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Posts - August 20-26

8/24 - Brendan: Pruden is at it again (permanent link)
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If you say it fast enough and repeat it enough times, does that make it true?

Wes Pruden, the editor-in-chief of the Washington Times and one of America's leading dissemblers, offers yet another example of how he and other opponents of former President Clinton constantly use the technique of pummelling Clinton with a drumbeat of manufactured facts -- a rhetorically overwhelming barrage of strategically vague references to supposed facts supporting one's argument.

Last Wednesday, Pruden rammed together what I showed were a series of false and misleading statements comparing Clinton and Rep. Gary Condit:

Bill Clinton has never personally been a suspect, even an honorary suspect, in a murder case, and Gary Condit has never been convicted of lying to the federal courts, caught robbing a bank, or credibly accused of raping a constituent.

Now - oops - he's done it again. In his column today, Pruden offers this barrage, again putatively to contrast Clinton with Condit:

Bill Clinton got away with robbing banks, molesting beauty queens of barely legal age, sexually harassing his aides and constituents, maybe even rape -- and lying to federal courts and grand juries and everyone else about it. Democratic ladies, perhaps enamored of lurid rape fantasies, loved him. Their men indulged him. He won two terms as president of the United States.

Again, most of these charges are false. As I argued in my previous post, Clinton was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by independent counsel Robert Ray in the Whitewater scandal, which included an allegation of an improper loan from an Arkansas bank. Note how the first column's "robbing a bank" (a formulation designed to make it sound like Clinton held up the cashier) becomes "robbing banks" the second time around. The "molesting beauty queens" line is a reference to a single allegation that Clinton coerced former Miss America Elizabeth Glazen into sex, which she has repeatedly denied. First, she denied any relationship; later, she said they had sex, but it was consensual. She was 23 at the time of the alleged incident.

"[S]exually harassing his aides" is presumably an accusation that Clinton's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky constituted sexual harassment (note how this is genericized and inflated into the plural, like almost every charge in Pruden's diatribe), while "harassing...his constituents" is a reference to the single Kathleen Willey allegation of sexual harassment (also unproven). Finally, and most appallingly, Pruden indulges in inflammatory speculation about Democratic women having "lurid rape fantasies" about Clinton.

No matter what one thinks of Clinton or the charges against him, Pruden is brutalizing his readers with these subrational barrages, which are apparently designed to drill into our heads by rhetorical force what he cannot prove.

Update - 8/25 2:29 PM EST: I omitted the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton from my post above. Presumably, Pruden includes it in his accusation of Clinton "sexually harassing his aides", although Jones was a "low-level state employee" who did not work closely with then-Governor Clinton at the time of the alleged incident (see the WashingtonPost.com special report). In the end, Jones dropped the suit in exchange for an $850,000 payment from Clinton, who made no admission of guilt.

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Related links:
-Pruden takes his dissembling straight up (Brendan Nyhan)
-Continuing the Condit spin (Bryan Keefer, 7/31)
-Spinning Chandra: Making the Condit Affair Partisan (Bryan Keefer, 7/23)


8/23 - Bryan: Strassel takes on the Endangered Species Act (permanent link)
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In her "Scene and Heard" column today, OpinionJournal's Kimberley Strassel rehashes some tired but powerful straw man arguments about environmental protection. Framing the conflict in terms of man versus animal and government versus virtuous small landowner, she manages to attack the legitimacy of environmental arguments without ever taking them on directly.

The column uses a protest mounted by farmers dependant upon a federal water project in the Klamath River Basin in Oregon as the launching pad for an emotionally charged argument. The farmers have been denied water because of a successful lawsuit by environmentalists to allocate that water to the protection of three species of fish under the Endangered Species Act.

Strassel frames the debate in her summary of the situation:

In April, the federal government cut off water from some 1,500 farms after environmental groups sued on behalf of "endangered" suckerfish. Since then, despite heroic efforts, the men in boots and cowboy hats have met insane obstacles . . . They've faced more lawsuits from environmentalists . . . and congressional Democrats who think a bottom-feeder is more valuable than a baby.

The problem here is that Strassel is factually deceptive: though the Interior Department did cut off water in April, the Secretary of the Interior granted the farmers an emergency ration of water last month, which ran out today. More importantly, Congressional Democrats have nothing to do with the Interior Department's decision. But Strassel isn't one to let facts get in the way of her framing: environmentalist lawsuits are "insane obstacles," the farmers are "heroic," and Democrats in Congress hate babies.

Strassel continues with a series of cheap name-calling attacks on environmentalists. In her formulation, the Klamath farmers are another of the "communities victimized by such environmental fundamentalism." The Interior Department's April decision is dismissed out of hand as "partly the result of junk science from the Clinton-era Fish and Wildlife Service," and Stassel tells us that "[t]he hope is that Ms. Norton is busy getting rid of the green-enraptured junk scientists at the top layers of Fish and Wildlife and other agencies," never bothering to argue that the fish are not endangered or that the water diversions to the farmers are not the cause.

