fresh voices from the front lines of change







I generally try to avoid watching political talk shows on TV because the lack of journalism is, much more often than not, infuriating. That wasn’t exactly the case the other night on Hardball, however. During a segment with Todd Harris, a Republican strategist, and Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist, Chris Matthews actually balked at, and pushed back against, some of the usual conservative lies and talking points that all too often go unchallenged in the mainstream media.

The segment culminates with Chris Matthews repeatedly asking the Republican strategist to name one thing that the Republican Party has done for the American people in the last 10-20 years, and the strategist finds himself unable to even fake an attempt at an answer. Here is the video, and following the video I’ll extend on Matthews’s point, and highlight some of the lies that went unaddressed (reload this page if it doesn’t show below, or view it here):

So wow, where do you start with so much garbage to sift through? Let’s just go in semi-chronological order:

Lie: Obama’s approval rating represented the fastest drop in approval rating in recent memory.

Let’s talk honeymoons. How long did it take Obama’s approval ratings to dip out of the “honeymoon” range and into the “average” range, which Gallup identifies as 55%? It turns out that Obama lasted six months before his approval rating first hit 55% in the Gallup poll. As Gallup’s handy honeymoon analysis points out, Obama’s honeymoon “exceeded the durations of those for Ford, Clinton, and George W. Bush.” It was also just two months shy of the length enjoyed by Carter and Reagan. But weird, didn’t that right-wing strategist guy seem to be suggesting that Obama tanked faster than any other president in recent memory? I guess his memory just isn’t that great (as we’ll see shortly, approval ratings are only the beginning of his memory lapses).

Distortion: Congress has a 20% approval rating.

Ostensibly, the conservative strategist mentioned Congress’s perennially pathetic approval rating in an attempt to make viewers think that Americans are unhappy with the liberal policies being pushed by the Obama administration. One tiny, itsy bitsy problem with that though–polls show it is primarily the unpopularity of Republicans in Congress that is driving down Congress’s overall approval rating. According to the most recent polling from Research 2000, Congressional Democrats have a 41% approval rating. Congressional Republicans get a whopping 18%. Similarly, the Democratic leadership (Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid) have markedly higher approval ratings than their Republican counterparts (John Boehner and Mitch McConnell), with 42% and 33% respectively versus 19% and 18% on the Republican side. All this despite the fact that many progressives are fuming that the congressional leadership isn’t doing enough to deliver real change.

(For those keeping score, this makes Democrats about twice as popular as Republicans in Congress.)

And you know what? I’m sure this conservative strategist knew all of this when he was delivering his disingenuous talking points, but you know what else? It is his job to go on national TV and distort the truth in order to try to convince people that Americans disapprove of liberal leadership and want conservatives to obstruct progress (despite the outcome of the 2006 and 2008 elections). But they don’t.

Hardball2010RetirementsGraphic.jpgDistortion: Congressional Democrats are dropping like flies.

While Mr. Harris didn’t come right out and say this (although it was alluded to), this is a piece of conventional wisdom that has been flying around the media all week, propelled largely by journalistic laziness and a well-rehearsed script of right-wing rhetoric. Prompted by the same-day retirement announcements from Democratic Senators Dodd and Dorgan, pundits came out of the woodwork to doomsay Democratic prospects for the 2010 midterm election. On Hardball they put the numbers on the screen, but didn’t go as far as mentioning the obvious: right now there are actually more Republicans than Democrats planning to retire in 2010.

Does that mean it won’t be a tough election cycle for red-state moderates who face a constituency marinated in conservative spin and distortion? Not at all. But the point made by Matthews and McMahon remains true: this will be a tough election year for incumbents of any stripe. Between Republican retirements and some serious pressure being brought by teabagging primary challenges against many already-conservative incumbents, we could very likely see more turnover on the elephant side of the aisle.

Distortion: The public is fuming about government spending, the debt, and bank bailouts.

Here Chris Matthews did a good job of pointing out that it is their own financial problems that are of paramount importance to the vast majority of Americans, and that Americans generally only tend to look for someone to blame when they are facing difficulties at home. Luckily for conservatives, and through no lack of effort on their part, the media has been abuzz for months with right-wing talking points about government spending (see the Washington Post-Fiscal Times scandal). Say what you will about conservatives, but they know how to stay on message (after all, if you repeat something enough times, doesn’t it become true?).

But let’s set aside for a moment the fact that the anti-spending hype is a hard-wrought product of conservative messaging. Let’s instead go for a little reality check about government spending. Todd Harris, like other conservatives, ignores history–even recent history–when talking about government spending. They seek to paint the Republican Party as the party of fiscal responsibility despite, as Matthews pointed out, having saddled America with the largest national debt in history during the last decade thanks to runaway spending on war and strangled revenues from Bush’s tax cuts for the rich. Where were so-called “fiscally responsible” conservatives in Congress during this rapid expansion in debt? They were right there, voting for these measures, time after time again, without blinking. The exact same story played out in the 80s under Reagan, who first introduced the country to mega-debt, thanks (again) to outrageous military spending and top-end tax cuts.

Getting back to the attacks against the current administration though, there are a few distortions that need to be cleared up. First, the convenient rewriting of history that puts the bank bailouts on the Obama administration, when they were in fact pushed for and signed into law by President Bush in his last months in office. Out of all of the government spending over the last two years, the bank bailout was by far the least popular–and that was created under George W. Bush. More recently President Obama has sought to take $200 billion from the TARP bailout fund to create jobs and further stimulate the economy.

