Karl Rove and Our "Really Short Attention Span"

Reading Thursday's think piece by Karl Rove in the Wall Street Journal, you can understood why politicians - in both parties - don't think twice about passing off creative writing as history.

The reason: We're Americans and we get distracted.

Earlier this morning, the blogosphere was obsessing incredibly inane flap over Michelle Obama's supposed stocking of the White House library with Communist readings. By this evening, it will be all about the next skater to pull off a triple lutz.

I'll leave it to Tea Party activist Judson Phillips to sum this up. He nailed it when he told David Weigel of The Washington Independent that "for better or worse...America's got a really short attention span. If you go past a few days, people forget about it. Basically, if you don't want to be taken down, you have to stay on message, and you have to ignore what the media is doing." So instead of sifting through a complex myriad of (sometimes conflicting) facts, the parties prefer to settle on a narrative and then hammer home the message for all it's worth. Few are better at this than Rove, who offers a textbook example how to go about it in his recent WSJ column on the Tea Party movement. He wrote:

"The bank bailout in the fall of 2008 may have lit the fuse, but the tea party movement began in earnest last April 15 with protests after congressional Democrats and the Obama administration unleashed a torrent of spending: the stimulus package, a swollen omnibus appropriations bill, and auto company bailouts. Democrats also raised the specter of new energy taxes when the House passed a cap-and-trade bill. The movement's activity reached a fever pitch in August with raucous town hall meetings where senators and congressmen felt the burning-hot."

After reading that paragraph, who wouldn't want to reach for their pitch forks? Rove is betting on our admittedly short memories in order to fan political resentment against the Democrats. That's why his argument deserves closer examination.

The bank bailout: The Tea Party folks argue that Uncle Sam ought to have stood aside and left Wall Street to the mercy of free market forces. Playing to that anger, Rove omits mentioning that the Bush administration was responsible for the bank bailout. It also bears proportionate blame for the clumsy execution what obviously was a rushed plan. That's not to say that Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner had the wrong idea. With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it's clear that the financial rescue plan helped stabilize a banking sector that was on the brink. The scolds are right to complain how considerations of moral hazard got thrown out the window. But this was crisis management, not a session of the Oxford Union.

The stimulus package: The White House claims the stimulus has helped support a couple of million jobs in one way or another. (The Republicans say that it's a lot less.) Nobody argues that unemployment remains too high but the spending has helped revive the big ticket economy, where demand for products from companies like John Deere and Hewlett Packard is growing nicely. What's more, only a third of the stimulus has been spent to date. Gross Domestic Product growth expanded 5.7% in the last quarter and some economists believe that stimulus disbursements will account for another 1.4 percentage points of GDP growth this year. There's a reason Rove wants to paint this as a disaster: Republicans sat out the vote and put everything on the Democrats. If the stimulus turns out to be a success, that's bad news for the GOP

Where Rove and Tea Party critics of the White House are on surer footing is their argument that the massive deficits being accumulated are unsustainable in the long term. Short-term may be another story - especially if the economy continues to rebound and if job growth starts to kick in. A couple of big ifs, to be sure.

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.