Thursday, May 26, 2011

And NPR is probably the best of the bunch

Between poll numbers, town hall meetings and the special election in New York, the Ryan budget is starting to look like a tremendous political misstep for the GOP. To make matters worse, the pundits (who have gushed praise for Ryan in the past) seem to be increasingly open to Paul Krugman's take on the plan:
Anyway, the underlying premise behind statements like that is the assumption that the Ryan plan represents a serious effort to come to grip with America’s long-run fiscal problems. But what became clear soon after that plan was unveiled was that it was no such thing. In fact, it wasn’t really a deficit-reduction plan. Once you remove the absurd assumptions — discretionary spending, including defense, falling to Calvin Coolidge levels, and huge tax cuts for corporations and the rich, with no loss in revenue? — it’s highly questionable whether it would reduce the deficit at all.
Given all this and the fact that seniors are the Republicans' most important demographic, what were John Boehner and the rest of the house leadership thinking when they publicly came out for privatizing Medicare? Not being privy to their private conversations, we can only speculate, but I suspect that, in addition to fear of primary challenges, part of their rationale was the assumption that the Washington press corps would spin the story in a way that would minimize the damage.

To see how they might have made that assumption, check out this exchange between Neal Conan and NPR political editor, Ken Rudin:

CONAN: Another candidate who's been on the hustings in Iowa is Newt Gingrich, who's been saying, well, I'm the man that Washington has learned to hate.

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Republican Presidential Candidate): It is impossible to have watched television for the last week and not get the conclusion I am definitely not the candidate of the Washington insiders.

Everywhere I go across Iowa, or everywhere I see people randomly, they have figured out I'm the guy who wants to change Washington and they can tell it because the people they see on TV from Washington aren't happy with me.

CONAN: Well, not happy with him because, well, any variety of reasons.

RUDIN: Well, yes, and you know something, even - even when he said the thing about Paul Ryan, that it was a radical, it was social engineering...

CONAN: He now he says he would have voted for it.

RUDIN: Yes, but you know, when he said it at the time, of course everybody jumped on him, saying how dare you say that. But everybody said, well, that may be true. And we saw New York 26, and we'll talk about that later. That could very well have been the message that came out of it. So even when he says things that may very well be true, you know, we jump on him for saying that. And of course he went back on that word.

What amazes me about Rudin's comment is how, in less that two weeks, a senior political reporter can so completely revise his memories of an event. It's true that by now everybody has jumped on Gingrich at some point but the people who jumped when he criticized the Ryan plan were completely distinct from the people who jumped on him when he tried to walk it back. The story here isn't difficult to follow: Gingrich (probably assuming his conservative credentials were solid enough) tried to distance himself from Ryan's increasingly unpopular budget proposal; Conservatives were outraged and demanded a retraction; Gingrich clumsily backtracked, apologizing to Ryan and trying to suggest that he had misspoke partly because he wasn't expecting Meet the Press' 'gotcha' questions (despite having been on the show over thirty times).

Rudin has completely internalized the values of the Washington press corps, particularly "tell both sides of every issue" (even when there's only one side). He takes an account of a dislikeable politician's disastrous launch of a trial balloon and makes it into the story of a prophet without honor in D.C., not because he supports Gingrich (I very much doubt he does) but because he's more comfortable with the revised version.

When Paul Ryan and the Republicans put forward a plan to privatize Medicare immediately after a nominally pro-Medicare campaign, they were counting on reporters like Rudin to spin it as a serious response to a dire problem. Nor did Rdin disappoint, calling the plan "perhaps politically courageous, but maybe suicidal as well."

It's worth taking a minute to recall how common this initial response was. For at least a couple of days it looked like the press, which was deeply invested in the Ryan-as-fiscal-conscience meme, was going to converge on the interpretation that the Ryan budget, though certain not to become law, was an honest attempt to start the conversation by facing up to some hard truths (you could even find some Democrats falling in line). If this interpretation had held, the story would have probably dropped off the radar fairly quickly and the political landscape would look radically different now (insert "Sound of Thunder" reference here).

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