Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Paraphrasing Rummy, we go to press with the president we have...

We interrupt our normally scheduled broadcast for this brief digression:A spirited and lengthy debate broke out on this blog last Friday, in the comments section, over whether I can or should be ideologically labeled in some fashion. As normally happens in such exchanges, various fuzzy definitions of ”bias” and “opinion” quickly surfaced, and nothing much was decided one way or the other. But thanks to all who sustained that impromptu symposium, especially those who don’t much like this online column, yet continue to read it.

Maybe I can help clarify matters, by framing my own declaration of principles (to borrow a phrase from Citizen Kane): I am a columnist. A good columnist doesn’t just spout opinions off the top of his or her head; rather, he or she does the requisite empirical reporting, then makes professional judgments based on the facts. (I addressed some of these issues in a June post, and that post was discussed on Monday, here.)

And it is natural that a good political columnist, empowered by the rigors of inductive reasoning, will focus most intensely on the people in power. Right now, the people in power happen to be Republicans, and they have amassed a track record. It behooves anyone in my position to examine that track record, assess any gap between promise and performance, and fact-check rhetorical claims.

There are many Republicans, and defenders of President Bush, who can’t seem to accept the fact that, if you control all the levers of government, you have to expect to be held accountable by independent voices. They keep talking about the need for more press “balance,” when, in fact, they have spent years working (successfully) to achieve a power imbalance in their favor. Hence, the disproportionate press scrutiny that such an imbalance warrants.

The same yardsticks should apply to whoever has the power, from whatever party. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we go to press with the president we have. Consider, for instance, this passage, from an article that ran on Dec. 20, 1998, at the height of Bill Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal:

“At so many critical junctures, Clinton, whether by instinct or calculation, chose deception and recklessness over candor and restraint - in his deposition and grand jury testimony; in his semantic legalese; in his frontal attacks on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr; in his early refusal to settle the (Paula) Jones case; and in his willingness to conduct secret trysts with Lewinsky while a sexual-harassment lawsuit was hanging over his head and while Starr and other hostile players were watching his every move.” The piece also rebuked Clinton for “his reluctance to take responsibility, his willingness to deceive, his tendency to see himself as a victim, and his eagerness to please the audience at hand...”

I wrote all that in the Inquirer. The subsequent abuse from Democratic readers and Clinton defenders was considerable. So be it. The facts and track record shaped my professional judgement -- then as now. It’s a disputatious world out there, especially in the increasingly polarized world of politics, and adoration is not part of this job description. I like the credo from J. J. Gittes, the private detective played by Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. As he told his client, “I may not be in business to be loved, but I am in business.”


Now it’s back to business:

President Bush, in the midst of his Katrina redemption tour, made some questionable remarks yesterday in an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams. They came during an exchange about 9/11 and its aftermath. The topic was whether Bush had adequately summoned Americans to give of themselves in a spirit of shared national purpose.

Williams asked, “The folks who say you should have asked for some sort of sacrifice from all of us after 9/11 -- do they have a case looking back on it?”

Bush replied, “Americans are sacrificing. (pause) I mean, we are, we are, you know, we pay a lot of taxes. The Americans sacrificed when they, you know, when the economy went in the tank. Americans sacrificed when, you know, air travel was disrupted. American taxpayers have paid a lot to help this nation recover. I think Americans have sacrificed.”

When Williams asked the question, I assumed that Bush would slam-dunk it by simply noting that Americans have already been sacrificing in Iraq (at last check, 2637 dead soldiers and 19,323 wounded) as part of the global terror war. But he went in a different direction, with a response that will no doubt please his restive tax-averse conservative base, but this is where his claims become questionable.

Back in World War II (the war that the Bush administration is now equating with the war on terror), Americans sacrificed by weathering gas, coffee and food rationing. They also flocked to national service programs. Most tellingly, they also paid higher taxes -- as have Americans during every major war.

So here’s what’s wrong with Bush’s comment that Americans are sacrificing simply because they “pay a lot of taxes”:

1. In point of fact, the tax burden on most Americans is actually smaller than it used to be. The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities headlined a 2002 report this way: “Overall Federal Tax Burden On Most Families -- Including Middle-Income Families -- At Lowest Levels In More Than Two Decades.” In fact, the study stated, median income taxes for a family of four were at the lowest level in 44 years.

2. Bush, through his tax cuts, has further lightened this alleged American sacrifice. In fact, in the years since 9/11 and the war on Iraq, this spirit of national sacrifice has been eased most for the rich. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the effective tax rate on the top one percent of taxpayers fell by 20 percent between the spring of 2001 and the spring of 2004; by contrast, the effective tax rate for middle-income taxpayers fell during that same period by only 9.3 percent.

3. And even if you want to define paying taxes as the key measure of sacrifice, Americans aren’t sacrificing nearly as much as the rest of the western world. According to the latest data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international group founded in 1948 to help administer the Marshall Plan, married Americans with two kids have one of the lightest tax burdens, when compared to equivalent families elsewhere. Out of 30 democracies, the U.S. tax bite ranks 28th. Only Iceland and Ireland families have it easier.

So maybe it’s the removal of shoes at the airport that should be counted as a true sacrifice.


A hat tip to Jim Geraghty at National Review Online for this one...

Here's Democratic strategist/pollster/firebreather James Carville two years ago, looking ahead to the 2004 presidential election: "If we can't win this damn election, with a Democratic Party more unified than ever before, with us having raised as much money as the Republicans, with 55 percent of the country believing we're heading in the wrong direction, with our candidate having won all three debates, and with our side being more passionate about the outcome than theirs — if we can't win this one, then we can't win s---! And we need to completely rethink the Democratic Party."

Here's James Carville this summer, looking ahead to the 2006 congressional election: "We have to go back to 1974 (during Watergate) to find such a favorable environment (for Democrats). If we can't win in this environment, we have to question the whole premise of the party.''

No wonder the Democrats can't seem to come up with a creative and compelling message. Even their portents of doom are recycled.