23 November 1999
Our current howler (part II): Right from the start?
Synopsis: The press corps cares about whos in and out. They dont always seem to care who is right.
Gore Gives Bradley the Newt Treatment
Paul Gigot, The Wall Street Journal, 11/19/99
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 problemhe 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
claimsabout 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 corpsa gaggle of gossipslove 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, becausehaving alleged that Gore will say anything
to beat youGigot 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 nastyregarding
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 thenget 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 storiessimpering gossip about who's in and out;
angry stories about who won't behaveand 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
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
(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 themselvesif
they could get a clue what the two plans might cost.)
Elsa Klensch speaks: It's the lawscribes 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!