Paul Krugman makes a very good argument why the Bain attacks on Mitt Romney are necessary.
There is, predictably, a mini-backlash against the Obama campaign’s focus on Bain. Some of it is coming from the Very Serious People, who think that we should be discussing their usual preoccupations. But some of it is coming from progressives, some of whom are apparently uncomfortable with the notion of going after Romney the man and wish that the White House would focus solely on Romney’s policy proposals.
This is remarkably naive. I agree that the awfulness of Romney’s policy proposals is the main argument against his candidacy. But the Bain focus isn’t a diversion from that issue, it’s complementary. Given the realities of politics — and of the news media, as I’ll explain in a minute — any critique of Romney’s policies has to make use of his biography.
The first point is that voters are not policy wonks. They do not go to the Tax Policy Center website to check out distribution tables. And if a politician cites those distribution tables in his speeches, well, politicians say all kinds of things.
Nor, alas, can we rely on the news media to get the essentials of the policy debate across to the public — and not just because so many people get their news in quick snatches via TV. The sad truth is that the cult of balance still rules. If a Republican candidate announced a plan that in effect sells children into indentured servitude, the news reports would be that “Democrats say” that the plan sells children into indentured servitude, with each quote to that effect matched by a quote from a Republican saying the opposite.
He’s right. While I alluded to this in my post on Glenn Kessler’s changing belief in the seriousness of SEC filings, it deserves exposition directly. Glenn Kessler, back in the days when it was time to distinguish Gore’s economic plans from Bush’s, back in the days when it was time to consider whether Bush’s huge tax cuts would serve the interest of the country, committed just that kind of journalistic sin.
I pointed to this May 3, 2001 story, titled, “Some See Deficiencies in Bush’s Budget Math,” as just one example. It cited Rudolph Penner as the only expert speaking in any way supportively of Bush’s tax cut.
This fiscal situation, despite the uncertainties, is extraordinarily good.
But of course, Penner doesn’t actually say the tax cut is a good idea, just that Bush effectively inherited a good fiscal situation from Clinton.
Kessler then goes on to provide a bunch of anonymous quotes from Bush officials about the tax cuts–many admitting they’re not providing a full picture of the cuts and budget increases–as well as Ari Fleischer providing an excuse for why Bush didn’t include the cost to privatize social security in his estimates.
Which leaves this as the only non-Administration quote in support of the tax cuts.
“Look, [the spending ceiling is] going to hold because you have a different team,” said Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.). “We’ve got the president in town.”
Compare that to evidence like this:
“The president is proving his critics right,” said William G. Gale, a budget expert at the Brookings Institution. “The ink isn’t even dry on the tax cut, and he’s already moving ahead on Social Security and defense. The president’s budget adds up only if you think the government will not do anything other than it has been doing.”
One budget expert calculated that just the $100 billion in tax refunds will result in $73 billion in additional interest payments over the next 11 years. The entire tax cut would increase interest costs by about $400 billion, thus reducing the surplus by $1.75 trillion.
The budget agreement would increase spending on annually funded federal programs in fiscal 2002 by 4.9 percent, or about $667 billion, slightly higher than the 4 percent sought by the president. The rest of the nearly $2 trillion federal budget goes to pay for programs whose costs can’t be easily reduced — Social Security and Medicare, and interest payments on the national debt.
And while Kessler likely didn’t stamp that case with the “Some Say” headline, he failed to do what a journalist presenting such evidence should have: said clearly that Bush’s budget numbers didn’t add up, even before you accounted for the increases in defense and social security spending Bush planned (to say nothing of unexpected expenses like post-9/11 Homeland Security and two wars).
Mind you, that wasn’t the only version of such a story Kessler wrote. He also wrote the following “Some Say” stories:
May 3, 2000: Candidates Duel Over Tax Cuts; Gore and Bush Trade Analytical Shots, Seeking an Imprimatur of Fiscal Responsibility