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23 November 1999

Our current howler (part II): Right from the start?

Synopsis: The press corps cares about who’s in and out. They don’t always seem to care who is right.

Gore Gives Bradley the Newt Treatment
Paul Gigot, The Wall Street Journal, 11/19/99

Dismantling Medicaid
Bob Herbert, The New York Times, 11/11/99

Commentary by Fred Barnes, Morton Kondracke
The Beltway Boys, Fox News Channel, 11/20/99

‘Most Involved’ Vice President Disengages
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 11/22/99

That's right, folks. By the time you finished those three process stories, you knew quite a bit about Gore. You knew that Gore had given "total control" to Tony Coelho. And you also knew about Gore's biggest problem—he micro-manages his campaign, every part of it! Oh well. None of the articles told you a thing about what Gore has proposed, or might do if elected; none of them told you if Gore is right in his complaints about Bradley's proposals. What did they do instead, dear readers? They made completely contradictory claims—about things that don't turn out to matter.

Does it matter where a hopeful gets his advice? If the advice is good, no, it really doesn't. Nor would it matter where he got his advice if the advice that he got was just bad. But the celebrity press corps—a gaggle of gossips—love to talk about who's in and out. They live for excuses to avoid talking substance. Process stories offer scribes sweet escape.

Paul Gigot is not a gossip, but we were struck by his column last Friday. We found the scribe in a state of high dudgeon because Gore is just being so negative:

GIGOT (paragraph 1): Now Bill Bradley knows how Bob Dole feels. He's learning what it's like to run against someone who will say and do anything to beat you.

But what has Gore said about his opponent? We don't know, because—having alleged that Gore will say anything to beat you—Gigot quotes Gore's words just once:

GIGOT (3): "If a Republican had proposed to eliminate Medicaid, every Democrat in America would be up in arms," the vice president likes to say, in what has become a remarkable daily strafing of his fellow Democrat.

Readers, we taught fifth grade for seven long years, so we also applaud when boys and girls can play nicely. But Gore's critique of Bradley's plan goes well beyond this lonely quote, and Gigot never quotes or paraphrases anything else Gore has said. Are Gore's complaints about Bradley's plan on the mark? At the HOWLER, we simply don't know. But part of the reason we don't know is a steady diet of columns like this, which makes an aggressive critique of a hopeful's style without examining the things that he's said. Gigot says Gore is "nasty" and "ruthless" and a demagogue too, and has a "political faith that absolutely anything goes in order to win." But forget about nasty—regarding health, is Gore right? Is he right when he says that Bradley's plan costs too much; crowds out other priorities; wastes money giving coverage to people who already have it; and gives vouchers to former Medicaid recipients which aren't large enough to buy them real coverage? We don't know. And we'll never find out from Gigot's heated column because Gigot never even mentions these claims, and certainly doesn't try to evaluate them. By contrast, Bob Herbert actually tried to find out what's what. He described a part of the possible problem:

HERBERT (11/11): Medicaid has been like a safe house for the poor. The thought of moving the poor out of Medicaid and into the health care marketplace with only a voucher for protection fills many advocates with dread.

[Bradley's] vouchers to purchase health insurance are, in fact, capped subsidies, and the caps have been set quite low...

Are these advocates right? We don't have a clue. Are the caps set too low? We don't know that either. But then—get this!—Herbert tried to find out! Unheard of! It went something like this:

HERBERT (11/11): I asked David Cutler, a professor of economics at Harvard and a health care adviser to the Bradley campaign, about the financial hurdles faced by the plan. He said he expected the caps to be raised, that the proposed $1,800-a-year ceiling on the health insurance vouchers to be given to poor people would be increased to better reflect the market.

Does that mean the plan will end up costing too much? We don't know, but it's an obvious question. Twelve days later, we haven't seen anyone follow up on what Cutler said. But we did see this exchange on The Boys just this weekend:

FRED BARNES (11/20): These charges by Gore are disingenuous if not totally false. He says Bradley is getting rid of Medicaid...The fact is [Bradley] would substitute another program that would provide a subsidy so poor people could buy their own health insurance...

