|To begin with, as reported on USA Today's "On Politics" blog:
The comments by McCain that generated this back-and-forth came yesterday during an interview with Bloomberg TV. Here's what was said, according to a transcript provided by the McCain campaign:
Bloomberg's Peter Cook: "I'm going to ask you a version of the Ronald Reagan question. You think if Americans were asked, are you better off today than you were before George Bush took office more than seven years ago, what answer would they give?"
McCain: "Certainly, in this time, we are in very challenging times. We all recognize that. Families are sitting around the kitchen table this evening and figuring out whether they're going to be able to keep their home or not. They're figuring out whether they're -- why it is that suddenly and recently someone in their family or their neighbor has lost their job. There's no doubt that we are in enormous difficulties.
"I think if you look at the overall record and millions of jobs have been created, et cetera, et cetera, you could make an argument that there's been great progress economically over that period of time. But that's no comfort. That's no comfort to families now that are facing these tremendous economic challenges.
"But let me just add, Peter, the fundamentals of America's economy are strong. We're the greatest exporter, the greatest importer, the greatest innovator, the greatest producer, still the greatest economic engine in the world. And, by the way, exports and free trade are a key element in economic recovery. But these are tough times, tough times, and nobody knows that more than American families including in small towns of Pennsylvania. They haven't lost their fundamental religious beliefs, their respect for the Constitution, their right to bear arms. They are still -- keep America as a beacon of hope and freedom throughout the world."
Several things are worth noting from this excerpt. First off, McCain never did answer the question, how would people respond if they were asked: 'Are you better off today than you were before George Bush took office more than seven years ago?" "Straight talk" would demand a straight answer, and John McCain didn't give one.
But this wasn't merely a passive failure to talk straight. The second thing worth noting is that McCain was very actively aviding a straight answer. He deliberately tried to say two mutually contradictory things: One, that Bush had done "a heckuva job," and two, that people "are facing these tremendous economic challenges."
The third thing worth noting was that McCain's sole evidence of Bush's "heckuva job"-job growth-was pure bunk. Sure, millions have jobs had been created. That's what happens in any economy the size of ours as its workforce continues to grow by millions of people every year. There is nothing the least bit remarkable about millions of jobs being created-even though Bush couldn't manage that in his first term, the first such failure in recorded history, though we can be fairly certain the Herbert Hoover was the last President to similarly fail. Rather, what is remarkable is how few million jobs have been created under Bush, as one can readily see from the following, generated directly from the Bureau of Labor Statistics website, with only the headline and trendlines for each President added:
And, to make things even clearer, here is the direct, head-to-head comparison of job growth under Clinton vs. Bush II, derived from the same BLS website figures underlying the chart above:
There is, quite simply, no precedent for the enormous job losses suffered during Bush's first term since the time of Herbert Hoover, and the job growth since then-even though it was recovering from an unprecedented period of job losses-was both significantly softer and shorter than Clinton's strong performance, and it has already tailed off into "negative growth" once again.
Some progress! If the media were doing their job, this claim alone would be enough for them to pounce on.
Fourth, even this deliberate delivery of two contradictory messages wasn't enough for McCain. He next resorted a farrago of typically nonsensical pseudo-patriotic blather, combining lopsided cheerleading for the American economy ("the greatest exporter, the greatest importer, the greatest innovator, the greatest producer, still the greatest economic engine in the world"-try "the greatest debtor nation ever since St. Ronnie's first term"), hollow globaloney over a non-existent recovery ("exports and free trade are a key element in economic recovery"), and patronizing pap about the same people he had only recently accused Obama of looking down on ("They haven't lost their fundamental religious beliefs, their respect for the Constitution, their right to bear arms. They are still -- keep America as a beacon of hope and freedom throughout the world.")
Anyone with an ounce of sense listening--sans kool aid--to this puree of pure irrelevancies would immediately conclude that McCain was showing the strains of his age, and needed to take a good long nap-say until sometime after the November election. Except of course, that such witless blathering has become totally normalized as a mainstay of our political discourse over the course of the past three decades.
Fifth, and finally, none of any of this raised the least little peep (much less an eyebrow) out of the national press, until Obama chose to make something of it.
As ABC's Political Radar blog reported:
Today Obama responded, "Only somebody who spent two decades in Washington could make a statement as disconnected from the hard times we are facing all across the nation."
Obama then listed all of the problems economically Americans have withstood during President Bush's administration, ticking through them one by one, "Here's what John McCain calls great progress: we went through the first period of sustained economic growth since WWII that saw incomes drop. Eleven million more Americans don't have healthcare, two million more Americans are out of work, millions of families are facing foreclosure, the poverty rate has gone up, you are working harder for less, you are paying more for tuition, you're paying more for groceries, more at the pump, that's what John McCain calls great progress."
The same blog post also described the McCain response:
The McCain campaign immediately sent out a statement in response, saying that Obama intentionally twisted McCain's words, "American families are hurting and Barack Obama is being recklessly dishonest," McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said, "Obama is guilty of deliberately distorting John McCain's comments for pure political gain, which is exactly what Senator Obama was complaining about just yesterday."
Now, there are several different things going on here.
Was Obama distorting McCain's comments?
Or were McCain's comments themselves deliberating distorting reality, and hiding his own position, so as to remain on good terms both with Bush dead-enders--in denial about the economy--and with the vast majority of Americans (81 percent at last count) who know damn well that the country is seriously on the wrong track?
