Watching the Sunday shows so you don't have to

Today, some centrist pundits and legislators solved the sequester by demanding "balance" and "leadership"

Published February 24, 2013 7:45PM (EST)

David Gregory dances for the panel on "Meet the Press"   (NBC)
David Gregory dances for the panel on "Meet the Press" (NBC)

Here's what I learned this morning on "the Sunday shows," the three network news panel programs that define the parameters of the national debate for elite Washington: No one wants the sequester to happen, if the sequester happens it will be because Barack Obama failed to show leadership, what we need is a "balanced approach" to deficit reduction, the sequester should happen but in a smarter way, video games may not cause violence but they are gross, and "Zero Dark Thirty" is the best film of the year in part because John McCain disliked it.

I don't watch the Sunday shows. Basically ever. I watch clips if something particularly stupid happened, but for the most part, you can get everything you need to know about what happens on these shows by reading the brilliant liveblog by the Huffington Post's Jason Linkins, America's foremost Sunday show interpreter. While no one should pay attention to these shows, as long as millions of Americans watch them under the mistaken impression that they're seeing serious discussions of our most pressing issues with our wisest media observers and most influential political leaders, they should probably be monitored.

This morning, with "the sequester" looming as America's newest and in many ways dumbest self-inflicted federal budget crisis, I forced myself to watch "Face the Nation," "Meet the Press" and "This Week." I didn't learn anything new about the sequester, or Iran, or gun control, or Iran. I did learn how the Beltway thinks and talks about those things, though.

ABC's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos spent its hour on two separate panels. The first was House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., unpleasant conservative columnist George Will, and ABC correspondent Christiane Amanpour, aka "the person who should have been moderating the panel."

So, some variation of "everyone agrees" or "everyone knows" is generally the way people on these panels introduce every single statement they make, especially when they are about to make a contentious and very debatable point, like, most often, "everyone agrees" that we need to fix the deficit by "controlling entitlements," which means cutting social insurance programs. Today, "everyone agrees" (according to Rogers) that the sequester needs to be fixed by adding "flexibility," which means that instead of indiscriminate across-the-board cuts, the president and his Cabinet secretaries should get to decide how best to implement the forced cuts. The original point of the sequester was that it would be terrible and "inflexible," which would force Congress to choose a less terrible path, but obviously trusting Congress to not pick the most terrible of all available options was something of a gamble. So yes, sure, "flexibility," but also maybe just "let's not do this." Unfortunately, "let's just not do this" never comes up as an option on any of the shows, which all presented the argument as, on one side, "flexibility," and on the other side, "a balanced approach," which means a shitload of unnecessary cuts plus a bit more tax revenue, which sound nice but is still pointless contractionary policy.

Then the panel tackled the Chinese cyber-attacks thing, which was mostly George Will calling China "a gangster regime" while pointing out that we did cyber-attacks against Iran, while Rogers said that's different because China was doing cyber-attacks as economic sabotage while the United States only ever does cyber-attacks as regular old-fashioned sabotage of infrastructure and stuff. Rogers made a bunch of very definitive statements that were just definitely not remotely true, like "it's never happened in the history of the world, where one country steals the intellectual property of another," and no one really argued the point with him. "Everyone agrees" that the United States needs to do something about this. The White House needs to respond. This seemed like a good proposal -- doing something about this -- until Amanpour said, "So what is the way to fight back?" Rogers said we should just straight-up indict a buncha people, which, sure, that'll solve everything. We'll just indict a bunch of Chinese nationals until they stop hacking our intellectual property. Another problem solved, on America's Sunday shows!

Then they solved Iran, with "everyone agreeing" that we must not let them get fancier centrifuges to make bombs with. Again, Amanpour said, "So what should we do?" and everyone sort of hemmed and hawed. Though Rogers said they are clearly not "rational actors" because they are trying to fight the United States by sponsoring terrorism, trying cyber-attacks on financial institutions and developing nuclear bombs. Amanpour said that sounds pretty rational but Rogers pointed out that "this isn't France, this isn't Great Britain," so Iran: Craaaaazzzzzy people.

A quick note about Eliot Engel: The majority of his contribution to the panel was telling everyone how important and influential Eliot Engel is. "I went to China and raised this with top Beijing officials," he said. "I wrote the Syria accountability act," he also said. That was about it for Engel.

