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August 10, 2007

Hardball Afterthoughts

You can watch the segment at ye old Crooks and Liars. This was definitely the most, uh, contentious of my Hardball appearances. The blond consultant type I was matched up with essentially spent the first two topics arguing that criminality within the GOP is utterly acceptable because it's not always illegal. She didn't even attempt to defend the ethics of the actions; she simply fell into "everybody does it." I was genuinely embarrassed for her cause. Additionally, I tend to think that when an opponent falls apart to the point that they focus in on my age, I've done my job.

But this was certainly a more-heat-than-light sort of exchange. Neither of us were briefed on the day's topics before the show. This is, it should be said, a rarity in my experience, as Hardball has always told me the issues lineup in the past. But for whatever reason, we were sent in blind. And, sadly, it showed. I just don't know much about the US attorneys scandal and the wrongdoings of Alberto Gonzales. I can only track so many topics in a day, and the time spent reading health policy is time not spent reading Senate testimony. I'm aware enough that I can speak to Gonzales's actions as unethical, but without preparation or any preexisting familiarity with the penal code, I can't speak to the specifics of their legality -- and I don't want to get anything wrong on air, where I can't correct it.

It was the last segment that struck me as the saddest, though. Matthews pointed to a recent poll showing a Democratic advantage on "which party is best at handling taxes?" This was, he said, astonishing. Taxes go up under Democrats! I pointed out that being good on taxes was not the same as cutting taxes -- that was a poisonous conflation. He argued that in the American psyche, the two are the same. I argued that this is why our bridges fall down, that the government needs sufficient revenue to carry out essential tasks, and that I hoped Democrats would raise taxes. He laughed, and said you heard it there first. Some of you agreed, and lambasted me in comments for saying Democrats would raise taxes.

This, to me, was all monumentally disappointing. Our government does need more revenue. I understand that Matthews was making a political point -- though my hunch is that the voters have concluded that blind tax cuts are not wise policy -- but there's a normative issue at hand here, which Matthews seemed utterly allergic to addressing. Should taxes be higher? I think so. And I don't want to beat around the bush, or talk about fairness, or about taxing the rich, or in any way dodge the question. Those of us who need not fight for election should try and build support for unpopular but necessary policies.

But Matthews' insistence on examining only and solely the political side of the poll accepted and reinforced a disastrous policy consensus which may no longer even be true. In refusing to engage the premises of the issue -- should taxes be higher? -- and focus only on the political CW -- Democrats raise taxes and aren't trusted on them! -- the show simply buttresses preexisting narratives. It cements the status quo, rather than examining it. And that's a shame. The reason I was aggressive in a way some of you found politically unwise -- "Democrats should raise taxes! -- was that I was trying to force the non-political conversation, the one that actually asks what taxes are for rather than which political party they benefit. Disappointingly, I failed.

August 10, 2007 in Gaze at my Navel! | Permalink


There's the looming issue of a trillion-dollar war. Is that now a sunk cost, so much that x-hundred billion necessarily goes out of the coffers from now until... well, the next military sinkhole for revenues.

I think the appropriate phrasing is 'you can't have a trillion-dollar war and cut taxes for the wealthiest few thousand Americans... something's gotta give.' But it's hard to sell higher taxes to Democrats when there's the military beast over there that feeds on crates of Benjamins washed down with blood. Especially when the more doctrinaire Reason types will argue that military spending is one of the few worthy destinations for taxes.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Aug 10, 2007 1:34:02 AM

Ah, it wasn't too bad.

Look, taxes equal spending. If you want to cut taxes you gotta cut spending first. Nobody should talk about tax cuts until the spending cuts are spelled out. Or your effing bridge is going in the water.

Posted by: chris | Aug 10, 2007 1:35:24 AM

Maybe I was too hard on you, but it does seem you are being pretty naive.

If you want to have wonky policy discussions where you treat the issues honestly and seriously, then don't be an idiot and expect to do them on the cable chat shows. The focus of all those shows is combat. That is where they get their ratings. If you aren't ready to fight, stay home.

I've been ambushed on tv, so I know it is hard to think on your feet. But I really did consider it common knowledge that numerous people have now testified that Gonzo lied to Congress. In any event, if you aren't going on a show like hardballs to push the democratic memes, then you are forcing us to fight with one hand tied behind our backs. Obviously, Hanratty was there to push GOP talking points, and politics ain't beanbag.

"Those of us who need not fight for election should try and build support for unpopular but necessary policies."

