Good Friday Morning Fellow Seekers of Wisdom and Truth,
I’ve gotten some pushback about Tuesday’s post on the new EmmerTruth feature on the campaign website of repub guv candidate Tom Emmer. The pushback has come from conservative blogs (see here and here, for example) and from Team Emmer itself (this was a phone conversation, complaining about the inaccuracy/unfairness of my piece).
I’m trying to bend over backwards to take the complaints seriously. I rant a good bit about the twin problems of selective perception and confirmation bias. I worry about these demons in myself, as well as homo sapiens in general. (Not so worried about it other species, but will start worrying about it if get time.)
It’s a struggle to get past the demons. One helpful technique, when hearing from people with whom one disagrees, is listen, not just in hopes of knocking down what they say but with one’s mind open to the possibility that they know something you don’t know, something from which you can learn and/or some areas of relative agreement on which you can seek common ground.
This may sound kinda twinky or kumbaya or whatnot. But I believe in it pretty strongly both as a way to reduce the angry polarization of politics and, secondarily, as part of what journalism needs to substitute for the spent force of the phony objectivity paradigm
Although I constantly fall short, I try to practice this here. The idea of Tom Emmer as governor makes me a tad nervous, but I want Emmer supporters to come to Black Ink with a reasonable expectation that their best facts and arguments will be treated fairly and respectfully here. I’m trying to do it in this EmmerTruth matter, but it isn’t going so well because the harder I squint at those facts and arguments, the weaker they seem. Several problems with the first edition of EmmerTruth that I missed the first time through have come to light.
The truth-seekers on EmmerTruth and in these Emmer-friendly blogs don’t seem to be truth-seeking or truth-telling about Emmer’s plans or his statements. They seem to be trying to delegitimize, on bias charges, efforts to find out Emmer’s budget plans when, to be blunt about it, Emmer could just tell us instead of making us guess and then acting annoyed when he doesn’t like the guesses.
The most pressing job facing the next governor will be to work with the Legislature to balance the next biennial state budget, which will start with a projected deficit of $5 billion to $9 billion, depending on how you do the numbers. No one should get your vote for governor without telling you their plan for tackling that challenge.
Fair expectations and accurate facts
Emmer says wants to take on a larger and more enduring challenge, to permanently reduce the size and scope of state (also city and county) government in Minnesota. But he has not been forthcoming about either how he will balance the budget in his first biennium, nor what this longer-term downsized Minnesota government will look like. He’s going to continue to get criticized until he puts out a plan. I think this is entirely justifiable. But the criticism should be based on fair expectations and accurate facts.
One of the complaints that he has made and others make on his behalf is that other candidates also have not specified their taxing and spending and cutting plans and they don’t get as much grief from the mainstream media, presumably because it is the liberal mainstream media and because it is more inclined to pick up on DFL talking points.
The DFL has been putting out a press release every week or so for more than a month demanding to know where Emmer’s budget plan is. Just based on the ones that I haven’t spiked out of my email account, I count four such press releases, since May 10. But not even Emmer — and not I — can expect the DFL to be even-handed across party lines in criticizing candidates. Sad but true.
On the other hand, most of the media coverage of Emmer’s planlessness seemed to derive from Emmer’s June 10 hour-long filibuster on MPR’s “Midmorning” show in which he declined to specify a single dollar’s worth of concrete deficit reduction proposals. I transcribed one of his long answers here.
I’m willing to predict that if the other guv candidates, including the three DFLers, go on ”Midmorning,” Kerri Miller will ask them similar questions, and then we’ll see, both whether they answer, whether she presses them as hard and, if they filibuster, whether the rest of the media hold them accountable.
The Star Tribune editorial page did a fine service by asking the five major guv candidates for a written statement of their budget plans, and they published all five. You can access all five statements from this summary editorial. Speaking in their role as institutional voice of the Strib (that institutional voice gag always cracks me up), the editorial writers gave the prize to Mark Dayton and Tom Horner for having the most specific, concrete ideas (although they certainly haven’t put out a full plan for eliminating the deficit. Emmer, Margaret Kelliher Anderson and Matt Entenza flunked the test, according to the Stribbers.
