10 November 1999
Our current howler (part III): Dont ask, dont tell
Synopsis: After the forum, Margaret Carlson explained why the pundits werent talking about substance.
Commentary by Margaret Carlson
Capital Gang, CNN, 10/30/99
Geoffrey Cowley and Bill Turque, Newsweek, 11/8/99
What kind of Democrats are they?
Nancy Gibbs, Time, 11/1/99
Gore Attacks Bradley Prescription for Health Cares Ills
Bob Davis and Laurie McGinley, The Wall Street Journal, 11/8/99
The New Hampshire Face-Off
Editorial, The Washington Post, 10/29/99
The Gore-Bradley Debate
Editorial, The New York Times, 10/29/99
Commentary by Al Gore, George Will
This Week, ABC, 10/31/99
Bush Falters in Foreign Policy Quiz
Terry Neal, The Washington Post, 11/5/99
What sorts of judgments will pundits make if they analyze the
Gore/Bradley health plans? Who's right about the costs of Bradley's
plan? Frankly, we don't have a clue. We don't know, for example,
if the Emory study is rightif Bradley's plan would cost more
than he thinks. Our analysts continue to probe and prod the three
articles that were published this Monday.
No, in the wake of the Democrats' town hall forum, there was
no way to expect an instant resolution of the Gore-Bradley health
care dispute. But it wouldn't have hurt if pundits had offered
some modest attempt at an overview. Instead, they gabbed about
the hopefuls' clothes, and endlessly told us who had seemed more
authentic. A Manichean struggle was fought for their souls. Who
would winsubjectivity or trivia?
And in the midst of all the pointless chatter, pundits came
up with various theories as to why they weren't talking about
substance. For example, Margaret Carlson appeared on Capital
Gang three days after the town hall debate. She offered this
surprising take on why the pundits were talking up style:
CARLSON: One of the things is, because [Gore and Bradley] don't
differ on issues, as you say, is that we're spending a lot of
time talking about the shade of blue in their shirts and like
there's the Center for the Study of Budget Priorities, there's
now schools of thought studying boredom and stiffness and who's
going to cope with it better.
Other pundits said that voters just don't care about "issues"
this year. And many pundits acted as if the dispute was just strangethey
were amazed that hopefuls would actually care whether a health
plan would bust up the budget.
Carlson was right on one key point. Pundits were debating
the shade of blue in Gore's shirt; Mary McGrory said it was "gunmetal
blue," another pundit (Tony Blankley?) said "steel."
But nothing could have caused this vapid discussion except a devotion
to things that don't matter. Is it true that the hopefuls "don't
differ on issues?" At the forum, Gore challenged Bradley
repeatedly on health careand every survey being conducted shows
health care at the top of the voters' concerns. Let's just say
itthe celebrity pundits like talking about clothes. They
couldn't care less about health care plansand don't intend to
But before we leave the town hall forum, one point of substance
really must be discussed. That is the very basic matter of how
hopefuls are "spending the surplus." In this area, the
press corps has fallen back on old habits, critiqued by THE DAILY
HOWLER before (see postscript). Here's how Newsweek framed
the debate the week after the Bradley-Gore forum:
COWLEY AND TURQUE: Unfortunately, no one knows how much Bradley's
plan would cost; the estimates range from $650 billion over ten
years to $1.2 trilliona figure that could devour the entire projected
This, of course, is how Gore framed the problem at the town
hall forum. Bradley's plan would spend the entire non-SS surplus,
leaving nothing for other priorities. The construction has become
the press corps norm. Nancy Gibbs, in Time's preview of
GIBBS: While [Gore] would dip into the projected surplus to
pay for his own health care and poverty programs, he is not as
free-spending as Bradley, whose health-care plan alone could consume
most of the non-Social Security surplus for the next 10 years.
Bob Davis and Laurie McGinley, in the Wall Street Journal's
health plan story this past Monday:
DAVIS AND MCGINLEY: Now, with a projected $1 trillion surplus
over the next decadeapart from Social Securityit is far from
clear which priority Democratic voters will find more attractive:
Bradley-style universal health care or Medicare preservation,
a la Gore...[Bradley] estimates the cost [of his health plan] at
$500 to $650 billion over 10 years, which would bite deeply into
the surplus but not exhaust it.
But that, of course, is only true if the surplus actually exists.
And as we've pointed out before, almost all major publications
have explained a basic point about current surplus projections.
The non-SS projection is based on the assumption that the 1997
spending caps will be honored in future yearsand almost no one
believes that will happen. That's right, folks. If federal spending
rises at just the rate of inflation, the projected non-SS surplus
is virtually wiped out.
To their credit, some editorial pages have made this point
in the wake of the town hall forum. The Washington Post, in its
Day Two editorial, said this about the health care debate:
THE WASHINGTON POST (10/29): Both candidates, moreover, like
to say that their proposals can be paid for out of the non-Social
Security budget surplus...But the surplus projection is based on
the assumption that Congress will respect the spending caps agreed
upon two years ago. There is not the slightest chance of this.
The analysts cheered here at HOWLER World Headquarters. And
then they spied this, in the Times:
THE NEW YORK TIMES (10/29): Neither candidate admitted that
there may be no $1 trillion surplus outside of Social Security.
That estimate assumes that Congress will live under existing budget
caps and cut most federal programs by 20 percent or more. Voters
deserve to hear what existing programs the candidates would squeeze
out to make room for their new ideas.
Indeed, we liked the Times editorial more than the Post's because
it raised the matter of a future president's role. Would a President
Bradley or Gore stick to the caps? It strikes us as extremely
unlikely. But, if candidates are going to talk about using the
surplus, it's a question that ought to be asked.
But don't plan on seeing that happen. Just consider who asks
the questions around here! For example, Gore appeared on ABC's
This Week the Sunday after the forum. He made his standard
complaint about Bradley's plan; it "uses up the entire surplus
for the next ten years and doesn't save anything for Medicare."
It was the perfect spot for some smart pundit to pop the question
about the caps. Here's what George Will asked instead:
WILL: The Washington Post, which is not a nest of right-wingers,
says that you too have spent the entire surplus with your proposals.
GORE: Not true. Not true.
WILL: Bill Bradley says it's promises without price tags.
GORE: Not true. I put price tags on everything.
Will referred to a pair of news stories about the total cost
of Gore's plans, not to the question of spending caps. Cokie Roberts
quickly raised a real concern about money; she asked about
that crazy salary paid towho elseNaomi Wolf.
Does it matter if our public discourse makes sense? If so,
scribes should inquire about these basic budget matters. All
of the candidates ought to be asked. But we won't be holding our
breath at THE HOWLER.
Tomorrow: We finally leave the Dem town hall forum,
revisiting one troubling matter.
All in the family: The analysts found themselves lustily
cheering as they read Michael Kelly this morning:
KELLY: We [journalists] are so relentlessly mindless. Reporters
like to picture themselves as independent thinkers. In fact, with
the exception of 13-year-old girls, there is no social subspecies
more slavish to fashion, more terrified of originality and more
devoted to group-think.
We made a note to telephone Kelly and suggest we meet for that
root beer we've been planning. But Kelly, writing about the Bush
pop quiz flap, quickly went on to say this:
KELLY: Thus, the Hiller interview is played big because it
fitsneatly, mindlesslyinto a template of the campaign, which
is it self a template of an older template: Bush is a know-nothing;
Republicans are mostly know-nothings.
Is that how the Hiller interview has been played? In
fact, pundits have almost uniformly complained about Hiller's
questions. On The NewsHour last Friday night, Paul Gigot,
Mark Shields, and Jim Lehrer all seemed to agreethere was an
"ambush, gotcha quality" to the "ankle-biting"
questions, which "gave journalism another black eye."
All three implied they wouldn't have known the answers. These
views have been almost uniform. On The News with Brian
Williams Friday night, Leon Panetta called the interview
a "cheap shot," and Stephen Hess offered this:
HESS: I thought it was rather interesting how few other candidates
came forward...The only one who released his press secretary was
Al Gore, whose press secretary said, "Oh, my man knows the
answers to that." I must say that reminded me of the movie
Election...Reese Witherspoon was always raising her hand saying,
"I know, I know the answer to that," and by the end
of the movie you were thinking, "Oh gee do I hate that young
Ouch! On Capital Gang, the topic wasn't even discussed;
in the "outrages," Robert Novak complained about the
"wise guy reporter," and Margaret Carlson said it was
"Gotcha." On Meet the Press, William Safire said
"Gotcha""fun" but "phony," and
Doris Kearns Goodwin said most people would identify with Bush,
not the reporter, and seemed to say that the interview had been
orchestrated by Democrats! Monday night, Robert Woodward, on Hardball,
called the questioning "unfair." There was a fairly
uniform view expressed, but it didn't comport well with Kelly's
By the way, Kelly echoed Hess when he said, "Only the
campaign of Al Gore, the call-on-me candidate, was quick to say
their teacher's pet would have aced the quiz." This point,
too, was made over and over. Unfortunately, the group's thought
NEAL: While the campaign of GOP rival Steve Forbes decided
not to say anything, the campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain
took a subtle jab. When spokesman Todd Harris was asked yesterday
if McCain would have been able to answer those questions, he answered:
"We don't want to pile on," Harris said, chuckling,
before adding: "Our feeling is, it was probably an unfair
question that the governor was not prepared for and was not briefed
Luckily, Kelly and other scribes did know what to do. They
pretended this exchange hadn't happened.