If you are really going to go that route, you still ought to be trying to put the other side on the spot. For example, you could have approached it this way:

I think the poll demonstrates that most Americans recognize that the core of the Republican tax policy is to borrow money from the Chinese so that the richest people in the country can have millions shaved off their tax bills. In addition to putting us in debt to a totalitarian communist government, the Republican policy starves the government for resources. The collapse of the bridge in Minnesota and the government's failure to effectively respond to hurricane Katrina are both predictable consequences of that policy. Americans want their infrastructure to work, and they are willing to pay for it, instead of putting their children and grandchildren in debt to the Chinese. That's why they trust the Democrats with taxes.

I know I am Monday morning quarterbacking. But you really are acting like you thought you were on a PBS panel, instead of a cable screaming head show. I can excuse you for wanting to be a wonk. What I can't excuse you for not paying attention to your surroundings. In milspeak, we call it "situational awareness."

Posted by: anon | Aug 10, 2007 1:46:05 AM

I'm with Anon above. What the heck were you expecting? Chris Matthews has been doing the same schtick for years; this was all utterly predictable. If you want to push wonk points (and you should) don't go on cable shows (other than Keith Olbermann's, or the Stewart/Colbert ones); they exist to scream, not to inform, and they're heavily invested in pushing the GOP agenda.

Posted by: beckya57 | Aug 10, 2007 1:50:45 AM

I agree with your take and your disappointment.

I do think it would be a good idea (maybe I'll get off my ass and do this instead of suggesting this) to produce a spreadsheet/chart that shows what we spend our money on combined with a list of things we agree we should be spending money on but aren't (like bridges), and what the difference is, and what the pricetag would be for each person in the U.S. in terms of taxes.

When people are asked about a specific tax ($5 a year for AIDS prevention? $10 a year for new highway/monorail/whatever) they always say yes. When asked about general taxes, they always say no. We need some easily-presented info that not only compares and contrasts specific areas of spending, but also explains long term needs and long term boondoggles (missile defense anyone?)

We live in a country where many, many people think that we spend 20% of our national budget on foreign aid, and don't have a clue as to how much money goes into our military for operations, to Iraq in special supplementary bills, and to defense companies to study bullshit ideas for future weapons systems that will never, ever work practically or politically.

Finally (though perhaps a dead horse already), instead of answering questions like the one posed on taxes (which you answered honestly, and I applaud that and in fact think it is the best answer...to someone who is thinking), I like responses such as "Well Chris, I'd like to pay my own way now and not leave it to my kids and grandkids. I have no problem paying for defense, for bridges, for wireless access, for better social services. I prefer to be self-sustaining, I would rather pay for what I use now than kick it down the road. Finally, let's not forget that a mere 8 years ago, we had a government that brought in more money than it spent and spent a heck of a lot more on its own people than it did trying to wage wars on a country that had no connection to 9/11 and didn't have any military capability."

Or something shorter and pithier, which you can clearly craft on your own.

And mention the fact that if the Chinese decide to squeeze or collective privates with their U.S. debt holdings, we really are in for a world of hurt that no tax cutting measure will erase.

Posted by: abject funk | Aug 10, 2007 1:56:30 AM

I didn't see the Hardball appearance. I'm sure you did a good job, though.

You're right, for sure, that we've got to get past the automatic "taxes are evil" mentality. The poll Matthews cited, if it's accurate, suggests that we have an opportunity to do just that. You're also right that we can't play this issue from the typical defensive posture. But we need to think more about the smart way to do it. I'm not so sure that talking about "fairness" isn't part of the right strategy.

My instinct is to say something like the following. Yes, we need to raise taxes -- but raise taxes on those who can afford to pay for it. This is a great country, and a lot of people do really, really well for themselves and make a lot of money. Those people will tell you, their success comes from their own hard work, but it also comes from the opportunities they had because they live in this great country. And Americans know that you don't get something for nothing. An essential part of keeping our country great is spending money wisely, on things like bridge repair, port security, and quality health care and education for all Americans. So when Americans succeed and make a lot of money, they can afford to give something back -- not so that we can squander the money on failed military adventures, as this administration has done, but so that we can keep the country safe and prosperous for ourselves and our children.

Posted by: Christopher M | Aug 10, 2007 2:07:51 AM

Yeah, you can disagree with me on the tax issue. I'm actually proud of my performance on it, albeit saddened that I wasn't capable of breaking through more than I was. None of it's a surprise, but it's worth pointing out, particularly through the lens of having gone on the air.

