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.

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Why politics has become so damn annoying

I used to be completely enamored of politics.  I was interested in the government issues that were discussed, and intrigued by how professional politicians figured out how to win support from their colleagues and the voters, and proud to see how the system was used to pass laws meant to support the rights and freedoms upon which our country was established.  But the system has moved away from me over the years.

For me America’s politics has become more and more grating as it’s become less about political issues and more about Christian fundamentalism.  I learned about government and politics in a time and a place where government and politics were not seen as a means to enforce some any religious orthodoxy through law; since the law said everyone had freedom to practice their faith, or not to practice one at all, it didn’t occur to me that religions had anything to worry about.

The veil started lifting from my eyes in the 1980 election campaign.  I was a recent college graduate and news reporter trying to comprehend the strident religious rhetoric from the Rev. Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority: wasn’t it out-of-place for this preacher to be mixing religion and politics?  In time I came to understand that a group interest based on religious belief was as valid as any other group interest in an election, but I was never comfortable with the sub rosa assurances from Falwell and his colleagues that their political position came with a Holy Imprimatur (“I’m God, and I approve this message.”)

Today, I see that a goodly portion of the people whom we politely refer to as social conservatives would more accurately characterized as Christian extremists who would like nothing more than to live in a semi-fundamentalist Christian theocracy, despite their declared love for the United States Constitution which expressly forbids that.  Granted, they have shown some, uh, flexibility in insisting they support the original intent of the document throughout, but cherry-picking those passages that support their position on an issue while ignoring all those which don’t.  But I give them credit: they played within the system, they played by the rules, and they’ve all but taken over the Republican Party.

Today I found this thoughtful video editorial at The Daily Beast: Michelle Goldberg gives some props to the religious right while gently scolding the pouters on the left who say they’ve given up on President Obama and electoral politics because they haven’t gotten everything they wanted since he was elected. 

Maybe it was the Reagan Revolution; maybe it was the Goldwater Generation; but conservatives have made the very vivid point that persistence pays off–there are elements at home today in the GOP’s ever-narrowing tent that neither Reagan nor Goldwater would have ever thought would be accommodated.  It’s an object lesson that the Republican fiscal conservatives, and the moderate-progressive-liberal-independent plurality of American citizens, need to take to heart.