A Shout Out to David Gregory

For pinning down Eric Cantor on Meet the Press

David Gregory’s Meet the Press interview Sunday with new House Majority Leader Eric Cantor should be required reading in every entry-level reporting class. Gregory showed what it means to follow up on questions and keep pushing until the interviewee answers the question that was asked. That kind of follow-up has been lacking in much of the reportage I have examined for this blog over the past three years. If viewers were listening carefully, they could see that Leader Cantor, as Gregory called him, was slipping and sliding all over the place, and said a lot even by what he did not say.

For starters, Gregory wanted to know if Cantor supported the president’s expected call for a balance between deficit cuts and new spending to create jobs. “Is that a vision you can support?” asked Gregory. After some blabber about the president having a real chance to lead, Cantor invoked the voters’ apparent plea in the last election. What they said, according to Cantor, was “we’ve got to shrink government, we’ve got to cut spending, and we need to really look to the private sector to grow jobs.”

Gregory tried again. The president is saying there has to be a combination of spending and cuts. “Is that a vision you can support?” Cantor presented a new phrase: “our Congress is going to be a cut and grow Congress.” Did “grow” equal “spending?” Cantor said he hed heard someone say this is going to be a “cut and invest White House.” The word game continued. “When we hear invest from anyone in Washington, to me that means more spending.” Finally, Gregory had enough and paraphrased Cantor’s comments: “You don’t believe that there’s a balance. That’s not a vision you agree with.”

The interview moved to the subject of where budget cuts might be made. Here Gregory pushed hard, asking the same question five ways to see if Cantor would admit that the Republicans didn’t seem to be ready to make the $100 billion in spending cuts they said they would seek. A few examples of Gregory’s persistence:

- “$100 billion, or not $100 billion.”

- “Are you going to live up to the $100 billion pledge?”

- “$100 billion. Can you make it or not?”

Leader Cantor finally indicated they could, but “on an annualized basis, we will cut spending $100 billion.”

“Which means what exactly?” Gregory asked. Cantor didn’t exactly provide a clear answer, mumbling something about how Congress is operating on a continuing resolution and the need for an interim step to “reset the dial and bring spending back down to ’08 levels.”

Gregory did not ask for more, probably because time was short and he needed to get on to Social Security and health care. He wanted to know whether Republicans were prepared to raise the retirement age and means test Social Security benefits. Cantor replied that the first entitlement to tackle was the Obamacare bill. “We’ll get to health care. I asked you about Social Security, though,” Gregory shot back. Cantor said that we have to focus on what we can do together. Gregory tried a third time: “Well, what are you willing to do? Means test benefits, raise the retirement age?” Cantor still wouldn’t say, mentioning budget chairman Paul Ryan’s road map, and that he and a chap named Kevin McCarthy wrote a book with a chapter on Social Security and Medicare.

Next came the fourth try: “But what are you for? Leader, I’m asking you what you’re for?” Cantor replied that Republicans were “for an active discussion to see what we can come together and do.”

Gregory then asked how long we need to discuss Social Security which he said “has been discussed for years.” The jousting continued. Cantor brought up his book chapter again. Gregory parried, asking for a fifth time about raising the retirement age and means testing—“those are specifics,” he emphasized. Cantor still didn’t say yes or no. But any viewer paying careful attention could see that the answer was yes—for some Americans.

Cantor explained that “anyone fifty-five and older in this country has got to know that their Social Security benefits will not be, will not be changed. It is for all the younger people, those fifty-four and younger, we’re going to have a serious discussion.” Finally, Gregory got some red meat. People age fifty or fifty-two, who have paid into the system for thirty years, might be concerned about changes in the rules of the game.

Next Gregory wanted to know if the Republicans have a plan for getting health coverage to more Americans. Gregory asked three questions trying to get some specifics, noting at one point: “The truth is, Republicans do not have a serious alternative to covering more Americans, do they?” Cantor said he disagreed, and continued with the standard Republican talking points. He mentioned “patient-controlled health care,” and focusing on “first and foremost, bringing down costs and adding to people’s choices and flexibility.” Then came Frank Luntz buzz words, with a new twist:

If we’re all really desirous of trying to deal with people who are in need and want to improve the healthcare future for this country, you, you can’t start with a Washington-controlled system. That’s the structure of Obamacare. It’s broad, sweeping federal mandates imposing the kind of health care that people should have instead of allowing people to choose for themselves and allow for the flexibility and choice.

Cantor never did discuss a specific plan for covering the uninsured, and Gregory’s time was up. Gregory can be forgiven if Cantor got the best of him toward the end of the interview when it veered into less controversial subjects like the president’s shift to the center and whether the tea party is here to stay. Maintaining that sort of pressure on a media-trained guest is tough. But it was a good workout for the next joust with Cantor.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , , ,