Sunday shows haven't learned

This week: Everyone agrees that we must get serious about Balancing the Budget, no one feels guilty about Iraq

Published March 17, 2013 7:09PM (EDT)

 "This Week" tackles the big issues  (ABC)
"This Week" tackles the big issues (ABC)

Happy tenth anniversary, Iraq War! To celebrate, America's Sunday Shows got you a Nearly Complete Absence of Any Sense of Responsibility or Indication That Any Lessons Were Learned. Here's what we got instead, today: Scaremongering about North Korea and Iran, great excitement about our new pope, and terribly unenlightening endless fact-free arguments about dueling federal budget proposals.

The big three Sunday Shows were all very budget-focused today, and on each of them everyone competed to be the most Serious about Balancing the Budget, which is obviously a self-evidently Good goal and not a totally unnecessary one. Not a single moderator came close to articulating the mainstream (in terms of economics, not politics) view that the government doesn't have to balance its budget. (It was not that long ago that the government was running a surplus and conservatives and economists kept saying on the TV that that was a bad thing, right?) Instead, they pressed their guests (usually one Democrat elected official and one Republican elected official) on how "serious" their party's proposals were, with "seriousness" measured in terms of how likely it was that a proposal would get passed by Congress and signed by the president. Alas, neither the Senate Democratic Budget nor the Ryan Budget came close to meeting the Seriousness standard. (Fun fact: The House Progressive Caucus budget does not exist. No one mentioned it on any of the three shows.)

The Grand Bargain optimism of like two weeks ago, in other words, has totally evaporated, and we are back to Why Can't Everyone Find Compromise, Everyone Is to Blame.

On ABC's This Week, Martha Raddatz sat in for George Stephanopoulos. She began the show with a thrilling one-on-one interview with House Speaker John Boehner, in which she played clips of President Obama saying things to George Stephanopoulos and then asked Boehner to respond to the things the president said.

Speaking to John Boehner is basically a waste of time because he is not ever going to be tricked into saying something interesting or newsworthy. He has his bromides and noncommittal evasions prepared and he will stick to them. It doesn't help, too, when the interviewer never bothers to challenge him on anything (like say the necessity of "balancing the budget"). So we learned that John Boehner does not want to raise taxes, that John Boehner wants to balance the budget, and that John Boehner thinks we need to be serious about "entitlements." John Boehner thinks he and his colleagues are Serious and the president is not. Boehner offered his spin on the unofficial mantra of the Sunday shows -- everyone knows we need to rein in entitlements -- when he said Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt and need to be reformed, "and Americans understand this." That would maybe be an opportunity for an interviewer who was paying attention to point out that Americans do not actually want to cut those very popular programs (and honestly Republicans don't want to either), but instead Raddatz moved on to asking Boehner to say if he would rather go to prom with Marco Rubio or Rand Paul.

Rubio and Paul were repeatedly held up as the two contrasting visions of the Future Of the Party on the shows today, based on their CPAC speeches. Their primary point of contention: Rubio says Republicans don't need new ideas because "the idea is called America." Paul says the party does need new ideas. (Also the shows all played clips of Sarah Palin's CPAC speech. No one brought up the white supremacist thing, though, which was kinda odd.)

Boehner, it may surprise you to learn, likes both Rubio and Paul, and likes the Republican Party, and thinks America likes the ideas of the Republican Party. Raddatz moved on to Rob Portman's recent same-sex marriage conversion, and Boehner just said "I believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman" a couple times. Raddatz asked him about gun control and Boehner said if the Senate passes something "we will review it."

After we learned that John Boehner is excited about the new pope, we moved on to the panel. Our panel was George Will, who just recently severely distorted the history of Watergate but who will not face any professional consequences for doing so, former Bush strategist and current Republican apostate Matthew Dowd, big-spending election-loser Republican Carly Fiorina, NPR's Audie Cornish, and one lonely liberal, Democratic Congressman Xavier Becerra.

Becerra brought every conversation back to immigration. When asked about the budget fight, he said he was hopeful... that immigration reform would pass. When asked about CPAC, he made fun of it for a while ("what I see is a party in disarray") and then talked about immigration. When they talked about the new pope, Becerra talked about immigration. Strong message discipline, I guess.

Everyone agreed that the budget thing was a big waste of time because no compromise is reachable, and Carly Fiorina said we need to lower rates and close loopholes, of course, and Dowd and Cornish were just happy that the president was finally "reaching out to Congress." It is good that he is talking to those trolls and monsters and imbeciles. Dowd said two presidents in a row now "have ignored the social power of the presidency," which is not really a real "power." ""What the president seems to do is go to somebody and be nice to them when he needs a vote from them," Dowd said. Haha everyone wants him to actually for real be friends with Congress. What if he doesn't like them?

What followed was a slightly astonishing gay marriage discussion in which everyone agreed that it is inevitable and good but in which no one brought up that one of the panelists sitting right there was the "chief strategist" of the 2004 Bush/Cheney campaign, a campaign that involved the president rather suddenly endorsing a federal gay marriage ban. It just didn't come up! "If somebody's path to the truth," Matthew Dowd said, speaking of Rob Portman, "is a personal decision, god be with them."

Raddatz then brought out the foreign policy panel, which was Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, retired general and current unacknowledged paid representative of the defense sector James Cartwright, and former Bush National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. Oh, and George Will was still there, on this panel. He is just stuck to that chair, I think? The crew shows up every Sunday morning and they open the door to the studio and there's Will, sitting there in the dark by himself saying something dismissive about The Liberal New York Times.

Here's how this panel progressed: Scary talk about Iran scary talk about North Korea, scary talk about China, and then a look back at the tenth anniversary of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which was preceded if I recall correctly, by a lot of Scary Talk on the Sunday Shows.

Raddatz told everyone that according to a poll, Americans basically all agree that waging a war of choice in Iraq was a stupid decision, and while most of the people on that panel with the exception of Albright were very gung-ho about waging that war, no one was very apologetic. Hadley said the war was totally worth it and a big success because now Iraq has a pro-America government, so let's also do some war in Syria.

George Will was the funniest. Was the war worth it? "If in 2003 we'd known what we know now -- the absence of weapons of mass destruction, the difficulty of governing and occupying a society in which, once you lop off the regime, you're going to have a civil war in a sectarian tribal society -- the answer I think is obviously no."


Albright -- the only person there who wasn't disastrously wrong on Iraq, even though she was no hippie peacenik -- was interrupted by Hadley when she tried to have her say, but when she was finally given a few seconds at the end of the panel to talk she at least said something that reminded everyone who was actually responsible for the entire catastrophe. "The Bush administration took their eye off the ball in Afghanistan in order to go after Iraq for God knows what reason," she said, then she dropped the mic and everyone went home. (Well there was a depressing Bob Woodruff piece on PTSD and brain injuries among Iraq vets, actually, then everyone went home.)

David Gregory's Meet The Press was very pope-heavy, today. He began by interviewing the Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, and he asked him a lot of very Gregory-esque dumb questions like "what do you think Pope Francis can do right away that will define his papacy?" and also "another first this morning, his first Papal tweet!" (That was not a question, but it was dumb.) David Gregory did not bring up Argentina's Dirty War.

Then we had an all-Catholic panel to discuss the new pope! MSNBC madman Chris Matthews! Republican operative Ana Navarro! Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who is a Kennedy! Republican Frank Keating, who compared the church to the mafia a decade ago when he attempted to get them to deal with all the horrible abusive priests!

All of these people are terribly excited about the New Pope, and all of them are pretty sure he will make the church focus more on poverty and less on sex, and also Chris Matthews thinks there are going to be some crazy fast (and incredibly controversial!) changes soon. "We could have women priests in five, ten years," he said. I would not put money on that.

Finally, Catholic talk time was over, and we moved on to interrogating one Democrat and one Republican about "balancing the budget." Our Democrat was Chris Van Hollen, our Republican was Kevin McCarthy, and our moderator did not understand budgets or federal debt, at all.

Gregory began by saying, "the president, I thought, was pretty provocative this week, I think, on the need to take care of the debt at all." Which is certainly provocative, but not actually what Barack Obama was talking about, at all.

Gregory then played two clips of the president saying things at different times, as if the clips represented a surprising contradiction or about-face. In the first clip, from a few months ago, the president said, "we need to get deficits and debt under control." In the second clip, from last week, the president said, "we don't have an immediate debt crisis," which is a factual and uncontroversial statement. Gregory seemed thrilled that his crack staff uncovered these totally non-contradictory statements, because he doesn't understand anything. (David: One doesn't need to "balance the budget" to get "deficits and debt under control," and also we... don't have an immediate debt crisis. Seriously, you'd notice if we did, it'd be pretty bad!)

We went first to Kevin McCarthy, who began by saying, "the president said deficits don't matter, well all these deficits add up." So, yes, if you've been paying attention to politics for longer than ten minutes, you may recognize "deficits don't matter" as a Dick Cheney quote and not something Barack Obama has literally ever said.

McCarthy went on to repeat the common fallacy in which the government's debt is treated like household debt and David Gregory obviously never bothered to challenge him on anything, because there was a Democrat there to state The Other Side. Van Hollen was mostly fine, and more right than McCarthy, but he too also accepted the Importance of a Balanced Budget, even if it only gets balanced eventually instead of right away. David Gregory asked Van Hollen about the seriousness of Democratic budget (the Senate one, the Progressive Caucus one doesn't exist), because a budget that meets all the Beltway centrist demands for "balance" fails the "seriousness" test because Republicans won't support it.

Then, gun control -- McCarthy said if something passes the Senate the House "will review it" -- and "energy," by which Gregory meant solely the Keystone Pipeline. McCarthy said it would create "20,000 new jobs" -- a blatantly untrue claim rejected by all independent analysts, though of course Gregory did not challenge him -- and Van Hollen said "an all of the above approach," which is a stupid and meaningless Democratic Party cliche that means "we refuse to ever talk about clean energy or climate change again because we're scared." Basically we're fucked, as a planet.

Then the all-Catholic panel came back to talk non-Catholic politics, only this time Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was also there, for some reason. So how is the Grand Bargain doing? Gregory said it is in trouble because of a lack of seriousness, and he also accidentally used the non-euphemistic description of social insurance cuts: "Democrats are not going to cut entitlements -- reform entitlements -- on their own. So there's no Grand Bargain to be had." Chris Matthews, bless him, went on a tangent about how the Republicans actually don't want to raise taxes or cut Social Security and Medicare, because Social Security and Medicare are popular, so he gets a gold star from me.

They moved on to CPAC -- Ana Navarro is worried that the "national security" leg of the "three-legged stool" is "getting wobbly" because Rand Paul doesn't want endless war forever -- and gay marriage. Gay marriage made Scott Walker hilariously evasive and non-committal. It's not an issue at all "in my state," he kept insisting, refusing to articulate any sort of personal position on the matter. Frank Keating said let the states decide and Chris Matthews went HAM again, saying if it's a right then it has to be treated like a right, and not left up to states. The same-sex marriage discussions were all fascinating, because now no one on these shows is willing to be explicitly against it, which is certainly a huge shift from just a few years ago.

On to CBS, and "Face the Nation" with Bob Schieffer. Bob Schieffer is sort of useless, but he is also by far the least annoying of the big three Sunday Show hosts. Unfortunately his show is just deadly boring. I mean all of these shows are boring, when judged by the standards of actual entertainment, but "Face the Nation" is downright sleepy.

We began with Paul Ryan, and with Schieffer admitting to him that he thought St Patrick's Day was yesterday, because he saw a lot of drunk people stumbling around Washington. They moved on to the part of the interview where Ryan just repeated a bunch of very tired talking points about his budget, and then Schieffer said "aren't you just wasting everyone's time?" Which, yes, he obviously is, but Ryan pointed out -- correctly -- that the Senate is also wasting everyone's time because their budget won't pass the House. So, no budgets for anyone.

Schieffer said that John Boehner agreed with President Obama that "we don't have an immediate debt crisis," and he said that as if it were a surprising claim, which just points out how ignorant and stupid the entire mainstream political press discussion of deficits and budgets is. We don't have an immediate debt crisis. The Sunday show moderator is shocked to hear someone acknowledge that the United States is not literally in the exact same situation as Greece, right now. Everyone knows this, but everyone insists on sort of pretending otherwise, as justifications for their (usually not debt-related) fiscal priorities. Paul Ryan was forced to agree that, yep, we're not currently experiencing a debt crisis. Haha. He also quoted Erskine Bowles, and then said we will have a debt crisis in like a year or two, so it's time to slash spending "to borrow time with the bond markets." The bond markets seems cool with what we're doing now, but Schieffer probably doesn't know what "the bond markets" are so that one goes by unchallenged.

The Ryan interview was followed with the requisite Other Side interview, with Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who, full disclosure, I think is pretty great, as far as senators go. Amy Klobuchar wins today's no-prize for being literally the only person on any of these three shows to say "debt-to-GDP ratio."

"Most economists focus on the debt-to-GDP ratio, Bob," she said, and while she didn't quite explain it in a way that Bob or viewers at home could grasp, it is sort of "Face the Nation's" fault for not having an economist on to explain to Bob how sovereign debt works. Anyway, Amy Klobuchar for president.

There followed a two-part interview with RNC chairman Reince Priebus about how he is going to Fix the Republican Party by a) canceling all debates, b) "minority outreach," and c) apps. It was deadly dull, though sometimes funny. Like on minority outreach, Priebus' plan is to spend ten million dollars on having "hundreds of people" reach out to Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans, "coast to coast." They are literally going to pay people to hang out with minorities. They will pay you to hang out with minorities and tell them that Republicans are cool. That's the plan.

Also, yes, Priebus wants to get rid of the presidential primary debates, because the more people see of the clowns running for the Republican nomination the more repelled they are. Plus, while Republicans were debating "once every three days" in 2012, Obama was busy campaigning and setting up all his fancy high-tech tech stuff that won the election. Priebus is going to fix the party's tech disadvantage with buzzwords that neither he nor Bob Schieffer understand! Priebus said new initiative will even include "setting up an office in The Silicon Valley" and "setting up hack-a-thons across the country." Republicans will Hack their way back to the White House.

Finally, the Foreign Policy Panel. This was a classic bit of panel composition: Journalist David Rohde, journalist David Sanger, Council on Foreign Relations head and uber-establishmentarian Richard Haass, and, last but certainly not least, one unrepentent neocon former Iraq hawk, Danielle Pletka from the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Pletka was one of Ahmed Chalabi's strongest and most fervent supporters. On the tenth anniversary of the disastrous invasion of Iraq, she is sitting on a panel on CBS's "Face the Nation" discussing the imminent threat of a nuclear Iran. There is not just no accountability in Beltway journalism, there is no shame.

They all agreed that we should be pretty worried about North Korea and Iran and Syria, and the administration should Do Something about all of those places, and the warmongering Chalabi shill was for some reason not even a little bit embarrassed when Haass brought up Iraq for like two seconds. On each show, the invasion was treated as some sort of inevitable thing that just happened, in the passive voice. No one remembered how integral these shows themselves were in making support for the invasion the default position of everyone Serious. The people who got it terribly wrong were still respected guests. People who were integral in the decision to wage that war sat there and opined on what the United States should do about Iran and China and North Korea and no one laughed them out of the room. It was disgusting.

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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