Sunday, March 20, 2011

Serious, Unserious, Or Whatever

John Dickerson isn't serious.

However, such criticism wouldn't be taken as an insult by the columnist for Slate, who on March 18 wrote

Washington is obsessed with measuring seriousness. President Obama's televised discussion of his NCAA bracket proved he isn't a serious leader. House conservatives said GOP leaders weren't serious enough about cutting the deficit. Senate Republicans leveled that charge against their Democratic counterparts.

This call for seriousness is often itself not a serious charge. What most of the criticisms actually mean is "My opponent doesn't believe something I'd like him to."

So true, so true, and in support of his thesis, Dickerson invokes unnamed campaign managers for Repub presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Haley Barbour, each of whom has told him that his/her candidate embodies the seriousness the American people are looking for.

But then Dickerson derails, speaking in far more positive terms of the man designated by the media as The Most Serious Man In Washington:

That's the test that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan uses. He worries that the focus of Tea Party activists and many House freshmen on immediate spending reductions obscures that test. "They literally think you can just balance" the budget by cutting "waste, fraud and abuse, foreign, aid and NPR," he said in an interview last week with the Associated Press. "And it doesn't work like that."

Ryan is about to take a huge gamble on seriousness.

Ryan, you see, doesn't claim seriousness; he takes a gamble on it, walking the walk rather than talking the talk.

Except he doesn't. Paul Krugman last August unmasked Ryan's fraudulent Roadmap for America's Future, finding

The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has, however, stepped into the breach. Its numbers indicate that the Ryan plan would reduce revenue by almost $4 trillion over the next decade. If you add these revenue losses to the numbers The Post cites, you get a much larger deficit in 2020, roughly $1.3 trillion.

And that’s about the same as the budget office’s estimate of the 2020 deficit under the Obama administration’s plans. That is, Mr. Ryan may speak about the deficit in apocalyptic terms, but even if you believe that his proposed spending cuts are feasible — which you shouldn’t — the Roadmap wouldn’t reduce the deficit. All it would do is cut benefits for the middle class while slashing taxes on the rich.

And I do mean slash. The Tax Policy Center finds that the Ryan plan would cut taxes on the richest 1 percent of the population in half, giving them 117 percent of the plan’s total tax cuts. That’s not a misprint. Even as it slashed taxes at the top, the plan would raise taxes for 95 percent of the population.
Finally, let’s talk about those spending cuts. In its first decade, most of the alleged savings in the Ryan plan come from assuming zero dollar growth in domestic discretionary spending, which includes everything from energy policy to education to the court system. This would amount to a 25 percent cut once you adjust for inflation and population growth. How would such a severe cut be achieved? What specific programs would be slashed? Mr. Ryan doesn’t say.

After 2020, the main alleged saving would come from sharp cuts in Medicare, achieved by dismantling Medicare as we know it, and instead giving seniors vouchers and telling them to buy their own insurance. Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s the same plan Newt Gingrich tried to sell in 1995.

And we already know, from experience with the Medicare Advantage program, that a voucher system would have higher, not lower, costs than our current system. The only way the Ryan plan could save money would be by making those vouchers too small to pay for adequate coverage. Wealthy older Americans would be able to supplement their vouchers, and get the care they need; everyone else would be out in the cold.

Today, Krugman writes that The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the Comeback America Initiative and the Concord Coalition (leading advocates of Seriousness) last Wednesday gave to Ryan its "FI$CY" because (or perhaps) because his

contribution to reducing the deficit is that he, well, talks a lot about the need to reduce the deficit; never mind that his actual proposals are a mixture of magic asterisks and concrete actions that would actually make the deficit bigger.

Dickerson's motive, though, is not to elevate Ryan to the level of Seriousness without burdening him with the label. He contends

When a candidate has no easy way to overcome an obstacle to his campaign, he will seek to diminish it by pointing to something else. This is a time-honored technique, though its most notable recent use has been by Democratic presidential candidates in 2000 and 2004. Both Al Gore's and John Kerry's campaigns argued that Americans would overlook their shortcomings because they wanted a "serious" candidate.

Taking pot shots at Al Gore apparently has not completely ceased. It has been a popular media parlor game the past dozen years as Bob Somerby (who, helpfully, periodically returns to this subject) summarized for us on 12/3/02:

Many familiar spin-points in Campaign 2000 came straight from the RNC. The points were then bruited all over the press. This conduct is especially strange, of course, when the spin-points are totally bogus.

The fancy hotel? It came to you came straight from the RNC. To revisit the press corps’ gong-show performance, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/8/02 and 8/9/02.

Gore really brought us Willie Horton? Utterly, grindingly, howlingly false—and brought to you straight from the RNC. The point was recited all over the press. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/1/02 and 11/4/02.

First Love Story, now Love Canal? Bonus points for a Lou Dobbs moment!! Ceci Connolly seems to have cut-and-pasted this bit of spin straight from an RNC press release. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/2/02.

And how about that “farm chores” hoax? That began at the RNC, too. Gore was trashed as a liar for months—although the Washington press corps was full of reporters who knew that his statement was perfectly accurate. For some strange reason, nobody spoke. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/29/99, 6/30/99, and 8/30/99. By the way, the RNC even faxed out a doctored quote in order to sell its “farm chores” twaddle. No one in the press corps tattled. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/26/00.

Slamming the guy who presciently supported Gulf War I, opposed Gulf War II, and warned us about environmental degradation before it was fashionable, while it was fashionable, and since it has gone out of fashion, is fair game, though unjustified. It is curious, though, Dickerson follows his criticism of the prior two Democratic presidential nominees by concluding, far more generously,

This theory also requires that people see President Obama as unserious. Cool, detached, and cerebral, maybe. But one ill-timed televised discussion of his NCAA bracket isn't likely to make voters take seriously the idea that he's not, well, serious.

Barack Obama is thoughtful, cerebral, and serious. But Dickerson's defense of Obama in light of his knock on Gore (and Kerry) bears a similarity to the treatment of one of those Democrats by Chris Matthews, of whom Somerby recently noted

For two solid years, when Welch was the boss, he was savage and profoundly dishonest in his attacks against Candidate Gore.

As you may recall, Candidate Gore (“a man-like object”) didn’t “have his gender straight.” Matthews was endlessly troubled by “this protean new person, this new man-woman, whatever the hell he’s trying to become.” The most remarkable insults rained down for two years, and then well beyond. (Weeks after 9/11: “He doesn’t look like one of us,” Matthews told Don Imus. “He doesn’t seem very American, even.”)

Now Matthews is, fortuitously, himself far more generous toward a fellow who, some say, "doesn't look like one of us" and whom many Republicans believe "doesn't seem very American, even." Somerby notes "today, of course, Matthews hates all that talk about people who don’t seem very American—as he always should have."

Perhaps for John Dickerson, too, it all comes down to being, and having, "cool." Paul Ryan, in his own wonkish (albeit superficial) way, may have it, as does Barack Obama. Unfortunately, the last two Democratic presidential nominees weren't, and didn't, and for Dickerson and some of his colleagues, that has made all the difference.

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