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Posts - June 18-24

6/22 - Bryan: The "local control" bait and switch (permanent link)
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In a column posted yesterday afternoon on Slate, David Plotz provides an excellent analysis of one of Bush's shibboleths: "local control," or, as current politicians like to say, "New Federalism."

Pointing out that several politicians starting with Richard Nixon have invoked the "New Federalism" trope, Plotz cuts right to the heart of the matter: "Federalism, which has a whiff of mom and apple pie to it (who doesn't favor local control?), is one of the convenient principles of our era. Politicians believe passionately in federalism - except when it comes to any issue they care about.

Plotz runs through a series of recent policy positions that run counter to Bush's expressed desire for more local control: mandatory testing included in the recent education bill, federalizing more gun crimes, a patient's bill of rights that would grant the limited right to sue HMOs in federal court.

"New Federalism" and "local control" are tropes exactly like "changing the tone" and "arsenic". Each is simply a catch phrase with strong emotional associations that helps make a case for policy not through rational debate, but through subconscious association. Each phrase also helps delegitimize criticism of whatever policies it is used to support. And each provides false cover for political actors to go about their business free from scrutiny.

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Related links on Spinsanity:
-Bryan Keefer, "'Last-Minute' Spinning: Discrediting Clinton's Regulations" (6/11 column)
-Brendan Nyhan, "Kuttner's Tax Increase Euphamism" (6/5 post)
-Bryan Keefer, "Powering Up the Rhetoric" (5/21 column)

6/21 - Ben: Bush tax cut costs $1.35 trillion... no, $1.8 trillion (permanent link)
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Is news reporting about finding the truth, or passing on different versions of facts that politicians feed to the media?

The Washington Post has apparently chosen the latter route, as evidenced by a story today entitled "Panel Puts Tax Cut's Final Cost at $1.8 Trillion". The article notes that the analysis, which was requested by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), assumes that the cuts contained in the "Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act" recently signed by President Bush will extend past the nine years for which they are authorized to a full ten years. The Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), which performed the new report, had previously assumed the tax cuts would be allowed to expire in nine years while calculating their cost over 11. A Bush spokesperson granted that the President wants the tax cuts extended beyond nine years, however, making the JCT's new calculation much more accurate (unless tax hikes come into vogue in the future).

As loyal Spinsanity readers no doubt recall, an estimate of the actual cost of the Bush tax cut was available a month ago when it first passed Congress. At that point, though, the Bush administration, in an attempt to downplay the true cost of the measure, said it was $1.35 trillion over 11 years, all the while downplaying that most of the cuts were set to expire in nine years. And the Post's headline at the time? "Congress Passes $1.35 Trillion Tax Cut". That story didn't note until one reads 16 paragraphs deep that an outside analysis pegged the true 11-year cost, assuming that all of the tax cuts are extended, at $1.9 trillion.

Estimate of future tax revenue are, of course, never even close to 100 percent accurate, and slightly different results can be expected. But surely some ways of measuring are more realistic than others. If so, Post readers, who have been fed whatever calculations politicians feel like making on a given day, will never know the difference.

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Related links:
-Ben Fritz, Recycling Rhetoric: Media Coverage of the Bush Tax Cut (5/29 column)

6/20 - Bryan: An arms race of spin (permanent link)
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For the past several years, our public political culture has experienced a sort of ethical downward leveling. As politicians and pundits perfect ever more sophisticated tactics to manipulate public opinion, those on both the left and the right increasingly feel they must employ those tactics to avoid falling behind. What we have is an arms race of spin, with increasing pressure to lay aside the ethics of political debate and just do what seems to work.

A two-page ad in the July 2 issue of The Nation highlights the pressure those on the left are feeling to win at any cost. The ad is for a new public relations/fundraising firm called Avenging Angels. "It's time for the better angels of our nature to start kicking ass" we're told in inch-high red letters. Just below this text is a detail from an Albrecht Durer woodcut depicting four angels slaughtering kights, royalty, and clergy.

The ad informs us that the founder, Gene Case, "mastered the art of political mayhem in 1964, collaborating on the public disembowlment of Barry Goldwater". It tells us that politics is dominated by "men who regard Science and History as plastic putty" who "auction off Truth to the highest bidder and pocket the proceeds." It goes on to make the very reasonable point that "Liberals have lost the will and the wherewithal to sell liberal ideas" and that liberals need better ideas in order to find better candidates. But the ad ends on a Machiavellian note:

There really are enemies out there. There really is a Tom DeLay. A little ruthlessness is called for. Winning isn't everything, but incessant losing destroys the soul and besides, when liberals lose, too many innocent people get hurt. Hold your noses if you need to, but the Left must find its Lee Atwaters.

While many on the left will contend that Avenging Angels is simply responding to the new realities of political campaigns, the sad fact is that by explicitly embracing an ends-justify- the-means philosophy the firm is reinforcing the perception that there are no longer any ethics in politics (and especially political campaigns). How can Avenging Angels hope to recruit ethical candidates while it embraces the Lee Atwater school of win-at-all-costs politics? Levelling the political dialogue downward will only produce more of exactly what the firm decries.

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6/19 - Brendan: Sullivan slammed unfairly (permanent link)
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Gay conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan was recently hounded into disclosing personal ads he posted on AOL and a gay "bareback" website that appeared to solicit unprotected sex. Sullivan's opponents claim (when they have gone on the record) that Sullivan, a conservative who has criticized gay promiscuity at times, should be exposed as a hypocrite. They also criticize his ads for soliciting unprotected sex (Sullivan says he only has sex with other HIV-positive men).

The latest installment in this campaign is David Ehrenstein's disreputable San Francisco Chronicle article defending what was done to Sullivan (indeed, Ehrenstein admits he helped spread the rumor).

After admitting that he "[has] for years longed to see [Sullivan's] head on a platter", Ehrenstein opens up:

While in "HardnSolidDC" mode [Sullivan's alleged AOL screen name], he indicated "Brothers Welcome." But this hasn't been the case in his recent writings on the worldwide AIDS crisis in which he passes over the death and suffering of thousands of Africans in favor of the plight of the drug companies whose financial "risks" are all-important. Even more self-serving is "Recount," his recent column in the New Republic, in which he challenges new Centers for Disease Control figures about the rising rates of HIV infection, particularly among young gay African American men. "Brothers Welcome," indeed.

Through a series of implications and insinuations, Ehrenstein ruthlessly portrays Sullivan as callous and indifferent to the plight of black people with HIV and AIDS. As he frames it, Sullivan "passes over" the Africans with AIDS; his concern is the "plight" of the drug companies. Surely, it is unfair to portray Sullivan, who is HIV-positive himself, as indifferent to the AIDS crisis. In fact, his argument is that demonization of the pharmaceutical companies is counterproductive and negotiating lower prices alone will not solve the AIDS crisis. There is a legitimate debate here, but Ehrenstein is not interested in taking part in it.

He similarly mischarachterizes Sullivan's recent New Republic piece, which fairly criticizes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for releasing headline-grabbing conclusions - especially about HIV infection among black gay men - based on an extremely small sample.

But Ehrenstein's worst tactic is juxtaposing Sullivan's statements against the "Brothers welcome" line that was allegedly in Sullivan's AOL profile. "Brothers welcome, indeed" on one level suggests that Sullivan is a hypocrite, but also implies some sort of animus against blacks.

Read the article for yourself - it's a vicious piece of identity politics.

Update - 10:49 AM, 6/24/01: I turned this post into a letter to the editor that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle today.

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Related links:
-Brendan Nyhan, Andrew Sullivan says deceive the public (5/7 post)

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