What about the rest of the increased government spending under Obama (the part that actually was attributable to Obama)? This may surprise some people, who have been force-fed conservative talking points through the media for the last year, with very little fact-checking or context lent by the so-called journalists interviewing them, but President Obama’s spending initiatives–mostly related to trying to revive the economy the conservatives tanked–made up a relatively small part of spending increases during 2009. Separate studies by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Center for American Progress had the same finding, which this graph from The Huffington Post illustrates particularly well.

IncreasedSpending09Chart.jpgSo given the fact that conservative administrations have given us the two largest debt increases in US history, that the Clinton administration ended its eight years with a quickly-squandered budget surplus of over $100 billion, that the bank bailouts were orchestrated under the Bush administration and not the Obama administration, that less than1/5th of the increased spending in 2009 can be attributed to Obama’s policies, and that that spending wouldn’t have even been necessarily if conservative economic policies hadn’t sunk the US into the worst recession since the Great Depression, it is hard to see how conservative operatives can get on TV and give their best self-righteous act over government spending and the debt.

So while conservatives attack Democrats for bringing up the disastrous eight years of the Bush administration, it is not hard to understand why Bush is still an issue: not only are we still suffering Bush’s legacy, conservatives are actually blaming Obama for it.

Distortion: Republicans hate the stimulus.

Alright, the above statement isn’t really a distortion, most Republicans do hate the stimulus–almost as much as they love taking credit for the jobs it has created. Every few weeks it seems like you see another Republican member of Congress, back in his or her home state, taking credit for the jobs that the Democratic stimulus created in their states and districts, even after viciously attacking it, voting against it, and then claiming it was a failure. It is like these people think the internet doesn’t exist.

The most recent congressional conservative to do this was Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE) who, despite voting against it, bragged about the benefits of the stimulus act while refusing to acknowledge A) that if he had had his way, these “imperative” funds would have never reached Delaware, and B) that these funds came from the maligned stimulus that he, along with every other Republican in Congress with the exception of Sens. Collins and Snowe, vehemently opposed. Others who have done this same dishonest dance since the stimulus was passed include Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO), Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), Rep. Geoff Davis (R-KY), Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Rep. Mary Fallin (R-OK), Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Rep. John Carter (R-TX), Rep. Bill Young (R-FL), Rep. Joseph Cao (R-LA), Republican Whip Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA)…OK, I think you get the idea.

Huge Lie: “The Bush administration kept the country safe.”

…Except for that one huge time it didn’t you mean? You may notice from the derision that prompted from Matthews that the Republican strategist’s claim that Bush kept us safe is pretty asinine:

MATTHEWS: I just wanted to get the Republican bragging points straight here: So the Republican Party has kept us safe except for 9/11. Is that the argument? No really, because you had the worst attack on the American homeland in history but you’re bragging about your ability to defend the country? Because you say you defended America except for 9/11 right? That’s the bragging point of the Republican Party…

How exactly does one claim, with a straight face, that Bush kept the country safe? Well believe it or not, this is a growing right-wing talking point. Just today another Republican made the same claim even more outrageously:

What he [Obama] should be doing is following the right things that Bush did — one of the right things he did was treat this as a war on terror. We had no domestic attacks under Bush. We’ve had one under Obama.

Wow, forgetting something? Who could forget the horrendous 9/11/2001 attacks of NYC and DC? Well, apparently none other than the mayor of NYC in 2001, Rudy “9/11, 9/11, 9/11” Giuliani himself. Yes, Rudy Giuliani of all people forgot 9/11. He also seemed to forget about the anthrax attacks and, I suppose, the shoe bomber, since apparently we are counting failed terror attacks as well now. But to sum up Giuliani’s point: about 3,000 dead Americans under Bush, vs 0 dead Americans under Obama, means Bush has kept us safer. Obviously.

Oh, and it is OK to talk about the Bush administration, but only if you are glorifying Bush, or blaming Bush’s failures on Obama. Talking about Bush, or in other words the entire conservative track record for the last decade, isn’t acceptable if it isn’t flattering to conservatives of the Republican Party. Gotcha.

(On a side note, the alleged journalist interviewing Giuliani when he dropped this lie bomb all over national TV was George Stephanopoulos, who didn’t bat an eyelash at the outrageous claim, and kept right on going with the interview. See my note in the intro about why I hate watching political news shows.)

What It All Comes Down To

The finale of the segment was the closing question that Chris Matthews posed to the Republican strategist:

“Tell me what the Republican Party has done for the country in the last 10-20 years.”

…and that was met with evasion, sidestepping, and eventually just silence. This is a guy whose job it is to go on TV and spin anything to make the Republican Party look good, and as soon as someone finally acted like a journalist and asked him a straightforward question he was stumped. He had nothing.

This is about more than just what has the Republican Party done for the country?, it is about what have conservatives done for the country? More than just political parties, this is about liberal vs conservative ideology. This is, or should be, a policy debate. What have conservative policies done for America in the last 10-20 years? Well to answer that question we primarily need to look at the previous administration. We got increased inequality, a wrecked economy, a huge debt, two wars, thousands of needlessly dead American soldiers, anti-American sentiment around the world, food and product safety scares, torture, secret prisons, illegal domestic spying, failure to address global warming, etc etc the list could go on and on (here my colleague Terrance Heath expands on some prominent conservative failures). What have conservatives done for America in the last two decades? I couldn’t name a single thing, and apparently neither could one of their best and brightest.

So come election season 2010–already warming up–what will conservatives tell voters to get their vote? Will they rely on their record? Don’t bet on it. Instead, bet on nonstop attacks against Obama and majority in Congress. Bet on exaggerated debts, misplaced blame, and ignored successes. Bet on a few more people forgetting 9/11. And bet on a lot of conservatives telling you what they are against, but not what they bring to the table. And definitely don’t bet on any of them admitting that what they hope to bring to the table has already been rotting there since Bush left it when he moved out.

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