But Gonzales? I only know what I know, and I'm not willing to lie on air. Generally, I know the topics. This time, I didn't. And I don't see the shame in professing ignorance where it exists, and certainty where it arises. In this case, I don't know the penal code, but I do know his actions were unethical. And I think, for most Americans, that's enough. Indeed, I was pretty happy, reading Digby's kind transcription, with how that exchange turned out.

Posted by: Ezra | Aug 10, 2007 2:08:43 AM

And as far as the Monday morning quarterbacking (we used to call it post-mortem when discussing a performance), I'd suggest offering talking points or responses instead of "what were you thinking" types of comments.

Having Mr. Klein abandon the airwaves in search of more wonkery strikes me as setting us back a lot more than moving us forward. The medium sucks, is hostile, and generally tilted against those with coherent thoughts or deeper understanding. That said, the idea that progressives (or whatever we are) should completely cede the medium and write personal and small-circulation blog posts seems a bit, well, unadvisable.

Plus, the GOP gasbag was clearly nuts, and the audience that is persuadable knows this. No point in pretending a rhetorical knockout a la Stewart with Tucker is going to happen more than once a generation. The point is to be reasonable, offer what you can, and plant a nugget of sanity into the conversation. I think EK did that, and who among us doesn't contstantly replay our perfect answer afterwards (despite vowing to let it go....)?

Ezra done good as far as I am concerned, and his lack of familiarity with the Gonzales situation was a bit surprising, upon reflection I realize my contribution to the blogosphere is merely read everything available, and not write rather detailed articles about health care or anything else. Plus, I need to follow legal news on my job, so I suppose that those of us who think Gonzo all the time are equally as remiss as Mr. Klein for not knowing jack about health care issues or anything else that isn't our main focus. No one who reads general news or non-law specific blogs has any clue about the ins and outs of the Gonzales/USA situation. I wish people were interested in the same stuff I am (or forced to be), but so it goes.

Posted by: abject funk | Aug 10, 2007 2:09:36 AM

To clarify, I don't mean people should be forced to be interested in the same stuff I am, rather, I follow the Gonzo situation as part of my job, and I am therefore "forced" to be rather familiar with the details of the situation. Unlike other issues of which I don't know much about, and of which I would certainly take EK's advice and admit this fact instead of trying to make some shit up about something about which I am unfamiliar.

Unfortunately, this type of honesty does tend to not play well on teevee, but I still think it is the proper thing to do, if only to retain self-respect. You can know your opponent is wrong and say so without compromising your own ideas of informed comment, which is exactly what EK did.

Posted by: abject funk | Aug 10, 2007 2:26:54 AM

"But Matthews' insistence on examining only and solely the political side of the poll..."

I thought your correct play was to tell Matthews that Dems are trusted more on taxes than Republicans because ordinary Americans understand that the tax code benefits the wealthy, that ordinary Americans understand that it's not right when a CEO pays a lower tax rate than his secretary.

I understand what you were trying to do, but if you had chosen to play on Matthews' wavelength, (which you did quite nicely by pointing out the way he'd conflated "best on taxes" with "going to cut taxes"), then the above is how I would have gone.


"And I don't want to beat around the bush, or talk about fairness, or about taxing the rich, or in any way dodge the question. "


My sense is that talk of fairness is how higher taxes will be best sold.

Much as welfare reform was crucial to re-establishing assertive government as politically popular, tax code fairness is crucial to making rational tax levels politically popular.

The pivot to Matthews was to ask him why he thought Dems were better trusted on taxes. Obviously his understanding of the tax issue differs from the ordinary American, and that was your cudgel to move the discussion onto your chosen territory.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 10, 2007 2:30:07 AM

Stop flagellating yourself. Your mistake was not that you made a point that is true and worth making: that we should raise revenues for what we need to spend. The same people who are cynically saying you should finesse the issue or flat out lie because its not good politics are the same ones who are saying that the Democrats should nominate Kerry because he's electable, and that's what's most important. Oh wait, it's not 2003 anymore. These are people who prioritize winning over policy. The same thinking is what led to Democrats voting and supporting a war they didn't think was good for the oountry. It's simply not ethical, wise or even beneficial to behave that way. If you have to lie or mislead on basic policy issues in order to win elections, you shouldn't win them. Plus, that's the Republican way of handling the intersection of policy and politics.

Your mistake is thinking that Hardball is a show where debating policy is more important than politics, and in that thinking you would be almost completely wrong. There's a reason why Atrios derisively calls him Tweety. All those shows like Hardball are about politics. The newspapers are exactly the same. Do you honestly think TV is going to raise the level of discourse above the newspapers? You're living in some rarified--and naive--territory. I just read the Chernow biography of Hamilton. When Hamilton is accused of embezzeling from the government, he exonerates himself by showing he was having an affair. He thought that as a public official what mattered was his public conduct, that his private life shouldn't matter. Of course, the embezzelment charges were quickly forgotten and he was ruined politically by the affair. Hamilton was working from a completely different moral ground, was thoroughly naive, and suffered for it. You're not naive to think ethics and good policy should matter. Your naive to think that they matter on Hardball (on Hardball, are you serious?) You're too good and your approach too noble--actually prioritizing policy over politics and caring about the long-term well-being of the country--to be on a crap show like that which is nothing but political theater.

That woman was such a vile harpy. Makes me ashamed to be an American. To anyone who is not happy that you were honest, just point at her and ask, "Would you prefer I be like that and have no scruples?"

Posted by: Mitch Schindler | Aug 10, 2007 2:34:52 AM

was that I was trying to force the non-political conversation
ON TV? In the 21st century? C'mon dude, you're way smarter than that.

I know your blog has always been in the "wonkosphere" and God bless that, but there is no constituency for a party that wants to raise taxes in America. If you don't say you want to have those taxes go up for the tippy-top, all people hear you saying is you want for everyone's taxes to go up. And there's NO CONSTITUENCY FOR THAT, no matter how much our liberal think tanks may want to convince themselves otherwise. George Bush's presidency has flipped a lot of preconceived notions about how progressive the public is, but tax hikers they are decidedly not and they will not vote for a party of tax hikers. Every time something like that is said on tv, it reinforces the caricature of Democrats that substantively isn't true anymore.

I think you're falling into the trap of the Good Liberal on TV who holds him or herself up to the highest possible standard while the conservative he or she is on with throws feces against the walls. Hanratty's an idiot and you don't have to stoop to her level, but I barely pay attention to the U.S. attorney deal and I know the AG misled senators under oath more than a few times.

Ezra, you're a lot better on air than many of our "liberal" pundits (*cough* Kirsten Powers, Alan Colmes, Bob Beckel *cough*) so I know you can do better. You don't have to be a hack, but if you're gonna be on tv, it's time to disabuse your apparent notions of being in Politeland.

Matthews can't believe that public favors Dems on fiscal issues

Posted by: Oliver Willis | Aug 10, 2007 2:41:31 AM

Ezra, you did well based on the clip I saw on Crooks and Liars. I almost felt sorry for the GOP hack in that clip. You are doing America good by trying to change the debate regarding taxes. Sadly, Chris Mathews and the MSM are defenders of anti-tax jihadists.

Posted by: jncam | Aug 10, 2007 2:48:09 AM

I agree, you did a good job going in there cold. You took Hanratty apart.

Other than that you were a sucky failure.

Posted by: Smithers | Aug 10, 2007 3:07:14 AM

didn't see the Hardball segment on taxes, & don't know what the American people think about taxes, or the best way to talk about them, but I basically agree with your instinct. You like low taxes, I like low taxes, but at what cost?

That said, two important things, I think, to bring up in connection with taxes: debt and the deficit, and after-tax household income.

If the deficit is 300 billion, that's a thousand bucks that's being added to the tab of every American, every year. If you're a family of four, that's $4,000 dollars extra debt in your name, every year. Bush's great trick has been to give a middle-class family of four a tax cut of $2000 a year, at most, and then spend the other 2 grand on friends & family.

Second, a fact that was true in the year 2000, and which Gore should have used: 15% of your federal tax dollar goes to paying the interest on debt accumulated during the Reagan-Bush years. Democrats should perhaps update the figures so that they're accurate, and make this point as often as they can.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, after-tax household income. We can't credibly claim that taxes will be lower under Democrats than Republicans. But we can credibly claim that after-tax household income will be higher for most people under Democrats than under Republicans, for all sorts of reasons.

So then people have to decide: Do they want to make small amounts of money, and pay low taxes on it, or do they want a higher household income, with the caveat that they have to pay somewhat more in taxes?

Posted by: roublen | Aug 10, 2007 3:08:22 AM

These things are all about spewing frames out.

people trust democrats to lower their taxes and ensure the rich pay their share.

people trust democrats to be responsible for the budget: the current finacial crisis and debt we owe china are because of bush's spending and tax cuts for the rich

Posted by: yoyo | Aug 10, 2007 4:46:15 AM

I'm plenty critical of Ezra, or at least have been so far. I just don't see what he's apologizing for. If the host and the other guest attack you like that, there's very little you can do not to come off as embattled.

