campaigns Rule: Cite The Basis Rule: Cover The Topic Rule: False Choice Rule: Focus Issues Not Politics Rule: Mischaracterization Rule: Mountain Out of Molehill Rule: Sin of Omission

Election 2020 (& General) Pet Peeves

The third Democratic debate is coming up, so it’s a good time to weigh in on some of my long-standing campaign and political news coverage pet peeves, many of which have been driving me crazy for years.  (Apologies for not precisely citing the basis for each one–calling myself out, shame on me!)

“When you’re ‘explaining’, you’re losing.”
This refers to politicians who are correcting or clarifying a position or statement of theirs, usually after it has come under attack from an opponent, or the press.  

News Hour, July 8, 2019 – Politics Monday (video)

Amy Walter (News Hour) invoked it in July when assessing Joe Biden’s explanation of his own comments about working with segregationists to get bills passed, and his ensuing clash with Kamala Harris over busing policy in the first Democratic debate.  Walter referred to the phrase as a “classic line in politics”.  It’s definitely not the first time I’ve heard it.  Certainly, excessive ‘splainin’ by a candidate can take on a pleading quality and grow old quickly–a case of ‘methinks thou dost protest too much’–especially if the explanation is unconvincing.  But the critique can come too quickly or, as in this case, after the media itself has been hammering on the issue, forcing more response by ‘keeping it alive in the news cycle’ which is unfair.  In fierce elections, where attacks are the weapon of choice and the media has a habit of capitalizing on them, how is a candidate supposed to respond? By letting the mischaracterization or inaccuracy go unchallenged?  Methinks not.  Media: Focus on clarifying the issue involved, and let us decide who’s right.  I’m calling this a Mountain Out of a Molehill.  (For more on Kamala & Joe, see my [intlink id=”2248″ type=”post”]previous blog[/intlink].)

“No overarching message.”
I last heard this one from David Brooks (also News Hour).  It is yet another overworked trope of the punditry and concerns a candidate’s lack of concision or ‘branding’ in their messaging on what they stand for.  As above, it is primarily about campaign style, so does not, technically, break the Focus on Issues, Not Politics Rule since it is okay to comment on politics.  But given the media’s predominant ‘cover-the-horse-race’ DNA, I think we’re justified in at least paring down some of the (what seems like incessant) drivel.  Sure, messaging is important, but, for the amount of play this gets, not at the expense of content.  We are long past the point of needing to reduce the many massive, and massively complex, issues we face, to pithy soundbites.  Let’s trade that for a deeper examination of things that really matter.  That is the only way we will be able to shape policy to improve our lives.  I’m calling this out as an OverSimplification and Mountain Out of Molehill.

“message hardened” & “window closed”
Both of these were used in reference to the Special Prosecutor Investigation on Russian interference in the 2016 election, and possible Trump connections to it.  The first phrase was offered as the reason for concluding that there is no recourse to Attorney General William Barr’s pronouncement that Robert Mueller “found no wrongdoing on the part of Trump” in his (Mueller’s) report on the investigation, despite substantial evidence (in the report) to the contrary and multiple, available paths for pursuing that evidence, because Barr’s “message had hardened [in the public’s mind]” and, so, continuing would not be politically viable.  That assessment was repeated by many news outlets as laid out in Margaret Sullivan’s Washington Post piece, which critiqued it. 

The second phrase was used by Bill Maher on his political satire show, Real Time.  Maher, though not a journalist, echoed the oft-used sentiment by others when he said: ~“Mueller failed to be decisive, so the window closed [on getting the true findings of the report].”

This particular type of False Choice really sticks in my craw because it clearly prioritizes a veneer of ‘political viability’ of the issue (unsupportive polls) over its’ underlying substance and importance–in this case, getting to the bottom of potential serious wrongdoing via real, existing legal paths.  The result?  A press short-circuiting the Democratic process, de facto anointing itself as the ultimate arbiter of the decision, rather than the public!

This continues the insidious trend of slowly, incrementally stripping the electorate of their power, ‘dumbing them down’, by sending a message that there is nothing they can do, when, in fact, there is (several congressional & other investigations continue).  It is particularly confounding coming from a press and punditry that relentlessly exposes Trump’s (and others’) lies, digging the public out from under them, only to heap misleading notions like these back on.  Arrgh–have we gone mad?  Call Outs: False Choice (decide quickly, or opportunity is gone) and Focus on Issues, Not Politics.

Campaign strategy: Attack Trump or focus on issues?
This question, posed by The New York Times on 2020 Democratic campaign strategy, is yet another familiar False Choice the press routinely offers up in their parlor game of ‘horse race’ politics. Suggesting the candidates must choose one strategy or the other, but not both, is an OverSimplification.  To be fair, the article uses the question as a ‘jumping off point’ to examine Trump’s divisive racial rhetoric, and how (or whether) it plays in primary vs. general election Democratic strategies, plus, it is answered by strategists and candidates who say: ‘do both’.  (Yea!)  Certainly, Trump’s rhetoric, its affect and importance, are well understood at this point and merit covering. But, again, not at the expense of issues, which continue to get short shrift in our ever increasingly complex world.  I’m just really tired of this emphasis, but we’re going to be seeing a lot more of it, I’m afraid.  Call Outs: False Choice, OverSimplification and Focus on Issues, Not Politics.