Strassel saves her most outrageous claims for her final paragraph:

Environmental groups have crossed the line from responsible stewardship to insane regulations meant to force people off their own land. It's time to swing back to the side of reason. And bravo to the Klamath farmers for starting that pendulum back toward center.

Continuing the theme of environmentalists as "insane," she frames the farmers as "the side of reason." This is one of the less sophisticated forms of rhetoric used by pundits: argument by label. Yet by playing on conservative stereotypes of environmentalists, Strassel's vitriolic attack will strike a chord with many readers. Strassel's piece is not a contribution to the debate over water policy in the Klamath Basin; it's simply an irrational attack on the idea of government regulation.

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8/22 - Brendan: An APB for intellectual honesty on Social Security privatization (permanent link)
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How hard is it to be honest about the costs involved in Social Security privatization?

Two recent proponents of this approach, Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-TX) and Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-AZ) unveiled their privatization bill in early August, saying they wanted to test support for the approach, and the tradeoffs inherent in it. Kolbe bravely said "Anyone that tells you there is a painless way to fix Social Security simply isn't telling you the whole truth." Unfortunately, that kind of honesty was too much for President Bush and other privatization supporters, who distanced themselves from the bill, which increases the payroll tax and reduces the guaranteed benefit to pay for the costs of a transition to privatization.

Since then, no major privatization proponent has acknowledged that ensuring Social Security's future solvency under privatization would actually be more costly than under the current structure. The latter could be accomplished with a moderate package of benefit cuts and tax increases such as that outlined by Henry Aaron and Robert Reischauer in Countdown to Reform, as the International Monetary Fund noted recently.

By contrast, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service and the respected Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) report that privatization would actually worsen the financial situation of Social Security, necessitating greater benefit cuts and tax increases than would otherwise be required.

Specifically, under the current Social Security structure, the taxes of current workers partially fund payments to current retirees. If a chunk of Social Security taxes are diverted into private accounts for young workers, those dollars are no longer available to pay for benefits to retirees.

Despite this, pro-privatization pundits are content to continue to claim that privatization is a free lunch in social policy terms. The Wall Street Journal argues today that "Changing [the ability of Congress to meet future Social Security liabilities] would require ... creating personal retirement accounts" - and nothing more.

Even more dishonest - or shockingly ill-informed - is Peter Ferrara's jeremiad today against opponents of privatization on National Review Online.

Here is the privatization as free lunch argument in its most pure form:

[T]he long term Social Security financing problem would be eased as retirees in the future come to rely on personal accounts in place of part of their Social Security benefits, reducing the financial burden on the program. The long-term financing gap can consequently be reduced, or even eliminated altogether, without raising taxes or cutting benefits.

There is an intellectually honest case to be made for privatization as worth the extra costs it entails, and the additional benefit cuts and tax increases that are therefore required. Let's see if anyone has the courage to make it, or even to admit that such tradeoffs exist.

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Related links:
-Both sides play pin the tail on the Social Security surplus (Bryan Keefer, 8/22)
-Novak's welcome-back gift for Congress: Social Security spin (Ben Fritz, 8/20)
-A useless Social Security stalemate (Brendan Nyhan, 8/9)
-Mitch Daniels spins the Medicare Trust Fund (Bryan Keefer, 7/16)
-Limbaugh deceptive on Social Security (Brendan Nyhan, 7/10)
-Krugman predicts shortfalls, Bush spin (Bryan Keefer, 7/6)


8/22 - Bryan: Both sides play pin the tail on the Social Security surplus (permanent link)
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News of a reduced budget surplus has set off a dizzying war of spin from both sides of the aisle.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is set to revise its estimate of the budget surplus next week, and both sides are preparing to make political hay out of the result. It appears that CBO will estimate that the government is going to spend a small portion of this year's $160 billion Social Security surplus on general operating expenses. The general revenue surplus of $125 billion predicted for fiscal 2000-2001 has disappeared, thanks to the tax cut ($74 billion, according to the Senate Budget Committee), a slumping economy ($40 billion) and additional spending ($11 billion).

Democrats are licking their chops at the opportunity to paint Bush's tax cut as reckless and make it appear that the President is being irresponsible about Social Security. Dick Gephardt summarized the emerging Democratic spin nicely in a press release yesterday: "Yet, in just over six months, the Bush tax cut has wiped out the surplus, invaded Medicare and stayed out of Social Security only by employing a ridiculous accounting gimmick."

Gephardt's statement exaggerates the role of the Bush tax cut in reducing the surplus, erasing the some/all distinction to imply the tax cut is the only reason for the decline. In addition, it avoids the fact that Democrats crafted much of the tax cut that kicks in this year, and makes use of the loaded imagery of "invading Medicare," which implies a Bush attempt to subvert the program.

On the conservative side, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the budgeting arm of the White House, decided last week to change its accounting practices and thus ward off the appearance that Social Security money has been tapped for general expenses, allowing Bush to claim yesterday that he will "watch carefully to make sure that the old temptations of the past [to spend Social Security] don't come back to haunt us when it comes to budgeting in the year 2001."

However, even with this change in accounting practices, the government will need to spend the Medicare Part A surplus to make ends meet, breaking a Bush campaign promise. The administration is carefully dodging this issue; Bush claimed today that "every dime that comes into Medicare will be spent on Medicare," which is technically true, since Part B is running a deficit greater than the Part A surplus, but ignores that fact that members of both parties pledged not to spend the Part A surplus.

The White House has also gone on the offensive, claiming that it is excessive spending that is responsible for the evaporating surplus. OMB Director Mitch told the Washington Post on Sunday that "Since the trust funds are in identical shape with the president's tax cut, this hysteria can only be about one thing - spending," and Bush emphasized that "The biggest threat to our recovery is for Congress to overspend." Just like Gephardt, the White House is erasing the some/all distinction and implying a single cause (and, in this case, the smallest cause).

One can only hope the coming debate over the federal budget is less concerned with grandstanding and finger-pointing.

Subscribe to our email list and you'll always know who's trying to spin you.

Related links:
-Novak's welcome-back gift for Congress: Social Security spin (Ben Fritz, 8/20)
-A useless Social Security stalemate (Brendan Nyhan, 8/9)
-Mitch Daniels spins the Medicare Trust Fund (Bryan Keefer, 7/16)
-Limbaugh deceptive on Social Security (Brendan Nyhan, 7/10)
-Krugman predicts shortfalls, Bush spin (Bryan Keefer, 7/6)


8/20 - Ben: Novak's welcome-back gift for Congress -- Social Security spin (permanent link)
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Congress may be in recess, but pundits are already preparing for their return next month. They're not ordering gift baskets or setting up lunch appointments, though. At least in the case of syndicated columnist and CNN host Robert Novak, he's getting some spin and irrational logic ready for Congress's return.

In his column today, Novak predicts that Democrats will accuse President Bush of creating a "budgetary crisis" by blaming his tax cuts for the 40 percent decline in this year's projected budget surplus.

"The alleged crisis is that the Republicans now are "dipping" into the Social Security and Medicare 'funds,'" he writes. "Those funds do not exist in real terms, but the argument is irrationally made that the budget surplus would be all but erased if it were not for payroll taxes to finance Social Security and Medicare."

Later on, in what passes for "clearing up" his point, Novak writes "Actually, all the drawers at Parkersburg, W. Va. contain are government IOUs."

The issue of whether the Social Security and Medicare trust funds are real is a complex one, that many, including Brendan Nyhan here on Spinsanity, have covered in depth. Suffice it to say that Novak's evidence-free dismissal is a gross oversimplification.

Our purpose here, however, is to analyze Novak's logic. He states that the argument that the surplus would be erased without Social Security and Medicare taxes is made "irrationally." This is a clear attempt to spin Democrats, who are likely to argue that very fact, without actually taking on their argument. Rationality is not at issue here. It is a question of facts. And the fact is, as Novak admits, that the federal budget surplus is now much lower than previously estimated. If the surplus gets low enough, then it will only exist because of extra revenue raised by Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes that are invested in federal bonds and spent for other purposes. And a new Congressional Budget Office report set to come out at the end of this month is expected to show that such a scenario is taking place this year.

Novak's piece is an explicit and early effort to defend Republicans from Democratic criticism of the declining surplus. He states early on that "Republicans cringe as they await a Democratic onslaught when Congress reconvenes after Labor Day," indicating he is not just out to debunk those who believe in a Social Security and Medicare surplus, but to defend Republicans from them. It is interesting to note, however, that those very people Novak is defending were last year singing the same tune as those he attacks. Both President Bush (see speech excerpt under "Maintain America's 'most successful program'") and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, among many other Republicans, promised during last year's campaign that they would protect the very Social Security fund that Novak argues doesn't exist.

If Novak's article is a sign of the tack the Republican establishment in Washington will be taking this fall, we're in for a long season of spin.

Subscribe to our email list and you'll always know who's trying to spin you.

Related links:
-A useless Social Security stalemate (Brendan Nyhan, 8/9)
-David Horowitz's "ideological fog machine" (Ben Fritz, 8/8)
-Faking consensus and framing tradeoffs on Social Security privatization (Bryan Keefer, 7/26)
-Social Security report spin (Ben Fritz, 7/19)
-Limbaugh deceptive on Social Security (Brendan Nyhan, 7/10)

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