Before I begin with the serious stuff, I'd like to indulge in a little gratuitous media-bashing first. If that sort of thing isn't your cup of tea, just skip to the next section now. You have been warned.
A few weeks ago, because of firing Dan Froomkin and selling access to their reporters and in general for their op-ed priorities, I wrote that the Washington Post had reduced itself, in terms of being a trustworthy outlet for news, to a cartoon (Tom Toles' editorial cartoons, to be exact -- about the only thing left worth reading on their op-ed pages). But now it's looking like this is a deeper trend than just one seriously annoyed blogger. Because, with Walter Cronkite's passing, the title of "most trusted newsman in America" now passes to... Jon Stewart? The glaring problem with this is that Jon Stewart is not a journalist! He's a comedian. He readily admits that what he does is "fake news." And yet, even with this admission, he is trusted more than the big three network news anchors to deliver facts to America. That is a sad, sad, state of affairs, people.
Nothing against Jon Stewart, of course. His brand of political satire can be hilarious at times, and such satire on television is just as important as cartoons are on the newspaper op-ed pages. So I do not belittle what Stewart does, or what he has accomplished. But there's a reason why the Time magazine poll shows (with a handy map) that Stewart beat (or, in two cases, tied) Katie Couric, Brian Williams, and Charlie Gibson in thirty-eight states in this country on who America's most trusted newscaster is. Because the quality of not just the anchors, but network news in general, is so incredibly low that a comedian gets more respect from the public in more than three-quarters of the United States.
In support of this argument, I offer up Exhibit A -- Chuck Todd. Now, I probably could have randomly chosen just about any other network reporter or anchor and made the same point, just in case you think I'm singling Todd out here. I offer him up not as the worst example, but as a representative example, in other words. I used to have a lot more respect for Todd back during the campaign when he was the "polls and numbers" guy for NBC. He stood in front of the cool computerized maps of the electoral numbers by state back then. But since, he has been promoted to Chief White House Correspondent for NBC. Meaning his beat is the White House now. Which also means he is the guy in the audience who gets to ask a question for the National Broadcasting Company during presidential press conferences, such as the one we had Wednesday night.
A big part of Chuck's job definition -- what NBC assumably pays him a lot of money for, in other words -- is to competently ask questions to the President of the United States. Now, to be fair, sometimes such questions can be hasty and ad hoc, when asked on the run. But this is a formal press conference, where Todd has had days and days to formulate a question, endless hours in which to practice saying his question in front of a mirror (so he'd get it right on national television) and -- importantly -- he knows he will be called on (unlike a lot of the people in that room).
Here is Chuck Todd's question for President Obama, which I personally transcribed from the audio. [To be polite, interjections such as "um" have been removed (as is usually done when presenting the spoken word as written text), and non-standard elisions such as "gonna" have been changed to "going to" -- both standard editing practice. But I have not edited his words beyond that.] This is what he gets paid the big bucks for:
Thank you, sir. We're just talking in that question about... about reducing health care inflation, reducing cost. Can you explain how you're going to expand coverage... is it fair to say... is this bill going to cover all 47 million Americans that are uninsured, or is this going to be something... is it going to take a mandate... or is this something that isn't... your bill is probably not going to get it all the way there, and if it's not going to get all the way there, can you say how far is enough... you know... "OK, 20 million more, I can sign that, 10 million more, I can't"?
Now, how many Americans think that, if given the same exact chance -- and knowing he would be called upon -- Jon Stewart couldn't have asked the exact same question a little bit better?
But maybe that's a cheap shot. It's a stylistic thing, after all. Maybe Chuck Todd was just nervous. Trustworthiness is based upon more than style, after all. It's about getting the facts straight, and telling the American public what they are. Here are Brian Williams and Chuck Todd chatting, after the presser finished. Notice that BriWi starts out with an introduction which pats television journalism on the back, NBC on the back, and reminds everyone once again of the incredibly high opinion television journalists have of themselves (which, as the Time poll so painfully shows, is just not warranted).
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Chuck Todd, our man in the arena, in the front row, first of the television correspondents called out. Chuck, what stood out to you?
CHUCK TODD: I would say there's [sic] two headlines. If you're following the health care debate because you're wondering about the future of health care, you heard him [Obama] promise 97 percent coverage, and you heard him promise that only if you make a million dollars are you going to get taxed, that that's how this thing is going to get paid for, and I think that those were details that hadn't been clear before tonight. I think if you're following the politics of this debate, you learned that the August deadline is very flexible, as he sort of started to... use language that said, "I want a bill that's right, and I won't necessarily sign a bill just because it gets to my desk very quickly," so, he's showing flexibility on that... timeline... but... and we did learn about who's going to pay for this thing.
That sounds like some pretty good journalistic tea-leaf reading, huh? Except that most of it is flat-out wrong. President Obama did not come remotely close to "promising" either of the things Chuck Todd said he did. Maybe this is why the headlines Todd predicted for the next morning just did not appear. Don't believe me? Read the full transcript of the press conference for yourself, and see if you agree that Obama "promised" anything of the sort, in either case.
Obama said that taxing millionaires did "meet his principle" that the middle class wouldn't have to pay for the bill. But it was couched by lots of soft language such as: "they've got a number of ideas... we haven't seen a final draft... I haven't seen the final versions... what I want to do is to see what emerges from these committees...." Believe me, I wish Obama had made that promise, which I wrote about this week in pretty strong terms. And I wish Obama had promised a few other things here and there, which I also wrote about in pretty strong terms, just before the press conference started.
But he just didn't. On the 97 percent question, Obama agreed with Chuck Todd (in response to his mangled question) that it would be a good goal to shoot for, but that likely wouldn't be met: "I want to cover everybody. Now, the truth is that, unless you have a -- what's called a single-payer system, in which everybody is automatically covered, then you're probably not going to reach every single individual." Obama then went on to generalize a bit, but in no way did he ever even approach "promising" that 97 percent of Americans would be covered. So Chuck Todd, who was sitting in the same room listening to the President of the United States answer a direction question from his own lips, apparently just did not listen to the answer. And then he rushed to the cameras after Obama left the room to report what he thought he had heard, even though it was incorrect.
Todd went on to indict pretty much the entire mainstream media for focusing on a story which didn't even exist and express astonishment that what was being fought over in newspapers and on cable television was not reality. Astonishment, that is, that anyone would think that there was a different reality than what the inside-the-Beltway crowd had decided upon for that particular week.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: And Chuck, how would you characterize the president tonight? If it wasn't a new urgency he came out with tonight, it was hardly resignation either, though as you noted, the can's been kicked down the road in terms of deadlines, a bit?
CHUCK TODD: He did. You know, I thought he seemed... he didn't seem like he'd been beaten up politically the way, frankly, if you read the newspapers or watch cable on this health care debate, you would think he had been taking a brutal beating. He seemed a lot more confident that he is going to get something. The fact is, we do know he met with some key... he talked with a key senator, Max Baucus... he talked about that tonight... the finance committee. He must have liked what he heard, because there did seem to be a confidence in him about getting this done. I just also found... he enjoyed the lighthearted moments there a little bit... talking about... his own doctor and how great that health care is, and then joking about what it would be like breaking into his own house.
Which brought it back to the new story the mainstream media had latched upon as the Most Important Issue of the day. Average Americans are much more concerned, you see, with some cop in Massachusetts than they are with whether they'll go bankrupt over healthcare bills.
Oh, the other story which the talking heads completely missed this week? The Dow Jones Industrial Average hit 9,000 points, after a rally that has lasted a few months, and has gained back everything lost since Obama took office. Remember all the media fulminating a few months ago that "as goes the Dow, so goes the economy," and "Obama's obviously a failure on the economy, just look at the Dow"? Remember? Well, that storyline has gone down the Memory Hole now that the Dow's back up again. I heard Brian Williams himself introduce a story about the Dow's climb by taking great pains to explain how the Dow was and should be seen as totally and completely separate from the state of the economy.
It is no wonder more people trust a comedian poking fun at politicians and the media, because he makes his living exposing and highlighting these idiocies to America on a daily basis. And there's certainly no shortage of material there -- nor will there be in the foreseeable future, sad to say.
In conclusion, let me congratulate Jon Stewart for achieving "Most Trusted Newscaster Even Though I'm A Comedian And Never Said I'm A Journalist" status. And for putting all the people who should have been in the running for that title to shame.
Which leads me to our own awards quite nicely (easy transition this week...).
This week's awards for Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week and Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week could be titled: "A Tale Of Two Houses." Now, I'm not normally a big Dickens fan, but I simply could not have put it better myself:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way -- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Which leads us to the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader. Anyone want to bet on which house will produce a bill first? I'll take the House, you can have the Senate. No takers? No? Nobody?
Imagine my surprise. To be honest, I didn't think anyone would take that bet right now. Because, no matter what the outcome, the differences between Pelosi's leadership in the House and Reid's "leadership" in the Senate is, without doubt, "in the superlative degree of comparison only."
Pelosi is knocking heads and taking names over in the House. She is threatening their five-week vacation (an idea I've been pushing for a while), threatening the Blue Dogs in Henry Waxman's committee that she's just going to bypass them and move a bill to the floor, and she's threatening (or "whipping" in the parlance of Washington) all her House Democrats to stand together and hold firm.
And she has appeared confident to both wavering party members and the press that she has the votes to get it through. She may indeed have them, or she may be bluffing. But the bluff (if it is one) has certainly made her opponents think twice about opposing her. It's a show of strength, in other words. It could work, it could fail. The jury's still out on that.
But simply for acting like a leader this week, Speaker Pelosi wins the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award hands-down. Pelosi is often dismissed by her critics because she represents the district of San Francisco in the House, but people forget that she learned politics in Baltimore, at her Daddy's knee. And Baltimore is closer, in this respect, to the bare-knuckled politics of Chicago than it is to San Francisco. People forget Pelosi's past at their own peril, in other words. Pelosi knows how to lead. She knows how to double-dare her opponents in a way that makes everyone wonder if she is stronger than she appears, or merely bluffing -- which winds up raising the stakes and risks for such opposition. This is good psychology, and good hardball politics.
Congressional leaders have all sorts of tools at their disposal to goad their fellow party members into action. Sometimes it takes drastic goads. Sometimes these efforts fail. But it is indeed refreshing to see someone like Pelosi actually use these tools the way they are meant to be used. Whether she gets a House floor vote on healthcare reform legislation before the end of August or not, Pelosi wins the MIDOTW award this week just for showing us all how it should be done.
[Congratulate Speaker Nancy Pelosi on her Speaker contact page to let her know you appreciate her efforts.]
Which, sadly, brings us to the foolishness for the ages, and the season of darkness over in the Senate. Harry Reid has been so disappointing on so many levels for so long, that I think I will start referring to him as "Senate Majority Designated Milquetoast Harry Reid." Because I just can't bring myself to type the word "leader" -- especially not in a title, and capitalized "Leader" -- to refer to Senator Reid any more.