"This Week's" second panel was much worse, because it also involved talking about the Oscars. This time we had Will and a parade of overexposed longtime insiders with incredibly predictable opinions: Donna Brazile, Steven Brill, universally despised former financier Steven Rattner, Wall Street Journal editorial board hack Kim Strassel, and Will again. This panel is completely unremarkable in terms of the Sunday shows, and that's exactly what's wrong with them. Brazile and Will have been having the same arguments on TV since the stone age. Rattner is an incredibly wealthy former financier whose investment firm couldn't outperform municipal bonds and also was involved in a pay-to-play pension scam that involved paying to distribute a film called "Chooch." Strassel is the sort of WSJ hack who exists solely to parrot lies comforting to the rich, conservative readership of the Journal. Brill is at least a respected journalist, even though every company he's founded since he sold CourtTV has failed miserably. So we have two professional liars, one party hack, one disgraced financier and one old journalist guy, here to discuss the issues of the day.

Somewhat wonderfully, the discussion of Steven Brill's giant Time piece on healthcare costs turned into a fairly explicit endorsement of lowering the Medicare eligibility age -- even dedicated "entitlement" foe Stephen Rattner unexpectedly endorsed this proposal! -- which lead Stephanopoulos to point out that by the same logic we should just have single-payer healthcare. (Oddly, Brill's actual article rejects price-controls and single-payer as solutions but when he was just talking about it extemporaneously everyone seemed to grok that those were the only coherent solutions to the problem.) Oh hey guys, you have all just discovered all the ancient arguments for single-payer that left-liberals have been making since forever, congrats. By tomorrow you will all return to demanding that the Medicare eligibility age be raised in the name of fiscal responsibility but for now, let's enjoy this moment. (George Will and Kim Strassel just ignored all of these points and said some stuff about making healthcare consumers -- you may know them as "sick people" or just "people" -- have more "skin in the game" with high deductible plans and stuff.)

The show closed with everyone agreeing with George Will that "Zero Dark Thirty" should win best picture because it would annoy Carl Levin and torture survivor John McCain. (Though Rattner loved Anne Hathaway in "Les Miz.")

CBS's "Face the Nation" is the Sunday Show for really old people, which is why genial grandpa Bob Scheiffer hosts it, and its graphics and opening sequence are comfortingly cheap and cheesy looking. Unfortunately, today it was hosted by noted opponent of shirty business Major Garrett, a Fox veteran who seems too angry for CBS's audience of old people up early on Sundays but not at church for whatever reason.

Unlike "This Week's" all panels all the time approach, "Face the Nation" and "Meet the Press" began with one-on-one interviews with Important Figures, who this week happened to be Obama Cabinet secretaries dispatched to explain why indiscriminately cutting their budgets would be a Bad Idea. Garrett tried to get Education Secretary Arne Duncan to explain why, exactly, it would be such an awful thing to cut a bunch of education money, and Duncan was like, "well because it would be bad for kids," and Garrett was like, "no seriously can't we just cut a bunch of money you already have a lot of money" and Duncan was like, "no let's not do that, military children, etc,. etc."

Then, moderate Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine from Virginia and moderate Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte from New Hampshire sort of argued about the sequester. Again: Ayotte, while she is positioning herself as Our New Joe Lieberman, doesn't represent the median Republican vote in the Senate, let alone in the House, where the GOP actually controls the chamber. Kaine comes closer to your average Senate Democrat, but as he pointed out to Garrett, he's been in the Senate for a couple of weeks now. Anyway, Kaine said "balanced approach" 400 times and Ayotte said Democrats want to raise taxes all the time and that's bad. They both agreed that we need deficit reduction and also that the Senate should pass a budget, even though budgets don't actually determine the level of federal spending, but no one who watches these shows ever hears clear and accurate explanations of how the federal government raises and spends money. Garrett eventually pointed out that the GDP shrank last quarter, possibly because of government spending cuts, and Kaine said, "that's why we need a balanced approach." A balanced approach to contractionary policy during an unemployment crisis and dragging recovery. Consensus!