Exclusive MSNBC coverage of SC Democratic Convention
The South Carolina Democratic Party granted exclusive rights for video coverage of their June convention to MSNBC over the protestations of 5 other major networks, according to the AP.  The reason given: the candidates would get equal time since their full speeches would be aired.  More than 150 journalists were also credentialed, but–whoa! Is this legal?  It doesn’t seem like it should be.  Call Outs: MSNBC, in the name of journalistic integrity and fairness, you should have refused the offer of exclusive rights and allowed the other networks to Cover the Topic of the SC Democratic convention, along with yourself.


economy Rule: Cite The Basis Rule: Contradiction Rule: False Argument Rule: False Choice Rule: False Comparison Rule: Focus Issues Not Politics

Paul Krugman & Joe Scarborough: Debt vs. Growth- A Question of Priority & Timing?

The current hot button debate over our two biggest fiscal problems- debt and growth and how to deal with them, has devolved into yet another needless stalemate in the media.  This time it has come in the form of False Argument, cast as a vitriolic and polarizing ‘either/or’ proposition, rather than a more fact and reason based- ‘both, but when’ one.  In other words, an argument that disregards the element of policy timing which, after months (actually, much sooner), has become clear is key in the discussion.

The Krugman-Scarborough debate began on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and was later excerpted, and continued on Charlie Rose.  It is not surprising that Mr. Rose, with his 50 minute format, can get to the nub and establish as minor differences between two people, what are otherwise often characterized as ‘explosive’ ones on shorter formats. Still, format brevity is not sufficient excuse to not zero in more quickly on the simple, obvious ‘difference’ here- that of the timing of policy- and to begin debate there.

The first 10 minutes of Mr. Rose’s show (including MJ excerpt) contains 3 Rule breakers and, though most are addressed as the show proceeds, those 10 minutes are representative of how this has played out on many others I’ve seen.

The first exchange has Mr. Krugman proclaiming that debt is not an immediate problem, which Mr. Scarborough counters, saying Medicaire and Medicaid are growing too fast.  To this, Krugman aquiesces, allowing for the need for cost containment, but cites the Affordable Care Act as having many pilot projects designed to be testbeds for just that.  Scarborough rejects that solution with: “you and I know that Washington DC is not capable of doing that on a micro level” citing “1993-94 and 2009-10” as examples. This breaks the Focus on Issues, Not Politics rule since it cuts off a politically legitimate and much needed debate (given Krugman disagrees with him) on health cost reduction via delivery efficiencies vs. benefit cuts.  In addition, though Scarborough gets credit for Citing the Basis with his 90‘s & 00‘s references, the False Argument rule is breached since those years seem to refer to healthcare proposals that failed to get passed into law, as opposed to programs that, once passed, failed due to bad administration (or some other reason)- two very different things.

Resuming discussion on Mr. Rose’s show, Scarborough observes: (paraphrasing: ~) “maybe Paul is more focussed on the short term & I’m more focussed on the long term” acknowledging the time frame issue, and seems to reject the either/or (debt vs. growth) premise that had heretofore shaped the debate, as a False Choice.  Progress!

Scarborough then asserts a bigger difference between them: ~“Paul thinks congress can’t do two things at once- grow the economy & focus on the long term.”, then quotes Mr. Krugman from the 90’s: ~”It is irresponsible for government to run deficits because of the aging baby boomers.” (ie. entitlements). Krugman, explaining himself: ~“It was irresponsible to be running deficits when the economy was at full employment, … we missed that window.”, continues with: ~”we should have paid down debt when economy was strong, … now economy is weak”, ~“for every federal $1 cut, GDP falls by $1.50, …will lead to higher unemployment”.  Scarborough responds: ~“The problem of aging boomers & exloding entitlements still exists.”, then issues a 2005 quote by Krugman on the danger of debt & asks Krugman if he’s been wrong for 15 years?  With his use of those quotes, the False Comparison rule is broken by implicitly equating the economic circumstances of the 90’s and 2005, with those of now, when they are clearly different.

As the debate proceeds, it is established that both agree on the importance of growth in the short term, Scarborough contrasting his emphasis on type of jobs programs, with Krugman’s- size. Thus, the false ‘debt vs. growth’ framing of the debate is rendered null, and the real difference clarified:

Scarborough:  Debt planning is needed now.
Krugman:  Any cuts now will hurt job growth.

The debate progresses, becoming more substantive and focussed, with both Citing the Basis of their claims to varying degrees of efficacy (one more than the other, in my opinion).  It is interesting to note that, throughout, the time frame in question (short vs. long) has centered on 10 years, yet when Scarborough is asked if he is concerned about the deficit in the short term, his answer is: ~“not for 3-5 years, but Medicare/Medicaid planning is needed right now”.

This flushes out subtle vagueries that have been lurking beneath the surface and now beg to be dealt with. First, while Scarborough already seems to have softened his position on the time issue with his statement above, by the ‘planning .. now’ part, does he mean congress should take it up, discuss it and maybe even pass legislation now, but not actually cut anything till later?  If so, as far as the notcut part, he is in more apparent agreement with Krugman on that too.  As far as the ‘congress taking it up now’ part, another anomoly arises. Since Scarborough concurs that focus on growth is also needed in the short term, and has called on congress to act and even admitted to Mr. Rose: ~”congress can’t do anything .. look at the sequester”, why did he goad Krugman for not thinking congress can do two things at once, when he apparently agrees with that?  Hmm, a Contradiction?

This was dense going, but my take is that something as complicated as economic policy absolutely requires getting into details, and failure to do so has a high cost. If watching the whole debate doesn’t make that clear (and I hope you do, as it is chock full of information), then at least view the first 10 minutes plus the disappointing backsliding Scarborough did on his own show the next day in [intlink id=”110″ type=”page” anchor=”VoW_Scar_v_Krug”]this Video of the Week[/intlink].  Progress made, only to be lost!

We have to remain vigilant, people.