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15 October 1999

Our current howler: It never stops

Synopsis: Ceci Connolly lambasted poor Bradley and Gore—for something The Dub does too.

Democratic Duel’s Costly Promises
George Hager and Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 10/9/99

Commentary by James Carville
Meet the Press, NBC, 9/12/99

Here on the sprawling campus of DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters—gently nestled in the rolling foothills of Baltimore County's horse country—Saturday morning is quiet time, given over to rest and reflection. We normally take in some Washington Journal, occasionally enjoying both shows. So it was with real surprise, last Saturday morning, that we heard a timorous knock on our door. What could possibly have led the analysts to interrupt at so private a time?

But then, of course! What else could it be? Ceci Connolly was at it, again! The analysts deftly directed our gaze to the first paragraph of her page one Post story:

CONNOLLY (paragraph 1): Vice President Gore and Democratic rival Bill Bradley have already made campaign promises that would spend every penny of the available federal budget surplus for the next 10 years, and possibly more, calculations show.

We've never doubted that Connolly is calculating. But we were a bit surprised by the lead, and by the headline, for reasons that all surely see.

The headline spoke of the "costly promises" of the Democrat Duelists (see above); the subhead said "Gore, Bradley Plans Projected To Erase $1 Trillion Surplus." The opening paragraph said the hopefuls' promises would use up the ten-year projected surplus. Connolly quickly elaborated:

CONNOLLY (2): ...[E]ven with an estimated $1 trillion pot of money to spend...the leading candidates are having trouble making their spending proposals match the available money.

(3) Far more than the Republicans in the race, the two Democrats have both proposed ambitious spending initiatives that they say offer the best opportunity for capitalizing on America's prosperity.

The headline on the page A6 jump? "Gore, Bradley campaign promises would exhaust budget surplus."

We were a little surprised by that page A6 head—though it perfectly captured the sense of the piece—because someone else's "campaign promises" would exhaust the projected surplus too. That hopeful, of course, is Gov. Bush, who also has made a set of proposals that would more than offset the projected surplus. Our eyes scanned down the Connolly piece, looking for some sort of mention of that. Normally, Connolly omits information that gets in the way (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/16/99 and 7/19/99). But this time, by gorry, there it was, a little-bitty mention in paragraph 14:

CONNOLLY (14): Democrats aren't the only ones with potential budget problems. Simply by endorsing the GOP-controlled Congress's $792 billion, 10-year tax cut, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Arizona Sen. John McCain and the other Republican candidates effectively spend most of the non-Social Security surplus as well.

So why are Gore and Bradley singled out for big headlines? Here's why—get your parsing caps on:

CONNOLLY (15): It is the Democratic candidates, though, who have relied most heavily on new government programs to bolster their candidacies.

Oh-h-h. After that, Connolly returned to her principal mission, thrashing those big-spending Dems.

We thought we'd seen it all from Connolly, but her capacity for invention seems endless. Go back and reread paragraph one of her piece—it applies to Bush as well (see below). The page one headline, and the A6 headline, also apply to The Dub. And why are Gore and Bradley subjected to a scolding piece, which seeks to demonstrate that they can't meet a budget? Because, we're told in a tiny aside, their use of the projected surplus is achieved primarily through "new government programs." Bush's use of the projected surplus can be described in a different way. On the basis of this tiny dodge, a bit of page one propaganda is hatched.

Go back over the basics, folks. Page one headline: "Gore, Bradley plans projected to erase surplus." Also true of Bush's plans. Inside headline: "Gore, Bradley campaign promises would exhaust budget surplus." Also true of Bush. First paragraph: Gore and Bradley "have already made campaign promises that would spend every penny of the available federal surplus." True of Bush as well. Everything asserted of Bradley and Gore is also true of Gov. Bush. But readers are told that (barely) in a passing comment, while Gore and Bradley are thrashed throughout, in language that is directly drawn from GOP big-spending boilerplate of the 1980s.

By the way, as the editorial page of Connolly's paper has pointed out, that $1 trillion surplus almost surely doesn't exist; it's based on improbable spending caps that no one thinks future budgets will meet. But then, it isn't just Post eds who have sketched this out—almost every major publication in America has said this in the past six months. Connolly's article is not only striking for its remarkable selectivity, but also for its fiscal ignorance. Would any of these three potential presidents submit budgets that stuck to the spending caps (excluding new proposals)? Almost surely not. So the $1 trillion surplus Connolly refers to would not exist in their budgets to start with. If it's fiscal discipline that alarmed troubled Connolly, surely she'd want to look into that too. But that, of course, would mean rocking the boat in ways that are journalistically incorrect.

By the way, no one mentioned this article on Washington Journal. Why does Connolly keep doing this gruesome work? That's simple. Because she can.


Omitted from our coverage: According to the Post, this article was written by Connolly and by George Hager. But Hager is a charming guy whom we like, so we dropped his name right out of our coverage. Dropping out facts we don't much like is a practice we first learned from Connolly.

Carville speaks: If there were going to be a $1 trillion surplus, there would be three things we could do with it. We could spend it on programs; return it in tax cuts; or apply it to the federal debt. There's nothing wrong with any of those three ideas; if we had a $3 trillion surplus, we might use a trillion on each. But for the record, Bush's suggested ways of using the money have been discussed by one naughty nabob:

CARVILLE: You know what Bush needs? A calculator! Bush so far has come out for this, Mr. Russert, correct me when I'm wrong. An $890 [sic] billion Republican tax cut. He said he wants to repeal the Clinton tax increases of which no Republican, not even Dick Armey, said he wants to repeal the Clinton tax increases. And then he talked about expanding the EITC up. By my calculation, that's somewhere between $1.5 and $1.6 trillion that he wants to blow this budget deficit...This man has promised more than any candidate in history.

Bush has also spoken of increased defense spending. Campaign 2000 has a long way to go; hopefuls never have budget proposals firmed up this early (Sen. Dole's budget plan appeared in August 1996, less than three months before the election). But our question is simple. Does this latest gruesome work from Connolly show how the Post plans to cover this area? The groaning selectivity of this article was astounding—and it massively misled the Post's beat-up readers. But then, that minor problem has been on display in Connolly's work all this year.

Coming Monday (through Thursday): David Maraniss limns Gore in a biographical piece (from last Sunday's Washington Post). We like David Maraniss even more than George Hager. But as we read through the Maraniss piece last Sunday, dark, mordant chuckles emerged from our throat. The analysts insist that we move ahead with a look at this striking profile.