Because all the governors are in Washington for the governors' convention, "Face the Nation" and "Meet the Press" had a bunch on (both made sure to have an equal number of Republican and Democratic governors). But only "Face the Nation" had crazy Jan Brewer, who is still not very good at not sounding crazy on TV. "Face the Nation's" panel was Brewer, Maryland's Martin O'Malley, Virginia's Bob McDonnell, and Colorado's John Hickenlooper. Governors are generally less awful than members of Congress, because they are actually responsible for stuff and can't constantly deflect blame for everything on other people, but all the budget talk was still incredibly stupid. O'Malley and McDonnell have apparently been meeting together to "solve" the sequester, even though neither of them are members of Congress, and they both agree that we mustn't allow any cuts that would harm the many military contractors in their states. O'Malley, who sort of has Vulcan ears, said, "all of us have to balance budgets every year," which is the sort of thing governors like to say -- unlike Congress we get results and work together and balance budgets! -- but, you know, the federal government doesn't need to balance its budget, ever, if it doesn't want to, because right now it can borrow so cheaply that it basically is creating free money for itself, something states cannot do. Once again, if you go to these shows to become more informed about economic policy and even about naked partisan politics, you will be misinformed. "Everyone agrees," though, we need "more leadership from the top," and that government can definitely create jobs as long as those jobs are in the defense sector.

A special No-Prize to Bob McDonnell for being the only person I heard say "Simpson-Bowles" all morning.

Finally Brewer -- who totally whiffed a question on whether the GOP should agree to raise taxes if it meant more money for border security -- was allowed to do the one thing she does well, which is make a series of very dramatic claims about how her state is a horrifying hellscape of unimaginable violence and brutality.

She told Garret, "I was just down at the border, it is not secure," because of the drug cartels who apparently march along the Mexican side of the border during the day and then come into Arizona to fuck shit up at night. "I know. I saw them. We see them all the time. I visually saw them. They were staging. They stage during the day and they come across at night." OK! She added: "We are the recipients of all the crime that is taking place. Extortion, human trafficking, the prostitution, the cost in jails." Visit beautiful Arizona, Americans, the state that is the recipient of all the drug crime in Mexico.

Garrett then hosted a panel on violence and video games, which I definitely expected to hate, but which turned out to be the one non-infuriating panel I saw all morning, because it involved one elected official and then a bunch of other people -- people with "expertise" or "professional experience in the field being discussed," as crazy as that sounds. So there was a hysterical "think of the children" guy from the Parents Television Council and then a professor of psychology from Texas A&M who has done research into video games, violence and empathy. There was a former FBI profiler, and Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Penn., who is also a trained psychologist. Everyone basically agreed at the outset that there is no direct correlation between video games and violence, and even though Garrett and the PTC guy kept up a low level of moral hysteria about video game grossness, it was otherwise a pretty good discussion of the history of moral panics and America's sorry mental health system. Kudos, I guess!

David Gregory opened "Meet the Press" by saying "THE SEQUESTER BLAME GAME HAS ALREADY STARTED" as though he somehow thought the "blame game" was frivolous and not the single most important thing about the sequester, which he does. His Cabinet secretary was transit's Ray LaHood, and the interview went the same as the one with Duncan, except Gregory is even more buffoonish. "Do you really think that Americans think that government can't tighten up a bit?" Gregory asked, which, OK, sure, that's how we decide economic policy now, "do Americans have a vague impression that stuff could be different in some fashion and if so doesn't that mean we should fire some air-traffic controllers?" Then he played a clip of LaHood talking about Lincoln and said: "There could be a little Lincoln on both sides here." That is my alternative sequester proposal: TINY LINCOLNS FOR ALL.

Gregory's governors were megastars and TV pros Bobby Jindal and Deval Patrick. (Plus: Another special No-Prize to Jindal for being the first person to mention Bob Woodward.) You can probably predict the points they made: Patrick says the president is right to want a "balanced approach," Jindal says the president is showing no leadership.

"Look, nobody is saying that we should do the cuts this way," said Jindal, though of course lots of Republicans do want the cuts this way, if the alternative is the cuts plus tax revenue or no cuts at all. Jindal sort of has the perfect position on this entire thing, because he's implicitly pro-sequester while being explicitly against it happening this way, and he also supports raising revenue by closing tax loopholes but faults the president, who has the exact same position, for not "leading" Congress to the result that they both support but that House Republicans are opposed to.

After very unedifying discussions of gun control and the Medicaid expansion (Jindal had bland reasonable-sounding bromides for both, Patrick made the usual Democratic arguments) Gregory totally whiffed an opportunity to have an interesting discussion between these two guys. First, he mentioned Jindal's plan to replace Louisiana's income and corporate taxes with regressive sales taxes, which he contrasted with Patrick's progressive income tax hike proposals. But he never actually asked Jindal to explain at all, in any detail, how he planned on performing his tax "reform" in a way that wouldn't be a boon to millionaires and a huge burden on poor and middle-income people, he just let Jindal say that his proposal totally doesn't do the stuff everyone says it does. Then Gregory flashed some numbers on-screen showing that high-tax, high-service Massachusetts is richer than Louisiana, with better education outcomes and fewer uninsured people. He just let Jindal respond by saying that the Louisiana economy is growing, and his tax plan will make it grow faster, because no-income tax states are doing well, to which Patrick responded, correctly, "it helps to have oil and gas too." Then Gregory immediately moved on to whether Jindal will run in 2016, instead of continuing the discussion. Guess what, Jindal won't say whether he's running in 2016, but he will say a bunch of stuff about how he is a results-oriented guy who loves popular stuff and gets things done in his state. Gregory then asked him a gay marriage question, and Jindal responded by saying, "I believe in the traditional definition of marriage," and then he immediately went back to his economic talking points without elaborating and Gregory did not press the issue.

Finally, the "Meet the Press" panel. Each panel this morning was somehow worse than the one before. This one was Wall Street Journal scribbler Peggy "Lady Peggington Noonington" Noonan, Harold "Living Embodiment of Everything Wrong With American Politics" Ford Jr., NPR's Steve "Objective Journalist Who is Implicitly Here to Represent the 'Liberal' Side Even Though He is Not a Liberal" Inskeep, and two representatives from NBC's right-wing finance "news" station CNBC, Maria Bartiromo and Jim "Wrong About Everything and Sort of Crazy But Actually Not That Bad on Politics In Terms of CNBC Figures" Kramer.

Everyone said precisely what you'd expect them to say. Noonan was very sorrowful about how the president is going around making Americans feel scared by saying scary things about how the sequester will be bad for the economy. "I just have a bad feeling about going out and trying to scare the American people right in the middle of the Great Recession when everybody is nervous enough." Ford and Noonan both agree that people in Washington need to "think big" and also leaders should show leadership. Pegs obviously blames the president for being mean to Republicans and being scary, but Ford had the much more controversial perspective that in the current situation, both sides are to blame for bad stuff. "No one, Democrat or Republican, can be pleased with how their party is performing," he said, which is a very self-evidently untrue statement, because obviously lots of people can and do think their party has the right idea. But those people are "extreme partisans" and thus they do not count.

Inskeep basically said Republicans are willing to cut a revenue deal but are scared of it being called a tax hike. Bartiromo said the sequester won't be so bad because "the markets" aren't complaining. A few minutes went by and then Cramer said the stock market is doing well because "the markets" don't believe the sequester will happen. That's TV financial news in a nutshell, basically: Two completely opposite premises based on unknowable interpretations of the intentions of "the markets" stated with absolute certainty.

They closed, again, with Oscar talk. These people talking about who will win Oscars is absolutely perfect, because none of them have any clue -- they don't have any special insight into or expertise in the movie industry, or even film in general, they are just people who are on TV -- but they were all very happy to explain what they thought would happen and why. "Argo" is the favorite, maybe, but the panel definitely liked "Lincoln" way more, except for Bartiromo, who said, "well let's not forget 'Les Miz'." Peggy Noonan said she hopes De Niro wins supporting actor, because she read that he hasn't won an Oscar since "Raging Bull," and she believes that De Niro "has done the greatest work of his professional career in the 30 years" since "Raging Bull." That is not remotely true for the last 15 of those 30 years, but I guess I'll give her the first 15.

"Goodfellas, WOW," said Peggy Noonan. Finally, true bipartisan consensus.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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