We expected to see an all-out assault on Social Security and progressive taxation in November, and we expected it to come under the banner of "deficit reduction." That was always the plan: Wait until after the election, when a lame-duck Congress could pass the preferred policies with the least political blowback. Then release a flurry of like-minded proposals and supportive editorials to create the illusion of consensus, capped by a coordinated media blitz to pressure the President and Congress into accepting them.
But even we, battle-hardened as we like to think we are, didn't expect the assault to be so coordinated, so widespread, or so aggressive. The number of like-minded reports released this month is greater than we expected, the ad buys are larger, and the range of ideas is narrower. And more journalists are carrying water for this campaign than we expected. All of this is being done to serve an anti-government, anti-Social Security, anti-tax agenda whose ideas are both unpopular and impractical. Nevertheless, the media's greeted then with a tidal wave of nearly-unanimous praise (some of of which can even be found on the editorial page.)
As expected, proposals like Rep. Jan Schakowsky's that reflect most people's opinions (including those of most Republicans) are either ignored or berated by the media. Schakowsky's proposal got the brush-off even though she's a member of the Presidential Deficit Commission. The few journalists who bothered to report on it were typically like Lori Montgomery of the Washington Post, who dismissed her as "one of the most liberal members of Congress" and emphasized that "she described (her proposal) as hers alone."
"Theirs alone." That statement's also true of the proposal from Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, who acted as individuals in releasing a proposal that was too conservative to be passed by their Commission. That's important: Their proposal did not come from the Commission any more than Schakowsky's did. Bear that in mind as you read the following headlines:
"Panel Seeks Social Security Cuts and Higher Taxes," New York Times
"Debt commission puts out preliminary proposals," CNN Money
"Deficit Commission Proposals Are a Recipe for More Big Government," US News & World Report
"Fiscal Commission Unveils Preliminary Plan," National Journal
"Deficit Panel Pushes Cuts To Social Security," NPR (National Public Radio)
"Examining The Deficit Commission's Proposals," NPR
There's plenty more where that came from. Note the difference: One proposal, from two individuals known to hold very conservative views about Social Security and taxation, was given massive publicity and was frequently mischaracterized as a "panel" or "commission" effort. But poor Jan Schakowsky, supported only by the opinions of most Americans, including most Republicans and Tea Partiers, got the shaft.
It's a somewhat bitter irony that NPR's coverage of the deficit debate has been among the most biased and inaccurate, since NPR itself could conceivably be eliminated under the kind of plan it apparently supports. And Lori Montgomery is the same journalist who recently described positions opposed by most Americans as the "middle ground" and blithely dismissed those held by the majority has "extreme," supported only by the "most liberal" members of Congress at the "far end" of one party. Her paper, the Washington Post , is the same paper that cut a deal with far-right billionaire Pete Peterson to provide news reports (which are supposed to be unbiased) for the paper. Peterson helped fund many of the studies being publicized this month, and has just rolled out a lavish new anti-deficit ad campaign with the extremely lame name "Owe No." (Owe, brother ...)
All of the proposals and opinion pieces generated by this campaign focus on the same narrow band of options. They reflect far-right positions on tax breaks for the wealthy, propose sharp cuts to Social Security (despite the fact that it doesn't contribute to the deficit),, and promote a reduced role for government. Coincidentally, all of these positions happen to very helpful for billionaires like Pete Peterson. Yet in the media, these unpopular and untested (at best) ideas are usually labeled "moderate" and "bipartisan," while the views of the majority and of many experts are dismissed as "extreme." In the words of the Four Tops, it's the same old song.
The two deficit reports that did get widespread and favorable publicity were both based on the opinions and ideology of Alice Rivlin, who lends these efforts an air of bipartisanship because of her Clinton White House credentials. If American journalists are the Four Tops in this deficit songfest, Rivlin is Holland/Dozier/Holland. (Which makes Pete Peterson Barry Gordy, I guess ...)
But they've got a problem. Even after the enormous sums expended for ad buys and propaganda tools like AmericaSpeaks, even after the support Peterson's foundation led to most of these deficit/anti-Social Security commissions, and even after a coordinated media blitz supported by throngs of journalist enablers, people just don't like their ideas. As they say in the business world, "the dogs aren't eating the dog food." (Or should that be "cat food"?)
Public opinion appears to be a source of constant irritation to this crew. "Maybe now that we've had an election very focused on the debt and deficit problem, the public will begin to understand how serious this is," Alice Rivlin said hopefully this month. But a poll cosponsored by the Campaign for America's Future showed that only 2% of Americans felt that the deficit should be Congress's first priority. This election was not an endorsement of the ideas or priorities of the Peterson/Rivlin crowd. As the CAF poll showed, even a majority of Tea Partiers don't like the idea of cutting Social Security to reduce the deficit. And yet another poll, released today, shows that the agenda Rivlin represents remains deeply unpopular.
The conservative Wall Street Journal gave this headline to its report of the poll it conducted with NBC News: "Deficit Proposal Draws Mixed Review." If "mixed review" is their way of saying "widespread revulsion," that's not too far off the mark. While the original questions and raw poll data were not made available, the Journal's article (which was essentially unbiased, unlike the headline) noted that "roughly 70% were uncomfortable with making cuts to programs such as Medicare, Social Security and defense in order to reduce the deficit, with 27% saying they were comfortable." That's more than two-to-one opposition to the ideas now being promoted as moderate and bipartisan.
Here's a simple visual aid we prepared to put that in perspective:
What do you call a person who speaks on behalf of the people shown in the left-hand column? If you're a journalist or commentator who's solidly in the Peterson/Rivlin camp, the words you use are "extreme," "far left," and "rigid." And those who speak on behalf of the minority - the column on the right - are "moderate," "bipartisan," and "centrist."
The Wall Street Journal reported that "57% of respondents said they were uncomfortable with gradually raising the Social Security retirement age to 69 over the next 60 years." It also noted that "nearly 60% said they were uncomfortable with raising tax revenue through such measures as boosting the gasoline tax, limiting deductions on many home mortgages and altering corporate taxation."
Even after an enormous promotional campaign, that's a big "no sale" from the American people. That doesn't mean difficult decisions won't need to be made. They will. But that requires a dialog with the public, not this attempt to bum-rush the voters with a heavy-handed sales campaign and a lame duck fait accompli.
Still, the well-funded and persistent persuaders haven't given up hope. The Wall Street Journal article observed that "findings show the national debate is still developing. Asked their views of the (Bowles/Simpson proposal) as a whole, 30% of respondents said they had no opinion." You can bet that Pete Peterson's consultants are studying that 30% now, trying to find the best way to sell them on policies that aren't the best way to cut the deficit and are against their own self-interest.
November isn't over yet.
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.
He can be reached at "email@example.com."
Website: Eskow and Associates