Speaker Pelosi began healthcare legislation in the House by getting the three committee chairs whose committees would have to deal with the bill together -- so they could present one bill that could make it through all three committees without intra-house squabbling. She has not succeeded in this, but she did get the same bill through two of those three before hitting the Blue Dog snag. Reid did not follow this example, and let the two Senate committees work separately. Due to the absence of Senator Ted Kennedy (who chairs one of these committees, but has been sidelined due to health reasons), Max Baucus has been hogging the spotlight since the beginning of this process. Kennedy's committee passed a bill, but Baucus has been stalling by telling everyone he wants a "bipartisan" bill -- even though he knows full well that no Republicans are going to vote for any such bill in his committee, even if it were labeled the "Republicans Save Health Care, Democrats Are Evil And Should Be Rounded Up, And Obama Wasn't Born In Hawai'i Act of 2009." It just ain't gonna happen, but that hasn't stopped Baucus from wasting everyone's time chasing this moonbeam.
Reid's job, in such a case, is to knock some heads behind the scenes, and break up the logjam. Reid's job, like Pelosi's, is to cajole and (yes) threaten recalcitrant "Democrats" to get something done. Reid's job is to threaten every senator's five-week summer vacation, if it becomes necessary.
Imagine if Harry Reid had stood up this week and said the following:
"The senators on Senator Baucus' committee have said they need more time to get a bill out. Fine. The Senate will not adjourn for August until they are done. Because if they truly do need just a bit of time to get this done -- and are not merely trying to kill the effort through endless delays because it's easier politically than taking a public stand -- then we have five long weeks, and nothing on the calendar for those five weeks. Now, I know that most senators would prefer to go on summer recess, so I direct all their comments to Senator Baucus and their fellow senators on Baucus' committee. Let him know the urgency of finishing their work. If this work takes a little more time, then we will all sit here in Washington in August until the work is done. If they truly are trying to kill healthcare, then they can publicly say so, and we can all go home for the summer, and I can report to the president and the American people that because Max Baucus does not think healthcare reform can be done this year, then it isn't going to get done."
Of course, what Harry Reid did come out and say was "Gosh, Senator Baucus says he needs some more time. Well, we'll just have to give it to him. So we can all go on our five-week vacation, and then come back and -- maybe in September, I don't know... or maybe by Hallowe'en, does that work for everyone? No? Thanksgiving? OK, well, maybe we'll just start all over again next year, can we all agree on that?"
Or words to that effect. Sorry, but I was unable to transcribe Reid's recent remarks completely accurately, because my keyboard kept throwing up in disgust. Ahem.
Which is why, for the record-breaking eleventh time, Harry Reid is hereby awarded the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award. Perhaps after Pelosi is done over in the House, she could put a pair of steel-toed boots on and go over and kick some spinal integrity into Senator Milquetoast Reid. Just a suggestion.
[Contact Senate Majority Designated Milquetoast Harry Reid on his Senate contact page to let him know what you think of his actions.]
Volume 87 (7/24/09)
With that out of the way, we look forward to the Dog Days of August, when the Blue Dogs are feeling pretty doggone good about themselves, for their doggéd efforts to bird-dog healthcare legislation in the whole dogfight with their own party's leader and "top dog," Barack Obama.
OK, sorry, you're probably dog tired of this by now, right? So we'll stop, and just... (I simply can't help it)... let sleeping dogs lie.
[Editor's note: We have cancelled the author's five-week August vacation for writing the previous two paragraphs. We apologize, and promise it won't happen again.]
Seriously, though, why is everyone afraid of August? Except, of course, Nancy Pelosi, who was quoted this week saying "I'm not afraid of August. It's a month." The conventional wisdom being bandied about Washington, echoed by the news media, is now: "August equals doom and defeat for Obama's healthcare legislation this year." August equals death, in other words, because it will give healthcare reform opponents all month long to attack the plan. I've heard people on the left and the right say almost exactly the same thing, as if it is a foregone conclusion.
But, I have to ask, doesn't that mean that healthcare supporters also have a whole month to make their case? Are they just going to ignore the opportunity, and not fight back?
To put it another way -- Congressmen all go home during this period. They talk to their constituents at town hall meetings and the like. They make themselves available in local offices for local feedback. But if the American people really do want healthcare reform, and are going to be really upset if it doesn't happen... doesn't that mean the Congresscritters are going to get an earful on the issue? Especially Democrats who are seen as standing in the way of actual reform? And especially Democrats who are standing in the way of reform who have taken truckloads of money from the healthcare industry?
