The 47% fallout at Fox, as told by Jon Stewart

It has been great fun to watch the political circus play out around last week’s revelation of Mitt Romney’s campaign gaffe—or to put it another way, that chance for the rest of us to hear the truth Romney tells his supporters behind closed doors.  The good folks at The Daily Show even took a good-natured little poke at their friends at Fox News Channel for their contortionally-magnificent defense of the Republican Party nominee: “Let me sum up the message from Bullshit Mountain, if I may: this inartfully-stated dirty liberal smear is a truthful expression of Mitt Romney’s political philosophy and it is a winner.”  Click the pic for the whole beautiful report.

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This is the core of Bullshit Mountain: the 49% entitlement society Obama enables.  That is the core of the Bullshit Nation fiction, that somehow only since Obama, the half of Americans who love this country and work hard and are good have had the fruits of their labor seized and handed over to the half of this nation that is lazy and dependent and the opposite of good—I’m sure there’s a better term for that.  Now, in that 49% [Sean] Hannity is including those on Social Security and Medicare, or as I like to call them, his audience.

Thanks to Mashed Potato Bulletin for the heads up.

Mitt: Did I say that out loud?

Years ago I was a political junkie, but I kicked it. Turned out it was pretty easy to get the political process monkey off my back when the campaign content and tactics got so distasteful that I couldn’t bear to listen. But some things come back easily, in the right circumstances.

The “hidden video” news revealing Mitt Romney in an unguarded moment in his native environment—among the wealthy—expressing his apparently-honest feelings about a large portion of his fellow citizens left me shaking my head and imagining the effect on voters. Even if what he said was right—and mostly it’s not—demonstrating that contempt for the poor and the elderly, who make up most of those who owe no federal income tax but still pay plenty of other taxes, isn’t going to help Romney with his likeability problem. Today’s revelation of another video clip from that same fundraiser—in which Romney asserts that Palestinians (apparently, all of them) “have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace” with Israel—and the promise of the full video still to come, makes you grateful to live in a time when everyone with a phone is a potential hidden camera.

Romney is right about the fact that most people, on both sides, have made up their minds, and the outcome depends on the choices of a small portion of voters. The experts haven’t had time yet to gather data on how Romney’s truth outbursts in a Florida fundraiser will affect those undecided voters, but that data will get put into the mix along with this very interesting analysis of the polling up to this point which concludes that “Given where the election is being contested, however, the most likely outcome is that Obama wins enough tipping-point states to eke out a victory.” I can hardly wait for the debates!

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.

Demand more

I’ve been trying like hell to ignore the presidential campaigns, and with a good deal of success: mostly, because I cannot conceive of what a life without respite from politics would be like, no matter how important the office or how laudable the candidate; and, because the modern campaign is so completely full of crap that my intelligence cannot put up with the constant insults.  C’mon, really—there’s no good reason for nearly-continuous presidential campaigns, unless it’s to occupy the attention of the leaches who feed on the blood that runs those campaigns and prevent them from bothering decent people in the off years.

To the second point, I refer you to a column I ran across today at CNN.com that makes the point that we, the vast unseen unwashed American voting public, deserve better campaigns than the ones we get.  David Rothkopf uses the current flap over Harry Reid’s unsubstantiated accusations about Mitt Romney’s tax payments to make his point:

But of course, this is one dust-up that will never end. Because in modern politics it seems the goal is to constantly find ways to smear the opposition, facts and decency be damned. That’s the reason the birther lie endures. That’s the reason that John Kerry, whose military service was distinguished, could be besmirched by the “swift boaters” and a host of political opponents who hadn’t anything like his record of service. And because both sides do it to one another, it is considered to be fair play.

Rothkopf points out a few examples of the bipartisan hypocrisy attendant to campaigns today, and to be candid they are nothing that most people haven’t shaken their heads about before.  But he does something better, more constructive, in offering specific reminders about the things that are not getting proper attention amidst the quadrennial Great American Pie Fight.

America is facing unprecedented challenges. Our economy doesn’t work the way it once did. It is growing more slowly. It is rebounding from crisis more slowly. It is not creating jobs as it has. It is not creating wealth for the population at large the way it used to. Inequality is growing. Our competitiveness is faltering even as competition is growing.

