The budget proposal released on April 5 by Rep. Paul Ryan (R.-Wisc.) includes tax cuts for the wealthy, tax hikes for the middle class, drastic cuts in social spending and a radical restructuring of Medicare that would shift most of the cost of healthcare to seniors. Its dubious claims of deficit reduction rely on fatally flawed assumptions and inexplicable projections (CBPP, 4/7/11; CEPR, 4/11).
Meanwhile, the 76-member Congressional Progressive Caucus unveiled its own “People’s Budget” proposal on April 13, which would eliminate the deficit in 10 years without eroding social services or raising taxes on the working class. Serious economists like Paul Krugman (New York Times, 4/25/11) and Jeffrey Sachs (Huffington Post, 4/8/11) have spoken out in favor of the People’s Budget as, in Krugman’s words, a “genuinely courageous” plan and “the only major budget proposal out there offering a plausible path to balancing the budget.”
Guess which one the Beltway media have embraced?
Much of the avalanche of corporate media coverage about the Ryan plan has presented it as a serious solution to long-term budget problems, or at least the starting point of a serious conversation about the topic.
In Time magazine (4/18/11), readers learned that Paul Ryan—described as having “jet black hair and a touch of Eagle Scout to him”—has unveiled an ambitious package of huge budget cuts designed to dig the country out of its crippling debt crisis. For Ryan, reining in spending is nothing less than an act of patriotic valor.
The magazine also declared that he is “a PowerPoint fanatic with an almost unsettling fluency in the fine print of massive budget documents.”
Deep into the article, readers get this parenthetical warning:
(He’s also been criticized for peddling fuzzy math and rosy projections. A Washington Post factcheck deemed his budget full of “dubious assertions, questionable assumptions and fishy figures.”)
So someone with “an almost unsettling fluency in the fine print of massive budget documents” has presented a budget plan filled with obvious problems. How can both things be true?
For too many media outlets, probing the details of Ryan’s plan was less important than telling an appealing political story: that finally someone has presented a “serious” budget proposal. Lacking evidence to demonstrate the plan’s seriousness, media cited Ryan’s biography in order to supply the necessary credibility.
Thus the Washington Post (4/6/11) explained that Ryan is “wonky” and “an unlikely revolutionary.” The Post added that “Ryan studied economics in college, and in Congress he has embraced the weedy issues of the federal budget.” The Post’s lead wondered if Ryan can “really manage the hardest sales job in U.S. politics.” The paper seemed to think so:
Ryan’s “budget math” relies on, among other things, wildly implausible estimates concerning unemployment and government spending. Krugman (Conscience of a Liberal, 4/6/11) explains that the plan asserts without explanation that unemployment will fall to its lowest level in 50 years, and that the entire federal budget, excluding Social Security and health programs, can be slashed by more than two-thirds via unspecified cuts. But as salesman to the corporate media, it seems Ryan is largely succeeding.
New York Times columnist David Brooks (4/5/11) called Ryan’s budget plan “the most comprehensive and most courageous budget reform proposal any of us have seen in our lifetimes...[which] will put all future arguments in the proper context.”
Even those who disagreed with Ryan’s plan found ways to praise it. In Time (4/7/11), Fareed Zakaria wrote that “Ryan’s plan is deeply flawed, but it is courageous.” Zakaria added that “Ryan makes magical assumptions about growth—and thus tax revenues,” and that other aspects are “highly unrealistic.” But still he concludes that it should be applauded as “a serious effort to tackle entitlement programs.”
And on NBC’s Chris Matthews Show (4/10/11), pundit Gloria Borger declared: “We have to give Paul Ryan an awful lot of credit because, as all of our august colleagues have said, yes, it does define the conversation for 2012.”
In a piece for Time.com (4/7/11), reporter Michael Grunwald noted the incongruity of such praise and wondered, “What’s so brave about fuzzy math in the service of Tea Party ideology”?
The Washington Post factcheck of the Ryan plan by Glenn Kessler (4/6/11)—the one cited in passing by Time—represented a genuine attempt to assess Ryan’s proposal. When Ryan claims that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found his plan would produce surpluses by 2040, most outlets report it as fact—like the April 6 Los Angeles Times, which explained that Ryan’s budget, according to the CBO, “would dramatically improve the nation’s overall fiscal picture, reducing deficits projected in President Obama’s budget and moving the federal government into surplus by 2040.
