Talk about playing cute with soundbites. On Wednesday’s Today, Andrea Mitchell pounded away at John McCain’s economic proposals by airing this quote from former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey against a gas-tax holiday: "It’s pure demagoguery. I mean John McCain has shown some capacity to understand some economics." Armey said this on Mitchell’s midday MSNBC program. But the soundbite cut out the other half of Armey’s thought. Here’s the half that was spiked: "Barack Obama is demonstrating daily that he’s an economic illiterate."
In an interview with McCain that followed, co-host Matt Lauer pressed McCain on his plan for tax cuts, saying a "nonpartisan research group in Washington" called the Tax Policy Center said most of his tax cuts would go to the wealthy. Lauer never explained the Center is a joint project of two liberal think tanks, the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute. This means they’re as "nonpartisan" as NBC News.
Andrea Mitchell gave Lauer a setup piece offering a critique of McCain’s economics:
ANDREA MITCHELL: Good morning, Matt. John McCain and Barack Obama have been debating the economy all week, as McCain tries to set himself apart from the economic policies of George Bush. Even while running for President John McCain can't help joking about his lack of business experience.
JOHN MCCAIN: You know I've never run a small, struggling enterprise, unless you count my presidential campaign last year.
MITCHELL: But now with voters in a panic over how to pay for gas, McCain has to prove he's better than Barack Obama at handling an economy in crisis.
MCCAIN: Under Senator Obama's tax plan, Americans of every background would see their taxes rise.
MITCHELL: Obama's counterattack, voting for McCain is the same as voting for George W. Bush.
BARACK OBAMA: Senator McCain wants to add $300 billion more in tax breaks and loopholes for big corporations and the wealthiest Americans and he hasn't even explained how to pay for it.
MITCHELL: On the economy they have big differences over taxes, government spending and energy. McCain supports a summertime gas tax holiday, which Obama calls a "gimmick." McCain with CNBC's Maria Bartiromo.
MCCAIN: I think you're out of touch with America, I think when, when you don't support such a thing and it was just a break, it was just a break. They need it right now.
MITCHELL: But even some Republicans say suspending the gas tax, for the summer, won't work.
DICK ARMEY: It's pure demagoguery. I mean John McCain has shown some capacity to understand some economics.
MITCHELL: And Democrats are trying to portray McCain as out of touch on the economy and the war.
HARRY REID: We have, as a Republican nominee, a flawed candidate. His temperament is wrong, he's wrong on the war, he's wrong on the economy.
MITCHELL: McCain's challenge is to prove that he is right on the economy and distance himself from the President's record without appearing too disloyal. Matt?
Lauer seemed a little embarrassed by the hard-hitting report with the "even Republican" attack line added as he began with McCain:
LAUER: Senator John McCain joins us in the studio. It's always interesting to sit here across from you as you're watching that. Other than that, the Democrats have really nice things to say about you.
McCAIN, laughing: Some of my best friends are Democrats.
LAUER: Let, let, let me talk about this gas situation.
MCCAIN: I thank Andrea for the challenge. I thank her for laying that out.
Lauer should have been more embarrassed. In his interview with Mitchell, Dick Armey was generally complimentary about McCain, and quite negative about Barack Obama. First, there’s this exchange at the very end of the interview, the part that Mitchell extracted her half a soundbite from:
MITCHELL: One last quick question. The gas tax holiday. John McCain is for it. Smart economics?
ARMEY: It’s pure demagoguery. John McCain is showing some capacity to understand some economics. Barack Obama is demonstrating daily that he's an economic illiterate. He says he's appalled by high food prices, but he’s for the farm [subsidies] program. He says he’s appalled by high gas –
MITCHELL: He’s against the gas-tax holiday, and John McCain is for it.
ARMEY: Okay, so it's the one gimmick he hasn't bit on, but the fact of the matter is Barack Obama has done more to raise insurance costs with his mandates, food price with agriculture policy, gas costs with bans on exploration and development of resources, I really think --
MITCHELL: You would tell John McCain to forget about the gas tax holiday?
ARMEY: Yes, I would.
There’s nothing wrong with a reporter noting that conservatives and libertarians dislike a gas-tax holiday, just like liberals. But when you line up critics from all ideological directions, the viewer might wonder if President Clinton would have been sandwiched with negativity like that, from a Newt Gingrich and then a Ralph Nader. If it happened, liberals would surely complain that it’s the biased media organizing a pile-on story.
In fact, Armey praised McCain earlier in the interview when asked by Mitchell how he would advise McCain on what was currently missing from his economic plan:
I think he’s probably being fairly bold as Republicans go these days. He’s gotten to really the heart of the really first big issue we’re talking about, which is giving people a chance to be free to choose a simplified, fair, honest tax code in the flat tax. That's a big thing. He understands the need to control the size of the government and control spending, and he’s willing to dare to take on some of the big programs like agriculture, for example, and demonstrate some good economic understanding. I think he's got the right perceptions, but he needs to be a little bit bolder and dare to go a little further.
He suggested Social Security private accounts, and Mitchell quickly interjected that Bush's discussion of Social Security reform didn't work politically, but led to defeat in 2006, "some people believe," and "what some would say was demagoging." Armey disagreed and said it could be a winning issue for Republicans.
On Wednesday morning, Lauer pressed McCain to go beyond that outdated resource known as oil, and McCain gladly agreed:
LAUER: So enough of the debate about whether we, we drill in the wilderness areas because that’s still oil, oil, oil. You, your energy plan will take us away from oil?
McCAIN: Oh it will have to. We have to. Not only because of the compelling reasons of the price of, of gasoline, but also because of greenhouse gas emissions. If we're truly going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in this country, we have to go to alternate energy. And the technology is there, and the innovation is there and we can unleash it. America can do this.
Then Lauer bashed Bush for disparaging in February the predictions of $4 a gallon gas, which Lauer said showed "he didn't have a real good handle on the scope of the problem." Later, Lauer shifted to tax cuts:
LAUER: Two quick subjects. Tax cuts. You've been hammered by some on the Republican and Democratic side about flip-flopping on these tax cuts. The Tax Policy Center, which is a non-partisan research group in Washington, says that your plan for tax cuts would, 80 percent of the benefit would go to the top 10 percent of earners. Given the, the situation right now with the middle class and the working class, gasoline, foreclosures, is that where those benefits should go?
McCAIN: Of course not, and one of our proposals is doubling the tax exemption for children from $3500 to $7000. We have many, across the board, proposals but we don't want to increase taxes...
Lauer even mangled that. The New York Times reported that the TPC only calculated that benefit in a cut of the alternative minimum tax, a tax designed to soak the rich, not the entire McCain economic proposal:
His call for repealing the alternative minimum tax, while it would still help some middle-class taxpayers, would still largely benefit the wealthy: Some 80 percent of the benefit would go to the top 10 percent of earners, according to the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan research group in Washington.
In other words, Lauer could suggest that he didn't mean to hide the liberalism of the group he was citing. He and his harried morning producers were merely ripping and reading biased sentences from the New York Times. But couldn't someone at NBC have enough sophistication to distinguish between the AMT and the larger McCain tax proposal?
And they say McCain's not educated enough on economics.