(Wait for it, conservative extremists…he’s making a point here about the things that we “exceptional” Americans can do.)

A new energy mix can free us of dependency on dangerous nations, create jobs and a cleaner environment at home. Our economy is well poised to lead a “Third Industrial Revolution,” driven by high value-added manufacturing in which intellectual capital, the kind we create especially well, is the critical input. We protect that capital better than many of our competitors, too.

We’re in a position to remake our infrastructure, as must be done thanks to very low interest rates, if only we could come to understand the difference between spending and investing. We need to rethink our convoluted tax structure, our broken fiscal system, our corrupt campaign finance system and the way we defend ourselves and project our force worldwide. It is beyond arguing that we need to do something about gun control in this country.

Rothkopf’s lament is that we should be debating these question, not the minutiae that passes for “issues” these days, and I agree.  These are the kinds of things that Americans used to have serious discussions about, used to reason together about and find solutions for, solutions that benefitted society as a whole.  It can be that way again if we really want it to be…if we’ve got the courage and the attention span to make it happen.  Now is as good a time as any to start work on that.

The powers that be control the message—even more than you know

Here is another depressing argument that the reality you and I inhabit, and feel comfortable most days saying we have some control over, has been sanitized for our protection.

The New York Times reports that “quote approval” is a common practice with the Obama and Romney campaigns, but also among most of the government bureaucracy.  Campaign or government officials agree to an interview with the proviso that they get pre-publication approval as to “what statements can be quoted and attributed by name.”

The chutzpah is galling, yes?  But here’s the worst part: the reporters agree to the condition!

It’s nothing new for politicians to go to extraordinary lengths to manage the impressions we get of them, and that’s not all bad: I’d rather have leaders who take time to consider what they’re doing and how their actions will be perceived than leaders who don’t take a moment to think about alternative courses of action and their potential outcomes.  And remember, there is no requirement anywhere that any politician or candidate for office need ever consent to be interviewed; that’s just the way, historically, that they have communicated with the people who put them in power.  They’re free to ask for any condition at all in return for an interview.

But, the role of the journalist in our system is to report—to dig, to uncover, to reason, to relate, to provide context—so the rest of us can hold leaders to account for the actions that they do take.  It’s not the job of the journalist to help the leaders fabricate a version of reality that puts them in a more positive light, and letting them clean up their quotes is doing just that.  (This system doesn’t work for an interview that is broadcast live on television or radio or the Web…yea, TV and radio.)

The politicians themselves betray a little self-consciousness on the issue—“The Obama campaign declined to make Mr. Plouffe or Mr. Messina available to explain their media practices. ‘We are not putting anyone on the record for this story,’ said Katie Hogan, an Obama spokeswoman, without a hint of irony.”—and the Times story says reporters “grudgingly agree” to this restriction.

I would argue that they should not agree at all.  Giving in to the bully is not the way to get him to stop stealing your lunch money.

Politicians should have the fortitude to stand by whatever they say when they agree to an on-the-record interview, whether it’s broadcast on television or reported in a printed publication, and I’m disappointed to learn about some of those who demand the final rewrite as if they were negotiating a movie deal.  But journalists mustuphold a higher standard, and that means no more cooperating with the cover-up.  Today’s story in the Times is a good start, because now the rest of us have a better idea of what’s going on.  Shining a light on this stupid practice is the first step toward bringing it to an end.

I’d love to see a story that informed me “candidate so-and-so would only agree to an interview if The Daily Disappointment gave him authority to decide which quotes would be included in the story.”  No news publication can cede the responsibility to write its own story as its writers and editors see fit; to give up that authority to the people who are the subjects of the story is to erase any reason for you or me to believe anything they print.

The author and critic Louis Kronenberger wrote that “The trouble with us in America isn’t that the poetry of life has been turned to prose, but that it has been turned to advertising copy.”  He wrote that in 1954…change is sure slow.

→UPDATE 7/17:  Turns out that not all the reporters give “quote approval”–congratulations, Associated Press!