A show about nothing

Posted: Jul 23, 2005 12:00 AM

Seven years later, the pain lingers for some.

“Since ‘Seinfeld’ ended its first run, no new network sitcom has come along that even compares with it in terms of intelligence and wittiness -- especially not at NBC, which each fall stands for New Bad Comedies,” Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales wrote in July 2003, after watching Jerry Seinfeld perform his standup routine.

It’s cute that he slips the words “first run” in there, as if there may eventually be a “second run.” There won’t be. The actors have plenty of cash, and aren’t likely to tarnish their franchise with a weak re-make.

Luckily, here in Washington we can still enjoy a “show about nothing,” starring your favorite liberal politicians. The show revolves around the latest buzz word, “framing.”

Reporter Matt Bai documented the trend in the New York Times magazine. “Exactly what it means to ‘frame’ issues seems to depend on which Democrat you are talking to, but everyone agrees that it has to do with choosing the language to define a debate and, more important, with fitting individual issues into the contexts of broader story lines,” he wrote on July 17.

Bai notes that “framing” has already been successful twice. Democrats, he says, have used it to derail President Bush’s plans for Social Security reform and to legitimize the use of the filibuster to block the president’s judicial nominees. “These victories weren’t easy to account for,” Bai writes. Indeed. Especially since they aren’t victories at all.

Consider Social Security.

The one thing that everyone acknowledges is that the venerable program is going broke. As long ago as 1998, President Bill Clinton pointed out that, “By 2030, there will be twice as many elderly as there are today, with only two people working for every person drawing Social Security.” Clinton urged swift action “to avert a crisis in the Social Security system.”

Ah, but these days it’s a Republican president urging action on Social Security. So instead of action, liberals denounced the president’s plan as privatization and claimed it would lead to benefit cuts. “We see Social Security as a faith-based program,” Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., told U.S. News & World Report. “It’s about taking care of widows and orphans.” Great framing, but not exactly accurate.

Social Security does take care of orphans, but the part of the program the president wants to reform deals with retirement benefits. Also, as Heritage Foundation expert David John points out, “widows and widowers are treated especially badly by the current system’s benefit structure.” Their benefits could be improved with the introduction of Personal Retirement Accounts that individual workers would own and control. But that will happen only if Congress can see through the framing and fix the problem.

Sadly, liberal lawmakers refuse to introduce any reform plans of their own. “The minute we introduce a plan, we have to solve the problem,” a senior Democratic aide told Bai. “We are the minority party. It’s not our job to fix things.” In other words, if it’s successful, “framing” will insure that nothing gets done. Not only will the president’s plans be blocked, but any potential liberal solutions will be sidelined as well. Some victory.

And let’s not forget about the filibuster -- perhaps the perfect example of nothing.

In the Senate, members of the minority party have always had the power to block, or at least slow down, legislation. But the minority had never used its filibuster to stop a circuit court nominee until this administration. That’s because while it’s always possible to compromise on legislation (“put in a shipyard for my district and I’ll vote for your bill”), one can only vote yes or no on a nominee.

Liberals accused Republicans of “changing rules in the middle of the game” when they tried to eliminate the filibuster. They succeeded in fighting to a draw -- a draw meaning future nominees, maybe even Supreme Court nominee John Roberts -- can be filibustered. When that happens, we’ll enjoy another heaping helping of nothing.

This isn’t to say that conservatives don’t frame issues. For example, we call Social Security PRAs “personal” accounts instead of “private” accounts because the word poll tests better. But notice that we’ve started with a policy and only then crafted rhetoric to sell it. We begin by attempting to do something. On the left, the rhetoric actually creates the policy. And since the rhetoric is designed to do nothing, the policy is to do nothing. No wonder they have no solutions to offer.

Never fear, conservatives. Something always beats nothing. That’s why, in the long run, liberal framing is bound to fail.

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