Just like a little love, campaign truth is hard to find

You hold your breath…you make a wish…and you’re disappointed when it doesn’t come true.  And then you remember that things don’t happen just because you wish them to.  Such is the case, not very surprisingly, with the level of discussion this week in the race for president.

Mitt Romney’s selection of Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan (no relation) as his running mate last Saturday was greeted as good news by some people positioned all along the political spectrum, from those tea party members and fiscal conservatives who love his budget plans to those more liberal folks who believed his serious interest in issues would spark a real debate.  How long did that last?

Until Tuesday.

If we can all agree that Joe Biden is to oratory what Spam is to steak, we can agree that his inelegant comment to a mixed-race audience in Virginia was not meant to invoke the specter of slavery.  Yet that was all Romney and Ryan had to say—that the Democrats were running a campaign of hate—even before that evening’s newscasts hit the air.  (I do give them credit, though, for how well they can operate with the threshold set so low on such a finely-tuned sense of outrage.)

Tuesday also featured some well-prepared interviewers catching Romney surrogates on their indefensible claim about Medicare cuts under Obamacare.  This piece on Mediate has all the links to both occasions: CNN’s Soledad O’Brien with John Sununu, and Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume with Ryan himself, as each of them tried to pass off the latest Republican mischaracterization (to be kind) of the impact to Medicare funding under the Affordable Care Act.  Just nailed them, which was amusing; watch the clips.  The partisan noisemakers can’t really slough this off with the standard allegation of liberal media bias—we’re talking BRIT HUME here!  If FOX NEWS was schooling your VP, you got to make allowances that just maybe CNN was playing it down the middle, too.

But the best thing I saw on Tuesday, from the perspective of trying to keep the facts straight, was an interview on Slate with the author of The New New Deal.  Journalist Michael Grunwald went looking for the truth about the impact of The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—President Obama’s $800 billion stimulus bill passed by Congress in early 2009, designed to help get the country’s economy rolling again.  His conclusion: the stimulus bill worked.

Not that everything in it worked, or worked perfectly, not that there weren’t problems or some waste and fraud.  But mostly, the stimulus bill did what it was designed to do; it can be argued that the economy hasn’t done better because the stimulus was too small, although Obama could never have gotten Congress to go for more.

…the stimulus was supposed to create jobs at a time when jobs were vanishing at a terrifying rate. Nonpartisan economists agree that it helped stop the free fall; job losses peaked the month before it passed, and the economy dramatically improved once it kicked into gear. But even after the dramatic improvements, the unemployment rate was still sky-high and rising; an economy can do a lot better than losing 800,000 jobs a month without doing well. Ultimately, the stimulus was a 2.5 million-job solution to an 8 million-job problem.

To the extent that Obama’s opponents will argue that Grunwald’s story is biased, he replies:

I don’t think my book portrays the Republicans as “vicious,” but I do show—thanks to a lot of in-depth interviews with GOP sources—how they plotted to obstruct Obama before he even took office. I show how the stimulus was chock full of stuff they claimed to support until Jan. 20, 2009—not just things like health IT and the smart grid and energy efficiency and scientific research, but the very idea of Keynesian stimulus. Every presidential candidate in 2008 proposed a stimulus package, and Mitt Romney’s was the largest. So I do spend a fair amount of time chronicling Republican stimulus hypocrisies. (Readers might enjoy the backstory of Sen. Judd Gregg’s short-lived nomination to be Obama’s commerce secretary.) In general, I’d have to say my reporting backs up the Norm Ornstein-Thomas Mann thesis that the Republicans have gone off the policy deep end—denying global warming, denying Keynesian economics (except when it comes to business tax cuts and defense spending!), trashing Obama’s government takeover of health care and also his Medicare cuts, drumming stimulus supporters like Crist and Specter out of the party.

Read the interview; the book is just coming out this week.  I want to hear this story—we should all want to hear this story, and other stories—from someone who hasn’t already sold out to one party or one candidate.

We’ve debated a bizarro-world stimulus that does not exist. And I think that’s true about Obama, too. I don’t think he comes across as “brilliant.” I think he comes across as a pragmatic left-of-center technocrat who wasn’t interested in pursuing lost causes, but basically tried to do what he said he would do during the campaign. He wasn’t a policy entrepreneur with new policy ideas, but he did his best to get 60 votes for old policy ideas that made sense, and then pushed his administration to put them into action as cleanly and competently as possible. And I did a lot of reporting in the bowels of the bureaucracy and around the country to show how change has been playing out.

I tried to tell the story as fairly and honestly as I could. But I didn’t try to be balanced for the sake of balance. When politicians were full of shit, I tried to point that out.

That’s what we need more of from reporters.  Dutifully transcribing the opinion of the spokeshuman from one party and then the opinion of the spokeshuman from a second party doesn’t get us the truth; what the political parties have to say is designed to benefit the parties, not to promote truth.

Upon further review, we’ve determined that the deal isn’t really much of a deal

Well, everything turned out just swell after all the drama over the debt ceiling debate, didn’t it?  I mean, so long as you don’t mind that:

–the sorry spectacle of the political fight led one rating agency to drop America’s debt rating a notch below AAA anyway: it doesn’t doubt that the U.S. can pay its debts, but feels the political stalemate raised questions about the government’s willingness to pay its debts, and so lowered the rating as a warning to investors;

–the deal doesn’t actually reduce the nation’s debt, it just lowers the rate at which it is rising; and

–taking the nation’s financial health hostage in a political negotiation was shown to be an effective tactic, so we can expect to see it used again in the future.

Among the lessons learned:

–the deal assumes the elimination of the so-called Bush tax cuts at the end of 2012, meaning Republicans gave up the very thing they fought so hard for a year ago.

Plucking flaccid compromise from obstinacy should not be mistaken for victory, just as the smell emanating from Washington after this deal shouldn’t be mistaken for success.

82% of Americans are unhappy (disgusted?) with the performance of Congress on the debt issue, nearly half are unhappy with the president’s handling of the situation, and 40% view the Tea Party unfavorably.

More than four out of five people surveyed said that the recent debt-ceiling debate was more about gaining political advantage than about doing what is best for the country. Nearly three-quarters said that the debate had harmed the image of the United States in the world.

–the political system in Washington, D.C. is becoming more and more unproductive, and may not be able to help us with anything.

The president has tried reasonableness and he has failed. It has been astonishing to watch Obama’s sheer unwillingness to give up on his opponents after their refusal to work with him on the stimulus package, health care reform, or the extension of the Bush tax cuts last fall. A Congress dominated by mindless cannibals is now feasting on a supine president. But surely even he now realizes there’s no middle ground with antagonists whose only interest is in seeing him humiliated.

More real fun is going to come later in the year when a new federal fiscal commission tries to come up with a plan to solve the federal government’s money problems.  If it’s anything like the most recent such commissions, it will find that cutting the budget just can’t produce enough savings to right the ship and it will also look for equitable ways to increase revenue.  It could start by checking this week’s local paper: Ezra Klein outlines a plan for Democrats to boost revenue by negotiating like Republicans, and Charles Krauthammer offers a very rational outline for reforming and simplifying taxes so our representatives in Washington could have a fresh starting point on the coming negotiations on tax rates and entitlement reforms…and they are coming.