Playing It Safe the McCaskill Way

David Gregory’s lame interview

I guess it’s too much to hope that the Sunday morning news shows could ever rise above the typical blather from the guests and tepid interviewing by the host. The latest edition of Meet the Press certainly didn’t inspire much confidence in that outcome. Missouri senator Claire McCaskill, who is up for reelection next year, revealed very little, trying to position herself as all things to all people. Voting to convert Medicare to a voucher system “doesn’t compute for us,” she said, and yes, she was “one of the Democrats saying that we have to look at entitlement reform.” Gregory, for his part, wanted to talk about entitlements, even letting his own views creep into the discussion—and some misinformation as well.

He began his interrogation of McCaskill by noting that she had recently tweeted the sentiments of her constituents. The tweet said: “Just spent a couple of hours answering the phones in my office. Dominant message: Don’t cut Social Security or Medicare, and compromise.” Gregory didn’t want to talk about her constituents, but rather about the enforcement mechanism—the second stage—for cutting the deficit and the debt. “So how do you not put Social Security benefits or Medicare benefits into that potential enforcement mechanism when they’re what are driving the debt?” he asked.

Here was a chance to clarify the amount that Social Security and Medicare actually contribute to the debt and deficit—a figure that has been misreported for months—but he didn’t go there. Instead he let McCaskill answer in typical political speak. She had faith the American people are going to weigh in; Republicans voted to keep giving taxpayer checks to big oil while wanting to convert Medicare to a voucher system; and we can level the playing field by lowering tax rates for businesses and individuals. Sounds like the outlines of her campaign stump speech, doesn’t it?

Gregory continued on the entitlement front:

What’s really ludicrous to the American people, even when the American people don’t always speak with one voice on this matter, is that Washington is not really dealing with what drives the debt, that’s entitlement spending. It’s been going on this way and was a ticking time bomb since the ‘60s and Democrats like you were saying, ‘Hey you can’t deal with Social Security and Medicare.’ Republicans say, you know, sign tax pledges, that “I’m not going to raise taxes.”

That gave Gregory’s other guest, South Dakota senator John Thune, a chance to weigh in with the Republican message that Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are driving government spending. Then McCaskill got into more details, if you could call them that. “There are things we can do with both Social Security and Medicare that will preserve them, protect them, protect the beneficiaries, protect the benefits without gutting them,” she said.

If I were from Missouri and watching the program, geez, I might want to know more about these “things” that will protect me. But a Missourian would not have learned anything about that from Gregory’s questioning. After McCaskill said: “If we have a balanced approach, we will preserve those programs as we know them,” Gregory’s response was “right.” Her next remark was equally opaque. “…and will be able to get it on long-term debt structure. Both of them have to be on the table. We can’t keep going down a road where they want to keep pushing more public money to big oil but don’t want to address other issues.” It wasn’t clear who the “we” and the “they” she had in mind.

For the record: the debt is the sum of all the government’s prior deficits. The deficit is the change in the debt over a period of time. As the president and his budget director have said, Social Security is not the cause of the deficit. “Social Security is a designated fund. It cannot spend more money than it has in the trust fund, so in that sense it cannot contribute to the deficit,” explained Dean Baker, co-director of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research. Medicare is another matter. Costs will continue to rise because of the inability to control the price of medical care, the causes of which have escaped most journalistic discourse. Perhaps Gregory might want to tackle that in the short run.

For the record: McCaskill voted the other day for the law that lifts the debt ceiling and sets in motion a process that could well result in substantial cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Given that possibility, it would be great if the people of Missouri knew what exactly their senator supports. Perhaps Gregory can tell them next time around.

For more from Trudy Lieberman on Social Security and entitlement reform, click here.

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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: , , , , ,