Posts - May 1-7, 2001
In an excerpt from her book Slanting the Story: The Forces That Shape the News on TomPaine.com, Trudy Lieberman provides an outstanding case study of how conservative think tanks influence policy dialogues by managing the language of debate. Lieberman looks at the concept of Medicare vouncherization (labeled "reform" by its proponents) and the Congressional battle over the budget in 1995. Talking points sent to Congressional Republicans by pollster Frank Luntz noted that "[w]ords are especially important, and setting the right one at the outset is critical," emphasizing that members of Congress should speak of "[s]aving, preserving, and strengthening Medicare," rather than "improving" it (a word suggesting costly new benefits).
Lieberman also documents an assault launched by the conservative Media Research Center (MRC) and Republican National Committee chair Haley Barbour to dissuade the media from using the word "cuts" when discussing Republican plans to keeping an increase in Medicare spending below the rate of inflation. It attacked journalists who used the c-word and praised those who instead reported that GOPers were "slowing the rate of growth" of the program (a phrase with obviously positive connotations). MRC was happy with the results: a few months after launching its assault on "cuts," it reported that "there has been a dramatic improvement in network labeling. Now half the time network reporters get it right labeling Medicare reform plans." Considering that Medicare is responsible for 12 percent of federal spending ($217 billion in 2000) and affects 39 million people, it is frightening to contemplate how a subtle change in the language of the debate can affect so many lives.
Andrew Sullivan makes an extraordinary argument in the current New Republic that is indicative of what has happened to political debate in this country. Discussing what he believes is the unrelenting growth of big government, Sullivan writes:
Some commentators--at this magazine and elsewhere--get steamed because Bush has obscured this figure [15.6%, the percentage of GDP the government will consume in 2011 under the Bush budget] or claimed his tax cut will cost less than it actually will, or because he is using Medicare surplus money today that will be needed tomorrow and beyond. Many of these arguments have merit--but they miss the deeper point. The fact that Bush has to obfuscate his real goals of reducing spending with the smoke screen of "compassionate conservatism" shows how uphill the struggle is.
Yes, some of the time he is full of it on his economic policies. But a certain amount of B.S. is necessary for any vaguely successful retrenchment of government power in an insatiable entitlement state. Conservatives learned that lesson twice. They learned it when Ronald Reagan's deficits proved to be an effective drag on federal spending (Stockman was right!)--in fact the only effective drag human beings have ever found. And they learned it when they tried to be honest about taking on the federal leviathan in 1994 and got creamed by Democrats striking the fear of God into every senior, child, and parent in America. Bush and Karl Rove are no dummies. They have rightly judged that, in a culture of ineluctable government expansion, where every new plateau of public spending is simply the baseline for the next expansion, a rhetorical smoke screen is sometimes necessary. I just hope the smoke doesn't clear before the spenders get their hands on our wallets again.
This is blatantly anti-democratic. Rather than accomplish policy goals by convincing people of their merit - Sullivan's job as an opinion journalist - he endorses outright deception. And this is only unusual because Sullivan states it publicly. (For an example of the outrage at these tactics that Sullivan refers to, see Paul Krugman's New York Times column from yesterday.)
Consider this the inaugural version of the new Cold War jargon watch. Fresh on the heels of the China spy plane crisis comes a piece from John Derbyshire hypothesizing a war with China. Playing to the worst stereotypes of the Chinese and their leaders, Derbyshire gives us a War of the Worlds-type monologue in which the President informs listeners of a missile attack on Taiwan, the sinking of two US battleships (in "cowardly and barbarous attacks") and an attack on Guam. The President describes a series of executive orders including internment for Chinese citizens in the US who do not leave within 30 days, and the monologue concludes with an "electronic warfare" attack, a clear allusion to the recent spy plane controversy.
The recent incident brought out some ugly rhetoric, which reaches its apotheosis in Derbyshire's piece. Some of the worst included labeling China's people and leaders "ChiComs," Richard Cohen's column in the Washington Post calling Chinese leaders "irrational" and "childish," and a crack from professional jargon-slinger Jonah Goldberg that "if my dog were a member of the American crew Jiang Zemin would have eaten him by now". (Goldberg refused to apologize).
I'm just hoping our "strategic competitor" doesn't become the next "Evil Empire."
Today, Robert Wright breaks down the logic of Bush's missile defense arguments on Slate.com. Take a look at this paragraph from Bush's speech on Tuesday:
We need new concepts of deterrence that rely on both offensive and defensive forces. Deterrence can no longer be based solely on the threat of nuclear retaliation. Defenses can strengthen deterrence by reducing the incentive for proliferation.
The last sentence in particular is bizarre, as Wright notes. First, Bush says that a missile defense reduces the incentive for proliferation, which is just wrong. Bush is conceivably hoping that rogue states will simply accept that the likelihood of a successful first strike is reduced and therefore be less inclined to develop weapons of mass destruction. But this makes little sense.
Although the defense system is ostensibly not targeted at China or Russia, both have clear incentives to modify and expand their arsenals to try to defeat a defense system and preserve their nuclear capacity in the event of a conflict. This will then spur arms races with countries like India and Pakistan, as Wright points out. Also, Iraq, Iran and North Korea - the rogue states primarily targeted by the system - are unlikely to feel that their incentives have changed, as demonstrated by their continued efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction despite intensive non-proliferation efforts by the US and its allies. Wright notes that a 2% chance of a missile strike on the US is just as scary, and as menacing geopolitically, as 5% or more (and, given results to date, those figures are extremely generous).
And even if Bush was right about proliferation, his argument is still a mess. How can "reducing the incentive for proliferation" actually "strengthen deterrence"? It just doesn't follow. Deterrence means "don't attack us or we'll nuke the hell out of you". That has nothing to do with incentives to acquire weapons. Bush is turning a strategic concept into a meaningless political buzzword.
5/2 - Ben: Bush environmental spin (permanent link)
5/1 - Bryan: Bush talking points (permanent link)