Last week, I wrote a column telling liberals, "If you think Republicans play dirty and Democrats don't, open your other eye." Right-wingers embraced it as proof of their piety. Left-wingers attacked it as proof of my bias. They're both wrong. A couple of examples illustrate and clarify the point.
An alert Slate reader informed me that Rush Limbaugh had read the column on the air and excerpted it on his Web site. Limbaugh headlines his item, "Slate Liberal Can See the Truth." (Those of you on the left can snicker now.) He quotes the column at length and is doing fine until he concludes, "The author's point is that he's looking far and wide, and he doesn't see Republicans making allegations like this at Democrats. It's exclusively on a one-way street."
Hey, I'm always grateful when a guy with a gazillion listeners reads my column on the air. But my point was that it isn't a one-way street. I was addressing liberals, because that's who most of my friends and colleagues are. They're the people whose blindness to the ruthlessness of their political party confronts me constantly. I could have written a similar critique of ruthlessness on the right, starting with the efforts of numerous Republicans to prevent the media from reviewing the disputed ballots in the 2000 presidential election.
Another reader pointed me to the Daily Howler, which attacked me from the left. The Howler's editor, Bob Somerby, summarizes my argument as follows: "Since we all lie and cheat at some point, it doesn't matter if one side does it more. … The RNC repeatedly misled about [Al] Gore, and got the press to call Gore a Big Liar. To Saletan, none of this matters."
That isn't what I meant to convey, but the confusion is my fault. What I wrote was, "Lying and cheating don't belong to Republicans or Democrats. We're all susceptible, and we're all guilty." The quote I borrowed from my colleague, Jack Shafer, was, "If you're interested in which wing lies more, you're probably not very interested in the truth." My point wasn't that it doesn't matter when one side lies more than the other. It does matter. But what matters is the lies, not who lies more. If I say the sky is orange, and you say blood is yellow and grass is purple, the important thing isn't that you've lied more than I have. The important thing is that the sky is blue, blood is red, and grass is green. So when I said "we're all guilty," my point wasn't that your lies about blood and grass don't matter. My point was that my lie about the sky matters, too.
That's the problem with a punditocracy of Limbaughs and Somberbys. Each side exposes the other's distortions. But you can't count on them to see, much less concede, their own. Somerby has done a terrific job of exposing the right's myths about Gore. But when it comes to the gamesmanship of Gore and Bill Clinton, he loses his critical eye. In response to my column, he defends the 1996 Clinton-Gore argument that Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich wanted to cut Medicare. (I'll leave out the part where he accuses me of "assailing [Joe] Conason," whom I've never mentioned.) Somerby writes,
In 1995 and 1996, both parties proposed spending less on Medicare in future years than it would cost to maintain the existing program. For obvious reasons, this type of proposal had always been described by both parties as a "cut." During the endless debate on this matter, Clinton and his budget advisers routinely described their own proposal as a "cut." (Links to examples below.) But Clinton—acknowledging the cuts in his own proposal—argued that the Gingrich proposal was cutting the Medicare program too much (by that $270 billion over seven years). Repeat: Clinton did not say that only Gingrich was proposing "cuts" in the Medicare program. He said that both parties had proposed such "cuts," but said that Gingrich was cutting too much. … [Republicans] soon began peddling a misleading formulation—they were only cutting the rate at which Medicare would grow, they kept insisting. … Let's say it again: Both parties proposed spending less than it would cost to maintain the existing program. But only Clinton was willing to use the traditional term, "cut."
Somerby's critique of the GOP's role in this debate is interesting. But his defense of Clinton's role is just false. As Common Cause detailed in its 1996 report, "The Clinton Ad Campaign Run Through the DNC," Clinton's re-election ads repeatedly accused Republicans of cutting Medicare while claiming that Clinton was "protecting" the program, not cutting it. Examples:
1) "American values. Do our duty to our parents. President Clinton protects Medicare. The Dole/Gingrich budget tried to cut Medicare $270 billion."
2) "Dole, Gingrich's latest plan includes tax hikes on working families. Up to 18 million children face health care cuts. Medicare slashed $167 billion. Then Dole resigns, leaving behind gridlock he and Gingrich created. The president's plan: Politics must wait. Balance the budget, reform welfare, protect our values."
3) "Dole, Gingrich? Deadlock. Gridlock. Shutdowns. The president's plan? Finish the job, balance the budget. Reform welfare. Cut taxes. Protect Medicare."
4) "The Dole-Gingrich budget would have slashed Medicare $270 billion. Cut college scholarships. The president defended our values. Protected Medicare."
As to Somerby's argument that the GOP misrepresented the $270 billion reduction as a cut in the rate of growth, my point was that Howard Dean makes the same representation. If you're concerned about lies, it doesn't matter who's saying it. If Gingrich is a liar on this question, so is Dean. My position is that neither one lied. Somerby's position is that Gingrich lied, and Dean … well, what Dean said isn't the point.