If you read the Emmer response to the Strib’s inquiry, you will not find a single dollar’s worth of specific deficit reduction proposals. Emmer does endorse redesigning government and reducing the state government work force, but without any specific proposals. He comes out for unspecified tax cuts which, unless you believe in the self-funding tax cut theory, will presumably add to the deficit.
Perhaps there is some truth and justice to the Emmer complaint that he is getting more grief for not having a plan. But does he really want to make a stand on this complaint, rather than just start to specify how he will balance the budget, or maybe even commit to a date, sooner rather than later, when he will put out a plan?
On the morning Emmer announced his current listening tour — which is his stated reason for not putting out a plan, because he has to listen first — I asked him when he would have listened enough to put out a plan. He evaded the question so I asked him again. The second time he specified that he was going to remain “evasive” on that for now. I guess I’ll give him a weird kind of candor point for admitting that he was being evasive, but how far can he take this? “Emmer: Honest enough to tell you that he won’t tell you.”
Dustup over interview
Which brings us finally back to the specific complaint that provoked the first EmmerTruth rebuttal.
In April, when he was still running against Marty Seifert for the Repub endorsement, Emmer made a joint (with Seifert) appearance on MPR’s “Midday” show with host Gary Eichten, and Eichten pressed him about how much he wanted to downsize state government. The political context was different then. To lock up the Repub endorsement, Emmer was positioned as the more radical of the two Republican downsizers. He gave Eichten some answers that he doesn’t seem anxious to repeat now that he is the endorsee and is targeting swing voters.
Late last week, after the dustup over the Kerri Miller interview, MPR reporter Tom Scheck tried to write a piece shedding some light on Emmer’s budget ideas. He relied on that earlier Eichten interview to state that Emmer has “suggested he could eliminate a third of overall state spending, roughly $20 billion.”
In the EmmerTruth knockdown of Scheck’s piece, the first sentence of the section titled “Fact” states:
“Tom Emmer has never said he will cut $20 billion from the state budget.”
Either Scheck or EmmerTruth must be stating something other than a fact.
Here’s a section of the transcript of the Emmer-Eichten interview, (and I should point out that this transcription comes from the EmmerTruth piece itself).
Eichten: I understand that this is a little bit of an unfair question – let’s say for purposes of discussion, the state has a biennial budget of $30 billion (plus or minus). If you could wave a wand today, what should be the size of the state budget?
Emmer: Yeah, if you want a number, you’re using the general fund number Gary — the total number with dedicated funds is closer to $60 billion and I think really, if we’re going to compare ourselves with what it’s supposed to be.
[EB butting in here. I note that when Gov. Tim Pawlenty prepared his own analysis of how he had held down state spending, which I dissected here, Pawlenty used the General Fund $30 billion category. He and Emmer should get together on the best way to measure state spending. OK, back to the Eichten-Emmer transcript.]
Eichten: Well let’s stick with the $30 billion – that’s the number that’s usually talked about.
Emmer: Well, no I’m going to tell you that the overall budget should probably be around $40 billion. Once you get done, and I’m talking out of that $60 billion –
Eichten: So eliminate about a third of what the state is spending?
Emmer: Actually, you can absolutely start – but you can’t just talk about the state, Gary – you’ve also got to talk about a county level and a city level, the local level. But yes, I believe you can reduce government easily by 20 percent in the next four years – easily.”
OK, Emmer said that the overall state budget, which is now in the $60 billion range, “should probably be around $40 billion.”
But “Tom Emmer has never said he will cut $20 billion from the state budget?” How can that be?
EmmerTruth has three objections. The first one, which I dealt with in my previous piece, is that Emmer didn’t say he would cut $20 billion, only that state spending ought to be about $20 billion less than it is now.
From EmmerTruth: “Emmer was talking about what was possible, not making a campaign promise. That’s why he used the words ‘can reduce’ not ‘will reduce.’”
Even if this were accurate, it would be a pitiful case of word-splitting. But it’s also not true that Scheck said that Emmer “will” reduce state spending. He said: “Emmer has “suggested he could eliminate a third of overall state spending, roughly $20 billion.” So even on a word-splitting basis, EmmerTruth’s objection borders on untruth.
The second objections, which I didn’t discuss in my previous piece, is that Emmer, two sentences after saying that state spending “should probably be” $20 billion lower than it is now, said:
“I believe you can reduce government easily by 20 percent in the next four years – easily.”
Twenty percent off of $60 billion would not be a $20 billion cut, it would be a $12 billion cut.
So, according to EmmerTruth:
“Emmer did initially say the overall budget should be around $40 billion, down from the current level of $60 billion. [In other words, Tom Emmer, who “has never said he will cut $20 billion from the state budget,” did say that the budget “should” be $20 billion less than it is now — EB]
“But seconds later [Emmer] clarified with the definitive statement that we ‘can reduce government easily by 20% in the next four years.’ When Scheck chose to use the $20 billion figure instead of the more definitive final word on the question, he made a critical and material journalistic mistake.
Decide for yourself how critical and material Scheck’s mistake was. Ask yourself if Emmer bears any responsibility for using two different figures in the span of about 10 seconds. Ask yourself what makes the second of the figures “definitive.”
Blogger Mitch Berg of “Shot in the Dark” and of “The Patriot” radio station (and whom I know and like, and who has had me on his radio show, and who is one of the bloggers who took me to task for my previous EmmerTruth piece) took a shot at explaining why the second figure is the definitive one. It’s the nature of radio, which an ol’ ink-stained wretch like me wouldn’t understand. Wrote Berg, of what live radio is like:
“Every so often you say something on the first try that isn’t quite right. So you take another pass at it. This happens even if you’re very good at speaking off the cuff — which, by the way, Tom Emmer is.”
OK, Mitch would be the expert on that. Where I come from, if you want to take something back, you say “let me take that back. I said something I didn’t mean. Here’s what I’m trying to say.” You don’t just change numbers and roll on and then deny you ever said the first one.
On the other hand, especially since Emmer is so good at speaking off the cuff, go back and look carefully at the definitive second statement (this is the trouble with me deciding to go over the whole thing and see if I was unfair the first time). Note that Emmer’s 20 percent statement wasn’t about “state government,” which the first statement clearly was. Emmer decided to introduce the possibility of reducing county and municipal government as well.
I actually have no idea how many levels of government Emmer had in mind with his 20 percent statement and I have no idea if he had any idea. But he could have meant that state and local governments combined could be reduced by 20 percent and the share of that represented by state government could be $20 billion.
Scheck’s critical and material journalistic mistake was to quote, accurately, something that Emmer said about state government, which is the level of government that Emmer is a candidate to lead.
EmmerTruth’s third objection is that, if you go back to the transcript, in the second, definitive statement, Emmer said he would — well, not that he would, but that “you can” — cut (some level of government) spending by 20 percent over four years.
Scheck didn’t mention the four-year time frame. He’ll have to answer for that on judgment day. I can’t say I grasp exactly why it’s that big a deal. In fact, if there’s a way to save that much state (or county or municipal) money without causing unacceptable levels of suffering or other dire consequences, I would say get it done sooner rather than later.
OK, I’ve gone on too long and am beginning to get too sarcastic. I’ll just close by observing that rather than cry foul and read intent into Scheck’s word choices, Emmer could, if he chose, clear the whole thing up by specifying how he plans to balance the budget, and then how he plans to downsize government, and how much of that downsizing would be subtracted from the current share of government dollars spent by the state and how much by other units. That would shut me, and I suspect Scheck, up right quick.