The Post’s Kessler, however, reports that this claim “seriously overstates the case,” since the CBO analysis “reflects the scenarios that Ryan has concocted. There are, for instance, no real revenue estimates, just an assumption that federal revenues will remain at about 19 percent of GDP.” The spending cuts imagined by Ryan are equally implausible—a “bare-bones government ...not experienced since before the Great Depression.”
Kessler also noted that Ryan claims substantial savings—$1.4 trillion, in fact—from a repeal of the new healthcare law—without any explanation for why he rejects the CBO’s determination (CBO Director’s Blog, 1/6/11) that a repeal would actually cost hundreds of billions. The verdict was, as Time parenthetically noted, that the plan deemed brave and serious was based on “dubious assertions, questionable assumptions and fishy figures.”
Meanwhile, the Beltway media reaction to the People’s Budget ranged from indifferent to scornful. Not a single hard news story on the proposal ran in the New York Times, Washington Post or USA Today. The Post’s Dana Milbank (4/14/11) covered the unveiling of the “far-left” budget only to mock it, spending much of his time making fun of the “starry-eyed” progressives’ press conference and attire. Milbank snidely commented on Caucus co-chair Raul Grijalva’s tie, which “hung loosely from his neck and ended five inches above his waistband,” and noted that
the lawmakers and staffers kept poking one another with their umbrellas, and they found themselves competing with the whine of a Capitol tractor. Their oft-repeated slogan, “The People’s Budget,” conveyed an unhelpful association with “the people’s republic” and other socialist undertakings.
Milbank snorted that the budget proposal
gives a sense of how things would be if liberals ran the world: no cuts in Social Security benefits, government-negotiated Medicare drug prices, and increased income and Social Security taxes for the wealthy. Corporations and investors would be hit with a variety of new fees and taxes. And the military would face a shock-and-awe accounting: a 22 percent cut in Army soldiers, 30 percent for the Marines, 20 percent for the Navy and 15 percent for the Air Force. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would end, and weapons programs would go begging.
Milbank treats these policies as self-evidently absurd—even though, unlike Ryan’s tax cuts for the rich and dismantling of Medicare, they’re actually quite popular with the public. Polls show large majorities favor taxing the wealthy to reduce the debt while strongly opposing cuts to Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security (ABC/Washington Post, 4/14-17/11; Pew Research Center, 3/8-14/11). Opinions on cutting the military budget are more evenly split, but when asked to choose between cutting “defense spending,” Medicare/Medicaid or Social Security (Reuters/Ipsos, 3/3-6/11), 51 percent of respondents chose military spending, while only 28 percent chose Medicare/Medicaid and 18 percent chose Social Security.
The most coverage the People’s Budget received was on MSNBC from liberal hosts like Cenk Uygur and Rachel Maddow. Maddow (4/22/11) marvelled at the remarkable lack of interest by the rest of the corporate media:
The Beltway right now says that the deficit negotiations in Washington have to be between PresidentObama and the debt-exploding, super-unpopular Paul Ryan plan. Why shouldn’t it be between President Obama and the progressives? If this really is about fixing the deficit, why on Earth is the most fiscally responsible, comprehensive budget plan that’s been submitted...not even on the table?
Her guest, Washington Post columnist and Center for American Progress fellow Matt Miller, responded:
The basic mode of coverage, I think, is that the sort of establishment press act as stenographers to power. And you have the mainstream Democratic position obviously represented by the president, and you have the opposition represented by Paul Ryan. And that sort of defines what the boundaries of debate are going to be, because the media faithfully reflects those two poles of debate.... Because [the Progressive Caucus] are not the official spokesman of the party like the president is, they tend to get ignored.
It’s true that the Beltway media largely serve as stenographers to power, and the Progressive Caucus does not represent the “mainstream” of the Democratic party, as defined by the party’s center of gravity in Washington. But remember that Ryan’s plan had all of 13 Congressional supporters even months after he first formally introduced it in January 2010 (Washington Post, 8/2/10). That didn’t stop him from getting hundreds of media mentions and dozens of interviews throughout the year, including plenty of praise for his “political courage” (e.g., USA Today, 9/7/10), well before the midterm elections skewed the party further to the right and shifted Ryan’s plan to the GOP “mainstream.”
Don’t expect the People’s Budget to ever get that kind of coverage. The “mainstream” of the two parties will always get the most ink, but where the GOP fringe gets its own slice of the coverage, progressives regularly go home empty-handed. The Progressive Caucus isn’t ignored because they’re not the mainstream of the Democratic Party, they’re ignored because they threaten the vital interests of the most powerful people in Washington—people who knot their ties appropriately and hobnob with Beltway reporters on a regular basis.