Gail was out two nights ago and I was on my own for dinner. I left the office around 6:15, missing the opening of the vice-presidential debate, but catching part of it in the car as I drove to our fine local dining institution, Teriyaki Bowl, to take out General Tso’s chicken for dinner. Once home, I continued to listen on the radio as I ate, working my way to a TV for the last couple of questions.
I found the debate a discouraging event, yet another example of the low level of serious political discourse in this country. I suppose I could cheer Joe Biden’s takedowns of Paul Ryan, but mostly, as I listened, I despaired at example after example of the bizarre consensus on framing of major issues that underlay the debate.
1. As I was approaching T-Bowl, I was dumbfounded when I heard debate moderator Martha Raddatz raise the topic of Iran with the remark that there’s no bigger national security issue. Really? I realize Romney has said as much, sensing an opportunity to attack Obama for … for what? Not starting yet another war? Not doing the bidding of the extremist leader of another country? (Bibi Netanyahu, that is.) And for the most part, Obama and other Democratic leaders have accepted this premise. There was Biden arguing that we’re destroying the country with sanctions, isn’t that good enough? And Raddatz seemingly questioning whether Biden was taking the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons sufficiently seriously. But the question’s premise was never explored.
2. While I tried to enjoy my dinner at the kitchen table, Raddatz brought up the question I least wanted to hear, referring to Medicare and Social Security as going broke and taking a larger share of the budget, then asking what benefits will have to change for the programs to survive. Darn, Martha! You’re boxing them into a corner, aren’t you? A corner I was guessing they would be happy to squeeze into, but I didn’t want to watch them do it, so I shut off the radio.
I’m no economist. But I do read intelligent economists, and I understand a few things that I read. As far as I can tell, the anticipated growth of health care costs is a problem. But Social Security? It just isn’t. That’s a myth, if not an absolute lie. Yet Obama is as prepared as any Republican to cut benefits and raise retirement age.
Let’s see. Here’s an article by Jeff Madrick in the November issue of Harper’s, which showed up in the mail today. He writes,
Contrary to warnings by politicians of both parties and by almost all of the mainstream press, America’s biggest fiscal problem is not spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; it is our almost complete unwillingness to tax ourselves sufficiently to maintain a modern state. Today’s deficit–now at about $1.1 trillion–was caused not by social spending but by the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the Iraq war, and the recent recession. …
It should not surprise that such right-wing groups as the Heritage Foundation insist that entitlement spending will eventually soak up all federal revenue. But they aren’t the only ones leading this disinformation effort. The Third Way, a centrist Democratic organization, notes that spending on entitlements has been growing while public investment in infrastructure, education, and so forth has been falling. “Entitlements are squeezing out public investments,” they conclude. But there is no causal relationship to be found here. … Meanwhile, military spending has somehow not been squeezed by entitlements.
This is just a tiny excerpt. Unfortunately, I can’t link to the article. The November issue isn’t online yet.
Later, Madrick observes that Social Security can be made solvent “with relatively little strain. Removing the payroll-tax cap, which limits withholding to incomes below $110,000, would almost entirely finance Social Security well into the future.”
Maybe you don’t think this should happen. Okay, fine. But let’s at least have an honest discussion of the crisis — or lack thereof — facing Social Security.
3. And then there was Raddatz’s bizarre request to the candidates, at the end, to explain their positions on abortion as influenced by their Catholic religion. Excuse me? Why would I care how their religion enters into it? Is this not a country of laws.
In a blog post yesterday morning, Jim Fallows made the point I wish had occurred to me the night before.
I thought the question itself was based on a premise that both candidates should have challenged: that it was in any way appropriate to grill them during an election on matters of personal faith. I know, you can’t please everybody — but it was almost as if a previous Catholic candidate for national office had never addressed this issue. …
Here is what another Catholic candidate said 52 years ago [linking to JFK's famous speech reassuring the nation that he would not take orders from the pope]:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
Returning to example #2, David Roberts had a post yesterday that does a better job than I do at addressing what’s wrong with Raddatz’s question.
Then it was straight to “entitlements,” which, in case you weren’t aware of the Beltway CW, Raddatz introduced by saying, “Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke.” That is just absolutely, empirically false. Medicare is fine out to 2024 and easily fixable after that (it’s medical costs, not Medicare, that are the real problem). And Social Security quite literally cannot go broke. It too can be kept solvent for many decades with small tweaks. Neither is a problem until a decade from now.
Of all the requirements for a debate moderators, surely the very minimum is that he or she not introduce factual errors into the discussion. No?
I’ve included Roberts’ emphases and links. The link on why Social Security cannot go broke is worth clicking on.
Also, have a look at Glenn Greenwald’s piece on the debate in The Guardian yesterday, in which he places Raddatz’s questions in the context of the standard behavior and principles of establishment journalists in this country. One excerpt, without full context:
The US has Iran virtually encircled militarily. Even with the highly implausible fear-mongering claims earlier this year about Tehran’s planned increases in military spending, that nation’s total military expenditures is a tiny fraction of what the US spends. Iran has demonstrated no propensity to launch attacks on US soil, has no meaningful capability to do so, and would be instantly damaged, if not (as Hillary Clinton once put it) “totally obliterated” if they tried. Even the Israelis are clear that Iran has not even committed itself to building a nuclear weapon.
That Iran is some major national security issue for the US is a concoction of the bipartisan DC class that always needs a scary foreign enemy. The claim is frequently debunked in multiple venues. But because both political parties embrace this highly ideological claim, Raddatz does, too. Indeed, one of the most strictly enforced taboos in establishment journalism is the prohibition on aggressively challenging those views that are shared by the two parties. Doing that makes one fringe, unserious and radical: the opposite of solemn objectivity.
Most of Raddatz’s Iran questions were thus snugly within this bipartisan framework.
Greenwald captures exactly what I found so annoying Thursday.
Much as I would love to see Obama change tactics in the remaining presidential debates and call Romney out as the bald-faced liar that he is, I doubt I will watch. It’s likely to be more of the same.