11/13/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sunday Watch 10-12-08: In Which False Equivalency Struts Its Fraudulent Stuff

Originally published on, the Web site of the Columbia Journalism Review

Tom Brokaw is rapidly making up for lost air time by building premises on sand. Conventional wisdom piles atop conventional wisdom, none of it substantial, none of it justifiable, all of it delivered with sonorous assurance from the font of incontrovertible lore. On Meet the Press, Brokaw played a clip from the last McCain-Obama debate:

MR. BROKAW: Health care, energy, and entitlement reform--Social Security and Medicare--in what order would you put them in terms of priorities?

SEN. McCAIN: I, I think you can work on all three at once, Tom.

SEN. OBAMA: We're going to have to prioritize, just like a family has to prioritize. Now, I've listed the things that I think have to be at the top of the list. Energy we have to deal with today. Health care is priority number two, because that broken health care system is bad not only for families, but it's making our businesses less competitive. And number three, we've got to deal with education.

Brokaw proceeded to take refuge with David Broder, who wrote in The Washington Post on Oct. 8: "John McCain and Barack Obama have been asked twice--once in the Mississippi debate and again on Tuesday night--what their priorities would be. McCain flat-out refused to choose, arguing that the United States can do it all. Obama mentioned energy, health care and education but did not acknowledge that he might have to choose among them....It was a stunning rejection of reality."

Who stunningly rejected what? Did I miss the part of the transcript where Obama stated his priorities? True, Obama did leave out entitlement reform, possibly because the issue of Medicare is too contentious (not that McCain has had anything constructive to say about it) and almost certainly because Obama understands that Social Security is not in crisis. But is it not self-evident that Obama did state priorities?

Broder chastised Obama for failing to "acknowledge that he might have to choose." The Random House Unabridged Dictionary offers this meaning for "priority": "the right to precede others in order, rank, privilege, etc.; precedence." The right to precede, I take it, means that if you have to choose between A and B, priority for A means that you choose A rather than B. McCain didn't acknowledge any priorities at all. Anyway, all presidents have to choose among goals, if not rhetorically, then in the effort they invest in Goal A as opposed to Goal B. This is political kindergarten. To David Broder and Tom Brokaw, there was an equivalent "rejection of reality" that was "stunning."

Actually, Broder's "stunning" observation was not only fatuous, it was ideologically loaded toward the empirically disproved right. In fact, in the column cited by Brokaw, Broder went on to say that "If either of [the candidates] has a clue what to do to help stabilize this tottering economy, he is keeping it to himself." Hmm. Obama's website offers this item:

Provide $50 billion to Jumpstart the Economy and Prevent 1 Million Americans from Losing Their Jobs: This relief would include a $25 billion State Growth Fund to prevent state and local cuts in health, education, housing, and heating assistance or counterproductive increases in property taxes, tolls or fees. The Obama-Biden relief plan will also include $25 billion in a Jobs and Growth Fund to prevent cutbacks in road and bridge maintenance and fund school repair - all to save more than 1 million jobs in danger of being cut.

Obama, by now, may well have decided that his $50 billion proposal is chump change. Had Brokaw included a liberal round-tabler, he or she might well have said so. But you can't exactly say that Obama's proposal is nothing. The Broder-Brokaw tripe is premised on an utterly unexamined piece of prejudice: that deficits are automatically dangerous―so much so as to be beyond the bounds of discussion. The invisible guest at the funeral of absolute laissez-faire is the liberal idea that deficits make immense sense at a moment of downturn. Deficits, when they put money in people's pockets, lubricate the economy. Roosevelt discovered this; Kennedy rediscovered it; so did Clinton. That's news to David Broder and Tom Brokaw. In fact, at NBC, it doesn't even rise to the level of news. It didn't happen.

False equivalency is to the Sunday morning chat shows what piety is to the pulpits. There was more.

On This Week with George Stephanopoulos, the Washington Post's Dan Balz channeled the McCain campaign's view that "there is a huge double standard going on, that Senator Obama can get away with attacking in the most negative and often personal ways and gets at most a slap on the wrist if nothing more [sic]. And that anything that happens around the McCain campaign, whether it's generated by Senator McCain or not, the press and everybody else comes down on their head. They are looking for some way to figure out how they can fight back without being attacked for fighting." Let no one say that the earnest guardians at the Washington Post lack sympathy for the underdog.

Perhaps Balz missed this Michael Cooper piece in The New York Times of July 30, two and a half months ago:

In recent days Senator John McCain has charged that Senator Barack Obama "would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign," tarred him as "Dr. No" on energy policy and run advertisements calling him responsible for high gas prices.

The old happy warrior side of Mr. McCain has been eclipsed a bit lately by a much more aggressive, and more negative, Mr. McCain who hammers Mr. Obama repeatedly on policy differences, experience and trustworthiness.

By doing so, Mr. McCain is clearly trying to sow doubts about his younger opponent, and bring him down a peg or two. But some Republicans worry that by going negative so early, and initiating so many of the attacks himself rather than leaving them to others, Mr. McCain risks coming across as angry or partisan in a way that could turn off some independents who have been attracted by his calls for respectful campaigning.

George Will, the conservative whom the angel of honesty does not desert, proceeded to note while McCain this week was trying to salvage his reputation for honor by declaring to one of his more zealous followers ("he's an Arab") that Obama is "a family man" (as if those tricky Arabs are never that), his ads call Obama a "liar." "The dissonance," Will said, "is paralyzing." Not exactly paralyzing, since McCain is fully ambulatory, but credit to Will for pointing a tentative finger at his side's moral bankruptcy.

Paul Krugman stepped in to remind us that Republican savagery is not new, that the Republican base does not regard government by Democrats as "legitimate," that they went after Clinton with charges of murder and drug smuggling (among others).

To which Cokie Roberts contributed this stupendous observation:

On both sides that's true. You also have a huge number of Democrats who think that the Republicans are illegitimate and that was particularly true after the 2000 election. You really do have at the core of each party people who are not ready to accept the verdict of the election.

Democrats accepted the Bush election of 2004. In 2000, a Senate they controlled voted to accept the Electoral College returns as filtered through the fine ministrations of the Rehnquist court. In my view, they ought not to have done so. But they did. That's not good enough for Ms. Roberts. She must have her moral equivalency. There's a motto for our Sunday morning wisdom mongers: Moral Equivalency or Death.

As for Meet the Press, Brokaw did ask McCain surrogate Rob Portman about McCain's "negative" campaign (as if negativity were intrinsically damnable, but that's another story). Portman replied:

Senator Obama has run more negative ads in this campaign than any presidential campaign in history. Easily. And far more negative ads than Senator McCain has run, and including ads that directly take on Senator McCain on things like stem cell research in a, in a dishonest way, Social Security, immigration, that are, you know, by independent fact checkers have been found to be absolutely false.

Stem cells, Social Security, immigration―to criticize McCain on these, Portman thinks, amounts to personal attack. Contra Portman, Gov. Jon Corzine took issue with McCain's deployment of "guilt by association" in his nonstop barrage against Barack Obama as putative buddy of Bill Ayers. Brokaw's response? To ask Corzine about "John Lewis and guilt by association [in a speech] linking [McCain] with George Wallace?" But John Lewis was not accusing McCain of "palling around" with George Wallace. He was accusing McCain of acting like George Wallace―summoning the worst, most vicious, most racist angels of the American nature.

Once again, Brokaw's round table was a liberal-free zone. He concluded with the idiotic prediction game, John McLaughlin's gift to the game-show-as-phony-sophistication genre: "Do you expect an October surprise?" Readers, if you're desperate to know who came out where, you'll have to read the Meet the Press transcript. I won't spoil the surprise.