Isn't the healthcare reform a winning argument, in other words? So why would five weeks of making this argument mean support will wither away?
To be fair, the term "Swift Boat" is being thrown around. Senator John Kerry took August off during his campaign, ignored a vicious attack ad, and it may have cost him the presidency. But Kerry didn't know it was coming and didn't react fast enough. Everyone should be ready for this August's fight -- people for healthcare reform included. So there's no real reason to think it's going to play out the same way.
Of course, it might. But then again, it might not.
Democrats, right up to President Obama, need to start channeling some of Speaker Pelosi's feistiness on the issue this August. Ads should be teed up and ready to go. Talking points should be memorized. There's going to be a fight, but please, Democratic Party, don't follow Harry Reid's example this time ("the way to win the battle is to start by surrendering"), follow Nancy Pelosi's.
Here are a few pointers for the summer, for all Democrats to consider. Most of them were written with Obama in mind, but they can be easily adapted by others just as usefully.
Lead with the sob story
I simply cannot say this enough. Every Democratic politician, every time they are interviewed, every single time, should begin with some heart-wrenching story about what is wrong with the system we have today. This is the core of the debate for Democrats, and they have been almost COMPLETELY SILENT about it so far. This is insane. Don't you guys care whether you are driving the public debate or not?
Obama showed (although it was kind of weakly done) how to do this in his recent press conference. In one way or another, some version of the following has to be used within the first answer you give on television:
"Well, I'm glad you asked me that, Chas Blowdry, but before I get to the answer I'd like to share with your viewers this letter I got last week. It's from a constituent of mine in (insert name of podunk town here). She went to the hospital because she was hit by the limo of the CEO of a health insurance company. She needed a bandage, but the hospital demanded the deed to her house before they'd give it to her. She also needed an aspirin, and they took her car before they'd give her that. When she pointed out the guy who hit her owned the hospital, she was sued and forced into bankruptcy."
We know where you live
OK, that was a bit over the top, I'll admit, and designed to get a laugh. But there are millions and millions of real stories of people's lives destroyed financially by getting sick, which are not funny in any way, shape or form. They are also not rare, sadly. That is the whole point.
Now this one was written for Obama to use as a blunt weapon, but it could also be adapted by just about any advocacy group that wished to run a dandy television ad in the home district of (for instance) some Blue Dog Democrat who is gumming up the works in Congress.
"I'd like to read a letter from a constituent of Representative Roadblock's, if I may. This woman has lost her house and lost her job and lost just about everything she had in life because her daughter got leukemia. She lives in (insert podunk town name here), which is one of the towns represented by Congressman Roadblock. So I'd just like to ask the congressman, 'Why do you want to continue the system which caused this to happen? Why are you standing in the way of us helping millions of people like her, both people who vote for you and people who do not? What would you say to her, what would you tell her you're doing for her?' Because that is what this whole debate is about."
We know who pays you
This one is a continuation of the previous item.
Every single Democrat standing in the way of reform should be put on a list. And then next to their names, there should be a dollar amount showing exactly how much these people have gotten in "campaign donations" from the healthcare industry, the lobbyists, the drug companies, hospitals, and the like. This list should be circulated to every single Democrat who appears anywhere in public this August. To make it even more useful, put the Republican leadership in Congress on the list too, and see how much they've sucked off the teat of the healthcare lobby. Then whip this handy list out as it becomes necessary.
"In response to the quote you just ran from Senator Boughtnpaidfor, I would just like to point out that he has taken 2.6 million dollars over the years from the very industry we are trying to reform. This might put the senator's remarks to the effect that healthcare reform causes cancer into some needed perspective. Don't you think the people who gave him those millions might have some influence over what he says about it? It's sad when the people we elect to Congress put the big-money special interests in front of the needs of their constituents, that's all I have to say."
