May 13, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Marie Burns:
On a day when the New York Times Sunday Review boasted a number of provocative guest opinion pieces and even Tom Friedman wrote a column worth reading, it is heartening to know that we can still count on Ross Douthat to remind us that the Times op-ed page, on its best days, still pays writers who think “opinion” means nonfactual. In today’s column, Douthat manages to cram an impressive number of errors and misstatements into one short essay.
Let’s start with his central premise: “the Obama White House has consistently sought to change the subject from the unemployment rate…. For the president, talking about social issues is … above all…, a way to talk about something – anything! – besides his economic record.”
Really? Obama has been nagging Congress to pass a jobs bill, any jobs bill, since late last summer. He has been pressing Congress to act on economic issues almost weekly. Last Tuesday, during a speech in Albany, New York, the President gave Congress a “five-point ‘to-do list,’ which features job creation and mortgage relief measures.” He told the audience, “It’s about the size of a Post-it Note, so every member of Congress should have time to read it.” The purpose of four of the five items on the to-do list is to lower unemployment (the fifth is mortgage relief). He again urged Americans to “push Congress to do the right thing.” On Friday, two whole days ago, Obama asked Americans to nag Congress to pass legislation extending help to homeowners whose mortgages are underwater. He actually said, “Nag them.” USA Today reported yesterday, “As he did during his western swing Thursday and Friday, [during his weekly radio address] Obama urged Congress to help homeowners, veterans, small businesses, clean energy companies and companies that bring jobs back from overseas.” The weekly radio address, delivered Saturday is here. So the President made three speeches, in three separate cities, and gave a radio address to the nation in which the main point was to ask Congress to pass laws that would boost the economy in ways that specifically help ordinary Americans.
Meanwhile, as Jonathan Easley of The Hill reported last Monday,
The Obama campaign released a new ad targeted at nine swing states on Monday, touting the president’s successes while again reminding voters of the problems his administration inherited. A one-minute video called “Go” that is set to air in the battleground states of Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, focuses on the auto-industry turnaround, the war in Iraq, the killing of Osama bin Laden and an economy that is slowly adding jobs.
A video of the ad is embedded in Easley’s online report.
Unless Douthat doesn’t realize that creating jobs lowers unemployment, I guess we’ll have to assume he just doesn’t read the news. It simply is nowhere close to factual to claim, as Douthat writes, that President Obama has tried “to change the subject from the unemployment rate.” Instead, unemployment was Obama’s theme of the week, all week.
If you’re looking for a good example of the phrase “damning with faint praise,” Douthat obliges. Here he “praises” Obama for effectively executing a strategy of obfuscation:
Twice in the last few months, a cultural controversy has threatened President Obama with embarrassment or worse: first in January, when the health care mandate requiring most religious employers to pay for sterilization, contraception and the morning-after pill prompted a chorus of opposition, and then again a week ago when it became clear that the media would no longer give the president cover for his ‘evolving’ position on gay marriage.
In both cases, though, Obama quickly regained the initiative. In the case of the mandate, he combined a hasty compromise proposal with a ‘war on women’ counterattack – and received a crucial gift from Rush Limbaugh, whose ‘slut’ monologue seemed to vindicate the White House’s portrayal of its opponents as troglodytes and bigots.
In the case of gay marriage, meanwhile, Obama benefited from the press’s eagerness to cover capital-H History, earning a wave of glowing publicity for what amounted to a tacit admission that he had been deceiving voters about his convictions all along. And again, the White House benefited from an unexpected political gift, this time from a Washington Post story on Mitt Romney’s teenage bullying of a (possibly gay) prep school classmate.
If you’ve followed the news, you’ll recognize quite a lot of malarkey spattered throughout Douthat’s damnation.
For one thing, the healthcare mandate did not “require most religious employers to pay for sterilization, contraception and the morning-after pill.” Places of worship and other religious entities that served primarily members of the religious group were completely exempt. The contraception rule, even as first envisioned, covered only people whose health insurance is covered by religious organizations which serve the general public – like hospitals and universities. Even then, in most cases, the employer does not pay for health insurance. The employee, or student, pays. The employer, or a health contractor, merely administers the group policy. So if I were PolitiFact, I’d rule Douthat’s assertion “Mostly False.”
Douthat claims that the media have been “giving the president cover for his ‘evolving’ position on gay marriage.” Like most of the media, Douthat places the word “evolving” in quotation marks. Those quotation marks are not there so much to indicate they’re quoting Obama as they are a shorthand for snark. (Think air quotes.) I learned in 2007 or 2008, via the media of course, that Obama was for gay marriage before he was against it. Pundits left, right and center have all assumed Obama’s so-called evolution was a political expediency and a bow to the sensibilities of the majority of Americans who opposed gay marriage. They all suggest Obama has conveniently evolved as the American people have evolved. What is more important is that – thanks largely to intensive lobbying by supporters of gay equality – the Obama Administration carefully shepherded the end of the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy through the miliary and Congress, and his Justice Department stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act. Most Congressional Republicans reacted by kicking and screaming all the way. Just this past week, Republicans in the House advanced two measures to limit gay equality. It “voted to block the Obama Administration from using taxpayer funds to fight the Defense of Marriage Act.… The GOP-dominated House Armed Services Committee also advanced a measure which would ban same-sex marriage on military bases.” Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney came out forcefully against gay marriage – again – now saying that he even opposes civil unions if they are “identical to marriage.” He also has said he favors a Constitutional Amendment banning gay marriage and plans to campaign on it (which renders bizarre his petulant claim this week that marriage is strictly a state issue.) In a news report, Justin Sink and Russell Berman write in The Hill today, “Mitt Romney could learn a lot from John Boehner about staying on message. Unlike the Speaker, Romney has struggled to define his brand and convey a singular focus on the economy and jobs.” So who is trying to change the subject?
I’m not sure President Obama,as Douthat writes, made a “tacit admission that he had been deceiving voters about his convictions all along.” In his discussion with Robin Roberts of ABC News, the President said he had thought for a long time that civil unions would suffice to grant gay couples equal protections. That doesn’t sound to me like a tacit admission of lying. I thought for years that the quickest solution would be for states and other government entities to get out of the marrying business altogether and more or less follow the European pattern: perform civil union ceremonies for everybody, then allow those who wanted to call themselves married to tie the knot before a person authorized to perform marriages. In Florida, notaries public can marry people. I still think that would work in states where there is a persistent opposition to state-sanctioned gay marriage. But, like Obama, I evolved: after states began allowing gay marriage, I realized that gay marriage was more doable and that courts would eventually force states to accept marriage equality if state legislatures didn’t beat the judges to it. So I changed my mind. That doesn’t mean I was ever against gay marriage. I wasn’t. But I did think there might be an easier, less controversial, way to get there.
Douthat claims the President “combined a hasty compromise proposal with a ‘war on women’ counterattack.” I have been unable to find an instance in which President Obama has accused Republicans or his opponent of waging a war on women (if you find one, let me know, and I’ll update this column). Romney, on the other hand, has explicitly and falsely accused Obama of promulgating policies that “have been, really, a war on women.”
Douthat descends into blaming the media for aiding and abetting Obama. Media star Rush Limbaugh, by the way, did not, as Douthat writes, deliver a “’slut’ monologue.” Limbaugh went on for three days smearing Georgetown student Sandra Fluke, who never said anything about her own sexual practices – she testified instead about how contraception was crucial to prevent or control medical conditions. Also, the school classmate whom Romney physically attacked was not “possibly gay,” as Douthat writes. According the Post report Douthat cites, John Lauber came out to his family and close friends. If he said he was gay, more than likely he was gay.
Douthat writes that Obama’s supposed campaign strategy of running “as an opponent of sexism, homophobia and social reaction … is a decent strategy for winning news cycles, which the administration clearly did last week – playing the media brilliantly and watching as Romney was thrown on the defensive yet again.” But, Douthat says, the strategy isn’t working: “Obama has won news cycle after news cycle this spring, and yet the president and his unloved, out-of-step-with-the-times challenger are almost dead even in the polls.”
Has Obama “won news cycle after news cycle” as Douthat claims? Not according to an objective study by the Pew Research Center. As James Crugnale of Mediaite wrote April 23,
According to a new study from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, an analysis of 52 newspaper, television, radio, and web outlets from January 2nd through April 15th saw Mitt Romney receiving significantly more positive news coverage than did President Obama. Over the past four months, researchers found news coverage of Romney was 39 percent positive, 32 percent negative, and 29 percent neutral, whereas Obama’s coverage was 18 percent positive, 34 percent negative, and 34 percent neutral.
Newsweek‘s Howard Kurtz observed that this analysis meant ‘Romney’s depiction by the media was more than twice as positive as the President’s. So much for liberal bias,’ Kurtz quipped.
Based on all this faulty foofah, Douthat has some advice for President Obama:
What Obama needs, instead, is to make voters fear a Romney presidency, even more than they fear four more years of high deficits and slow growth.… Well, in a pocketbook election it helps to focus on pocketbook anxieties. It’s true that every day the White House spends talking about social issues is a day it isn’t stuck talking about the economy. But it’s also a day when it hasn’t talked about how Mitt Romney wants to take away your retirement security to pay for tax cuts for the rich.
Douthat calls this “demagogic,” but it isn’t. Romney already has revealed his plans to take away your retirement security – and many other social safety net programs – to pay for tax cuts for the rich. In fact, the Obama campaign’s public “review” of Romney’s record has already begun, even though Romney does not yet have enough delegates to win the nomination. In a 30-second ad running in three swing states, the Obama campaign highlights Gov. Romney’s outsourcing of Massachusetts state jobs and CEO Romney’s sending American jobs overseas. “He’s still pushing tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas,” the voiceover says. Don’t worry, Ross. I do think that as the election season unfolds, the Obama campaign will get all the “demagoguery” out there.
In the meantime, instead of appending a slew of corrections, the Times should retract Douthat’s whole column.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com