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Balanced Fare: We Report, You Deride

Thursday, August 08, 2002

Now It's Marshall versus Kaus

It seems to have been a long week for my man Josh Marshall, and it's only Wednesday. Mr. Talking Points goes after Mickey Kaus twice: once for "Bill Clinton Down", and once for "Krugman, lies and the OMB". Mickey addresses the first in an update to his blog, and I will not attempt to improve on The Master. However, since I seem to be cast as the hapless sidekick on this Krugman binge, let me involve myself on the second point.

Excerpting Marshall:

"To get the whole story, the whole back and forth, go to Mickey's site. But the essence of the matter is that the Bush OMB came out with a statistic which vastly understated the role of the Bush tax cut in creating the deficits projected over the next ten years. Krugman called this a lie. They called it an honest mistake, which they say they later corrected. Again, if you want the details (of which there are many), go to Mickey's site....

If I had been writing the piece I might not have said "lie." I'm not sure. Here on TPM sometimes I cut to the chase like that. In print, I often hold back. I'm not sure which is better.

But indulge me in a thought experiment.

Let's imagine we're dealing with the Clinton administration. The Clinton OMB puts out false numbers which just happen to exculpate the administration on a major public policy issue. In congressional testimony another administration economics official -- not the head of the OMB -- grudgingly concedes that the numbers are probably incorrect. Later, the White House is called out by a conservative think tank for using false numbers. Still later, folks at the White House go on to their website and simply change the number without telling anybody.

Here we have the same set of facts, just change the administrations.

Is it even remotely conceivable that if this were the Clinton OMB that Mickey would so bend over backwards to see the whole thing as just an honest mistake? When the honest mistake is so helpful to the administration? When it goes uncorrected for weeks? Of course, not. The question answers itself.

I think it's possible that it was an honest mistake, quite possible. But calling it a 'lie' hardly seems an unwarranted conclusion. It's a bit sharp, but hardly something that itself requires some sort of retraction.

The only explanation I can see is that since it's the Bush administration (and Paul Krugman on the other side) Mickey wants to hold open every door, make every excuse, refuse to draw any adverse conclusion. Precisely the opposite of what we see him do in the other case involving Bill Clinton. When it comes to the Bush administration, Mickey is so permissive you'd think he were Peter Edelman (that's a little welfare reform humor, there). The contrast is blinding."

OK, I want to stop there. Marshall has a P.S. which raises an interesting new angle, but that's what all these links are for, right?

And we're off. First, is it a "lie"? Without refering to a dictionary, I will assert that a lie is a materially false statement made either with the intention to deceive or with reckless disregard for the truth. In this construct, not every mistake is a "lie". So, did the OMB make a material, false statement? Yes. Did they seriously intend to deceive us? Well, public testimony before Congress three days later probably didn't advance the nefarious plot. OTOH, perhaps they hoped that, in the fullness of time, folks would ignore the public record in Congress, ignore the charts and graphs inside the OMB report, and focus strictly on the erroneous bullet point. Clever, huh? Or, Scenario B, they screwed up. First time ever for a Federal Bureaucracy, watch the heavens fall! And having screwed up, they dithered about trying to figure out how this mistake happened, and what else was wrong, and, and how best to fix it, and generally acted like, hmmm, bureaucrats. Meanwhile, time passed, and here we are - whistle blown, scandal exposed. I lean towards Scenario B (can you tell?), but Marshall does have an interesting P.S., so check it out.

Anyway, as to his "Thought Experiment": DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS WITHOUT PROFESSIONAL SUPERVISION! Deep, thoughtful reflection on the history and credibility of the Clinton administration and its tortured relationship with the media and the "Attack Republicans" can cause serious distress. Look, neither Clinton-bashing nor Clinton-boosting seem to bring out the best in anyone. It's over, let it go. But let me, without intending to give offense to anyone, or light anyone's fuse, deferentially assert the following:

I believe that a reasonable "person in the street" would conclude, based on possibly objective measures such as number of headlines, that Clinton and his administration had a more serious credibility problem than the current Bush administration.

I'm sure there are a range of interesting opinions explaining that observation, but I suspect that most people would agree it to be the case. If you are still with me, than my point is obvious: Marshall's thought experiment makes no sense. If the OMB had done this under Clinton, the reaction of many people would have been "Here we go again". Now I know some folks out there think Bush is evil incarnate, but, by my faux-objective measure above, most people would still be inclined to give him and his administration the benefit of the doubt. In my opinion, Clinton had exhausted his credibility and our patience in a way that, for most people, Bush has not yet done. So, is Kaus's treatment asymmetric? Sure, since the two administrations are asymmetric.

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