They want to scare you, so nothing gets done
This is a wonderful way to take command of the conversation. All the sniping recently is about details. So don't sweat the small stuff. And remember, it's all small stuff. Keep your eyes on the horizon -- which in this case, means always moving the debate back to one hard, cold reality -- the baby that's going to be thrown out with the bathwater if nothing passes this year.
This needs to be bluntly pointed out, so we are devoting the next three talking points to show various ways to raise the level of the debate to: "We want to fix it -- they don't."
"You know what this whole debate is about, to me? It's about whether we, as a country, have a system where 62 percent of all personal bankruptcies are filed due to health costs -- up from eight percent in the 1980s. Is that the direction this country should be heading in? I think not. We have produced a bill which will largely solve this problem. Our opponents want to kill this bill at any cost. They will say anything about it in an attempt to demonize it and scare just enough of the American public to just the right level of fear so that nothing gets done this year. But what they are really fighting for is more medical bankruptcies. They were in charge of Congress for a decade. They had majorities, and a chance to solve this problem. They did not. We are now going to. They are standing in the way of this happening, because they want to keep the status quo. We think the status quo is unacceptable. They do not. That is the real issue here, and I wish that fact wouldn't keep getting swept under the media's rug."
End the evil of "pre-existing conditions"
Once again, focus the debate on the problem you are trying to solve, in language everyone is aware of.
"One of the most positive things this legislation will accomplish is to banish forever the term 'pre-existing condition' from the insurance industry's vocabulary. We think it is barbaric for the law to allow insurance companies to get away with this in a moral society. This is one of the things our opponents never like to talk about, because they are responsible for inaction in changing this barbarism in America. We are taking a stand with our legislation that this practice must be made illegal. And we simply cannot understand how anyone could be politically against this. You know what? We all have pre-existing conditions. We're all going to die one day. That is the nature of life, and we are committed to ending this discriminatory practice."
Getting sick is why you have health insurance
This is a variation on the same theme as the last one.
"Let me just add one more thing. We think the practice of 'rescission' is abominable. This is when your health insurance company discovers that you are sick and actually want to use your insurance, and they manufacture some reason why they don't have to pay for it. We are going to outlaw this practice once and for all with our healthcare reform. It's astonishing, but again, the same people have allowed this to go on for years who are now opposing reform, and these politicians have taken a lot of money from the insurance companies over the years. I believe this is a moral failing of our healthcare system, and say that it has to end. The reason you have health insurance in the first place is to take care of you when you get sick. If we have to pass a law to force these companies to do so, I can't understand why anyone could be against that, myself."
We are not going to let you relax in August
This is a message that, again, would be most effective coming from President Obama, but could easily be used by advocacy groups for healthcare reform as well. Because this is the sort of hardball language politicians understand. And, it's obvious, the time to refrain from using such measures will be over if Congress goes on vacation without producing anything.
"Some in Congress think that if they just delay, delay, delay... then nothing will get done on healthcare, and they won't be held responsible the way they would be if they actually had to vote on it. I am here today to tell you they couldn't be more wrong. They are about to take a luxurious vacation on the taxpayer's dime for five weeks, and some of them are quite happy that they've managed to block anything from getting done in Congress. I call on all constituents of these obstructionists -- no matter which party they belong to -- to make their voices loud and clear during August. They want fun in the sun? Why not instead turn up the heat on them? They want to relax? We will be holding town halls and running ads in their home states and districts. They want to get re-elected? We pledge to do everything possible to see that that does not happen if they block healthcare reform from passing. America put Barack Obama in the White House to get something done on this issue, and if a handful of people in Congress are standing in his way, then we are going to make sure every single one of his or her voters is aware of that by the time they get back in September. Count on it."
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com
Full archives of FTP columns: FridayTalkingPoints.com
Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground