had made two months before. But—for people who read the English language, at least—that earlier statement by Dukakis also plainly supports Gore's position.

And remember: Through four debate cycles—1988, 92, 93, and 96—this one dispute is the only place where Fallows accuses Gore of lying! The only place, through four full campaigns! How then can we possibly explain the ugliness of the Fallows accusations? In this article, we're told that Gore is "manifestly willing to lie for convenience." He "will say whatever it takes to win." We're told that, in his past debates, he "has displayed a willingness to bend the rules and stretch the truth if necessary." Gore has "the ruthlessness to frame—or distort—facts in an argument of devastating effect." He is "willing to fight with whatever tools are necessary." That's a whole lot of "hat" from James Fallows—and this is how he backs it up? In four debate cycles, he alleges one lie, and his argument there is simply a joke. In any other sector, there's a word for this sort of work. It's known by a legal term: "Fraud."

For the record, Fallows alleges lying in one other debate cycle—the 1999-2000 debates with Bill Bradley. Again, his presentation is risible. Fallows principally claims that Gore "misled" about the Bradley health plan:

FALLOWS: Gore hit, again and again, with the charge that Bradley was going to eliminate the Medicaid program and replace it with a voucher worth $150 a month, which obviously couldn't buy private coverage with benefits comparable to Medicaid's. The charge was misleading at best. Under Bradley's plan, people who received Medicaid would get vouchers to buy their own insurance coverage. This was part of a broader effort to expand coverage to people who now lack Medicaid, private insurance, or any health insurance at all. The $150 figure was the result of a complicated calculation, and it applied to people without dependents—not families, who might get two or three times as much. More important, Bradley's argument rested on replacing Medicaid with a voucher program, which would create a new market for health-insurance coverage and would in turn lead private insurers to offer new forms of low-cost coverage. (This is like the contention that a school-voucher program, by creating a new market for education, would lead to the creation of new kinds of schools.) Agree or disagree with Bradley's plan, his $150 estimate was based on "dynamic" rather than "static" assumptions.

Fallows makes two complaints about Gore's presentation. Under Bradley's plan, families might have gotten "two or three times as much" money as the $150-per-person which Gore cited. And Bradley's plan was based on "dynamic" assumptions. Bradley felt his plan would "lead private insurers to offer new forms of low-cost coverage."

In this latter point (the "more important" point), Fallows is writing from Neptune. As with Gore's 1988 dispute with Dukakis, Fallows seems to think that Gore is supposed to be making Bradley's arguments for him. Guess what, kids? If Bradley thinks his plan would have a certain effect, then Bradley is supposed to say it. Gore may not agree with that view! Duh-uh! In Fallows' strange world, the polite candidate argues the other guy's viewpoint. You're "ruthless" if you argue your own.

But Fallows' comments about the $150 voucher can only be described as a joke. First of all, did Fallows even watch the Gore-Bradley debates? Fallows twice says that, "under Bradley's plan, people would get vouchers." But throughout his series of debates with Gore, Bradley explicitly rejected that term. What Bradley did not reject was what Fallows attacks—Gore's use of per-person spending figures. Gore cited such figures again and again. But guess what—so did Bradley! (Indeed, one could argue that "$150-per-person" may sound better than "$375-for-a-family-of-four," the midpoint of the range Fallows cites.) How comfortable was Bradley with the use of per-person figures? In the January 26 debate in New Hampshire—the seventh debate between the two hopefuls—Bradley described his health plan. Careful—as even Fallows notes, Bradley was often quite inarticulate in describing his plan:

BRADLEY (1/26/00): What you're wrong about, and how you've mischaracterized this, is saying New Hampshire would have $150. That's where you're wrong. New Hampshire will have more. I'm not going to do a health care program that doesn't give people who are on Medicaid now, largely adults, access to several plans in every state. The legislation will be written, that's what will happen. The figure of $150 does not apply to New Hampshire, it applies to other states. Let's take, for example, what you've done on Medicaid. Since—over the last seven years Medicaid HMOs in this country have gone from 14 percent to 54 percent of all Medicaid recipients. And what—the average of the Medicaid recipients, all of them, has a fee of under $150. Under $150. So this can easily be done. The big difference is here, by raising this issue you are trying to get away from facing up to the fact that I've offered a proposal that would provide access to quality affordable health care for all Americans; would provide a Medicare drug benefit for the elderly that's much more generous than yours, much bigger than yours; and would indeed guarantee all children health coverage in this country.

Bradley did have a problem with Gore's characterization, although Fallows doesn't seem to know what it was. In the debates, Bradley repeatedly said that his $150 figure wasn't a "cap," it was a "weighted average." Some states would get more than $150-per-person, and some states were going to get less. But in this—his seventh debate with Gore-Bradley is comfortably using per-person figures, which Fallows describes as "misleading at best." Bradley never complains that families would get more; his complaint is something totally different. "The average Medicaid recipient has a fee of under $150," he says. "So this can be easily done." Bradley repeatedly uses the "per person" figures which Fallows condemns Gore for using.

But that's about the caliber of work done by Fallows throughout this piece. Again, did Fallows even watch these debates? We wondered as we read this passage, which directly follows the material we quoted above:

FALLOWS: Through the campaign Gore's team kept waiting for Bradley to launch a counterattack making clear that his plan would give more than $150 to many families, that a new market would create new forms of coverage—and besides, that Gore's slower approach would leave some people totally uncovered. The Gore team was ready with retorts of its own.

But the replies never came. Eric Hauser, who was Bradley's press secretary during the campaign, says, "What we should have done is make clear that the Vice President was making it all up, and that you can't have a debate with someone who is willing to make up the facts. He knows just how to come up with something that has the ring of truth to it even though it's not actually true."

"The replies never came?" We've just seen Bradley making one of the "replies," directly arguing on January 26 that his plan would cover more people than Gore's. In fact, Bradley argued that point all the time. Indeed, all three of the points which Fallows cites were made by Bradley in these debates. In New Hampshire on January 4, for example, the fact that Bradley's plan "would give more than $150 to many families" was explicitly discussed, at some length, by both hopefuls. This passage from Fallows simply mangles basic facts. But here's what the passage does accomplish: It allows Fallows to quote the weepy Hauser, saying that Gore was "making it all up." The article's final sub-head quotes the treasured soundbite: "The Bradley Debates: 'Making It All Up.' " But who exactly is "making it all up?" One searches Fallows' account looking for anything that corresponds to actual facts.

James Fallows is a lucky fellow—he has the Constitution to hide behind in all this. In other sectors, work this bad creates a legal peril. Engineering firms who toy with basic facts in their work may end up losing all that they own (as they should). But the First Amendment allows a writer to churn out work like this without fear. And Fallows' editor then hired an artist to put a fang in Gore's mouth; the picture stares from newsstands nationwide, reinforcing a central GOP spin-point. A handful of people will read the piece; but millions more will see the graffito. As with Lesley Stahl's famous anecdote (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/00): This article is all about the picture. Sadly, there's one obvious reason why this piece was commissioned—to paint a silly tooth on Gore's face. Our national discourse, in the age of Michael Kelly, now features work that once was done only by children. In schoolyards.

At any rate, Fallows alleges two incidents of lying—Two! That's it!—in Gore's five debates or debate cycles. Both claims are absurd on their face. Who exactly will "say what it takes," "bend the rules and stretch the truth?" Who exactly is "making it all up?" Two Washington journalists' names came to mind as we read Fallows' toothless propaganda.

 

The Daily update (7/17/00)

Sometimes they make it too easy: We couldn't help chuckling as we read Maggie Gallagher's column in Saturday's Washington Times. Gallagher discussed Gore's recent appearance at the NAACP convention:

GALLAGHER: True to form, Al the Panderer made a cameo appearance. "And let me say a special word to America's black farmers," Mr. Gore threw in, obscurely deploring "decades of discrimination." I have no idea what that was about, but one thing I do know: The future of African-American opportunity is unlikely to lie with black farmers, no matter how many government handouts they've missed out on.

That was Gallagher's entire passage on the subject. In it, she says two things:

  1. She "has no idea" what Gore is talking about.
  2. She knows that Gore is pandering.

We defy you to find the high school or college where work like that could ever get by. Gallagher's column is simply a joke—a joke on our fragile democracy.

Political pleadings before the NAACP
Maggie Gallagher, The Washington Times, 7/15/00