The big problem here is the way hosts seem to believe inserting their own political bias's into these things make them look good. It doesn't. People watch them for the same reasons people watch all other types of buffoonery, they like to laugh at the expense of others. But it's hard to have a real debate if the moderator takes a side.

Posted by: soullite | Aug 10, 2007 6:02:59 AM

Ezra Klein: "And how cynical are YOU?"

Great line Ezra! You did a great job. Its great to know that a decent human being is finally allowed to speak on cable news.

Posted by: Roberto | Aug 10, 2007 6:12:42 AM

"The reason I was aggressive in a way some of you found politically unwise ... was that I was trying to force the non-political conversation ..."

On Hardball? Yikes! Talk about category mistakes!

I thought you generally did a good job, though. The Gonzales stuff was really good. Ironically, being under-prepared was rhetorically helpful to you, in that you weren't tempted to try to force non-political conversations.

Posted by: Eric | Aug 10, 2007 7:08:14 AM

"I'm plenty critical of Ezra, or at least have been so far. I just don't see what he's apologizing for. If the host and the other guest attack you like that, there's very little you can do not to come off as embattled."

Ezra handled the guest just fine. He just took a wrong turn at the end of the segment with Matthews.

No big deal. The only way you learn is by making mistakes.

(Frankly, I was worried about the segment ahead of time when Ezra was snarking about Matthews' honorary degrees. That bespoke an overconfidence.)

Posted by: Petey | Aug 10, 2007 7:09:43 AM

yoyo hits all the correct points upthread.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 10, 2007 7:10:37 AM

"Frankly, I was worried about the segment ahead of time when Ezra was snarking about Matthews' honorary degrees. That bespoke an overconfidence."

For future reference, Ezra, Larry Kudlow is easy, Matthews is hard.

Posted by: Petey | Aug 10, 2007 7:15:58 AM

I thought you did fine, Ezra, although you might have said that "some" taxes may have to be increased for "some" income groups (probably the view of most of the country, which would explain the polling result on that question).

You also could have said that Gonzales appears to have committed perjury because he testified that Bush had nothing to do with the Justice Department firings, but Bush is now claiming Executive Privilege regarding those firings, which he couldn't do if he wasn't involved with the Justic Department firings.

BTY: (1) you were wise to let the Hour's Duty Blonde Gal's snarky comment about your age pass without comment; (2) Matthews always distorts to slam Dems in general (and Clintons in particular), so your challenging him on his mischaracterization of that poll question was refreshing; (3) you're a much bigger, athletic guy than I had previously thought; (4) the segment was way, way shorter than I had expected it to be.

Keep up the good work.

Posted by: Frank | Aug 10, 2007 7:23:42 AM

"I pointed out that being good on taxes was not the same as cutting taxes -- that was a poisonous conflation."

To sum up:

You were fine up right up through that point. You go off the rails immediately after. Your next move should have been to ask Matthews why he thinks ordinary Americans think Democrats are better on taxes if Republicans are perceived as being the tax cutters.

He'd mull for a few seconds, say he didn't know.

And then you'd have your opening to raise your points.

At that point, you don't say you want to raise taxes. There's another way to raise the same point.

You say that Americans think Democrats are better on taxes because they don't like seeing their bridges collapse because the Republican Governor of Minnesota is in thrall to the Grover Norquist notion of never raising taxes no matter what.

You say that Americans think Democrats are better on taxes because they don't like seeing the Iraq war funded by putting America in hock to China because George Bush doesn't want to make his rich pals pay for the war.

Or in other words, you don't advocate for higher taxes. You advocate against the Norquist anti-tax mania.

And you do have to raise the fairness issue, because truth be told, that's the real reason ordinary Americans trust Democrats more on taxes than Republicans. They understand the modern Republican Party has shifted the tax code against their interests.

Support for a more equitable tax system is the political wedge Democrats can use to not only make the tax system fair, but also to raise more revenue.

At the end of the day, people really don't like to pay more taxes. So you don't advocate for higher taxes, you advocate against the damage done by taxes too low to support responsible government. People will support higher taxes if they think it's better than the alternative, but if that rationale isn't laid out, it's box office poison.

Of course, it's easier for me to say this in retrospect than it is to handle the pivot in realtime...

Posted by: Petey | Aug 10, 2007 7:28:49 AM

Dude Ezra, you're the man. You're the hope for a lot of people your (and my) age, because you're getting into the MSM and you're making a difference. Criticism from these folks is well and good but the main point is: You're the man!

Posted by: Media Glutton | Aug 10, 2007 7:43:48 AM

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