Was Obama under some sort of ethical obligation to recite McCain's entire litany of nonsequiters? Was anything less than effectively functioning as a McCain surrogate somehow "recklessly dishonest"? Is it, in fact, "recklessly dishonest," for anyone to disagree with John McCain? Or does the McCain campaign have a handout of acceptable ways in which one might disagree with St. John? Say, by whispering in his ear that Al Qaeda is not safely ensconced in the bossom of Iran?
Inquiring minds want to know! Heck, they demand it! But don't expect the media to ask about any of that.
Beneath The Surface
If we want to know why scenarios like this unfold, the new book, Free Ride: John McCain and the Media, by David Brock and Paul Waldman, reviewed and discussed here on Open Left, does an excellent job of explaining it. Through a series of shrewd moves, McCain has managed to get the media eating right out of his hands. One of the key factors in his success is the media's disgust with the political process they report on, and their co-creation of McCain as a champion to articulate their disgust.. Free Ride is quite savvy in discerning this motivation, but does not really dig into what was behind it, why it occured. I would like to indicate some of that here.
(1) The press desire to be crusaders for truth. This fits into my earlier post about ego defense mechanisms, The Ontology of Snark: A Prelude. It's called Fantasy, first-named of the level-2 defenses:
Fantasy: Tendency to retreat into fantasy in order to resolve inner and outer conflicts
This desire, in turn, calls forth McCain as its vehicle, which requires a fantasy version of McCain as well. But there's a more specific ego defense for this:
Idealization: Subconsciously choosing to perceive another individual as having more positive qualities than they may actually have
These two ego defense mechanisms lie at the heart of the McCain phenomena.
(2) The reality of getting beat up for it. ("You know, fiction.")
(3) The fact that Watergate was a real anamoly, setting up unrealistic expectations. It is extremely rare that a President gets so far out of touch with his political base.
(4) The frustration with growing inconsequentiality of reporting-as "Democracy Heading South" syndrome set in, and their own resources and support dwindled. This only intensified the fantasy indicated under #1.
(5) The combination of intimidation, class bias and "balance" meme leads to a downplaying of the Democrats broad-range superiority on ethics and morality. The presence of sleezy business Dems and machine politicians doesn't hurt the devolutionary process, either.
(6) As a result of all the above, reporters are not willing to take on the substance of what's wrong in DC, and instead redirect their focus onto symbolic struggle.
(7) As a Republican, McCain is perfect foil for the reports frustrated desires, on multiple levels:
(a) It allows them to harp on their "objectivity as balance" laurels.
(b) It allows them to feel "liberal" in the sense of giving opponents a fair hearing, while turning their backs on being liberal in the sense of standing up for the little guy, thus taking themselves out of the primary line of fire-until there's so few left in the primary line of fire, that they find themselves under heavy fire once again-and cling all the more tightly to McCain as a result, since unlike other conservatives he doen't attack them primarily.
(c) It allows them to use to a conservative to push a "liberal" agenda-even if that agenda is hollowed out of all content.
The Next Step
Next, ABC responded by fully fleshing out the story as if channeling McCain's campaign manager:
Who says Barack Obama doesn't know how to "twist the knife"?
The Democratic frontrunner maligned Hillary Clinton this week for being all-too-comfortable with the word twisting that goes on in Washington.
"The problem that we have in our politics," Obama said at Wednesday's ABC News debate, ". . . is that you take one person's statement, if it's not properly phrased, and you just beat it to death."
Obama's above-the-fray pose led Tom Fitzgerald to write in the next day's Philadelphia Inquirer that the debate crystallized the choice for Democrats: "At its core," wrote Fitzgerald, "the debate boiled down to this familiar argument: Obama saying that politics itself was broken, its games not worth playing, and Clinton saying that skill at the game was crucial."
Although Obama gets substantial mileage out of running against politics as usual, he provided a reminder on Friday that he knows how to twist with the best of them.
A more reality-based reporter might well have written, instead:
"Although McCain gets substantial mileage out of his trademark 'straight talk express,' he provided a reminder on Thursday that he knows how to twist wortds with the best of them."
But fantasy and idealization are stronger than reality, at least in the Versailles media mind.
The story contiues:
Speaking in Erie, Pa., Obama charged: "John McCain went on television and said that there has 'been great progress economically' over the last seven and a half years."
Obama did not tell his audience, however, that McCain's Thursday reference to economic progress was quickly followed by him adding that such progress is "no comfort" to struggling families.
ABC did not tell its audience that the above paragraph was taken directly from McCain's campaign.
"I think if you look at the overall record and millions of jobs have been created, et cetera, et cetera, you could make an argument that there's been great progress economically over that period of time," McCain told Bloomberg Television. "But that's no comfort. That's no comfort to families now that are facing these tremendous economic challenges."
That, too. Directly from McCain's campaign.
During a Friday interview with Bloomberg's Al Hunt, McCain went even further in distancing himself from economic conditions under President Bush.
"I think Americans are not better off than they were eight years ago when you look at what has happened to middle-income Americans," said McCain.
While it seems like McCain takes new steps every day to separate himself from economic conditions under President Bush, there remains substantial policy overlap between the two Republicans such as the Arizona senator's support for making the Bush tax cuts permanent.
So how does McCain square the circle?
As Grover Norquist quipped on Tax Day at the National Press Club, McCain does it by being in favor of the Bush tax cuts -- so long as you don't call them the Bush tax cuts.
Here (for the sake of "balance," perhaps?) we see McCain's contradictions introduced as well-but they are never clearly identified as such. And they certainly aren't the basis for accusing him of running a campaign that's hypocritical at its very core.