MORTON KONDRACKE: Look, I've talked to Republican health analysts who say that Gore is absolutely right when he says that Bradley's health plan is so expensive that it would use up the entire budget surplus. [Kondracke's emphasis]

Are Kondracke's Republican analysts right? Once again, we simply can't tell you. But Barnes, like Gigot, makes no attempt to address the issues Herbert defined nine days earlier. And Kondracke, who suggests Gore is right about overall costs, persists in the notion that there is a trillion-dollar surplus available. Every major publication has shown that is false, unless future presidents stick to the 1997 spending caps. Can you see how hard it is to get the scribes to deal with the simplest realities?

We have said "we don't know" again and again in the course of this brief discussion. And do you know why we know so little, dear readers? It's because the press corps simply loves process stories—simpering gossip about who's in and out; angry stories about who won't behave—and refuses to spend its precious time determining which hopefuls are right. Paul Gigot wants to tell you that Gore won't play nice. He complains that Gore will say what it takes. But, oops, he forgot just one small thing. He forgot to say if what Gore says is accurate.


Tomorrow: Recent "process" stories on Sen. Bradley illustrate the flaws of the whole silly genre.

Doleful: For the record, here's how Bob Dole says he feels. On a recent Hardball, he was asked to comment on (what else) Gore's clothes:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: You like this new Al? The olive-colored suits, the three-button jackets, the whole—

DOLE: Well, I don't dislike the old Al. I'll say this about it, they're both men of integrity. I served with them for years in the senate. They're both sort of loners...But they're decent guys, and maybe different philosophies. But it seems to me at the bottom, when you make that final cut, it's going to be Al Gore.

Dole was asked to say more about Bradley:

DOLE: He's a good guy to work with, he's open to argument, he's not the classic partisan...He played a big role in the tax cuts in the 90s, and, you know, he's a solid guy. He's a thinker, he studies. But Al Gore's also a hard worker. So they have two pretty good candidates.

Speaking of saying whatever it takes: Gigot misstates the nature of Bradley's proposal. Here's his second paragraph:

GIGOT (2): The lanky, languid liberal thought he could attract Democrats by expanding government health insurance for children. But to do so he dared to propose replacing the bureaucratic, faltering Medicaid program with subsidies so more of the poor could buy private insurance. According to Al Gore, this makes Mr. Bradley the moral equivalent of Newt Gingrich.

Don't wait for a quote to back up that last paraphrase. Later on, Gigot refers back to his principal assertion:

GIGOT (13): Mr. Gore's attack on the Bradley health plan also comes straight from the 1995-1996 Clinton playbook: First endorse the popular goal your opponent has pioneered...Then seize on a detail to distort and demagogue as "extreme" and heartless.

But Bradley hasn't proposed "expanding health insurance for children." That's what Gore has proposed. Bradley has proposed expanding health coverage on a much wider basis. (That's why he says his plan is better.) The "detail" that Gore has criticized, by the way? He says Bradley's plan would cost a trillion bucks over ten years. To conservative Gigot, a trillion dollars in government spending now somehow has become a "detail."

(NOTE: We don't know who is right about the cost of Bradley's plan. We express no view about whose goal for expanding coverage is wiser. Readers could decide things like that for themselves—if they could get a clue what the two plans might cost.)

Elsa Klensch speaks: It's the law—scribes are required to refer to Gore's clothes. On Monday, Ceci Connolly wrote an article about Gore's "declaration of independence" from Clinton. Here's the first half of her nugget paragraph:

CONNOLLY: From decisions as simple as wardrobe to matters as complicated as abortion, Gore is cutting his ties to Clinton. Part of the shift is evolution, Gore contends, noting "I have to win this on my own."

Really! Does Clinton lay out his vice president's clothes? We'd love to hear Connolly explain how Gore has "cut his ties to Clinton" on the matter of wardrobe!