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Thinning the herd 

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Sometimes I think that the more time I spend on the farm, the better I understand Washington journalists. Among cows, for example, virtually all decisions are group decisions, although it's often impossible to tell where a given idea originates. Sometimes the bull leads; sometimes he follows.

So was it Trudy's idea for everybody to amble to the pine thicket for a group nap? She's often in the lead, but then she has no calf to worry over this year. In her book "Animals in Translation," Temple Grandin says it's a mistake to think that the lead cow is the boss cow. The safest, and therefore most prestigious place, she writes, is the middle of the herd.

Just so among judicious Washington pundits, where the "centrist" position is always safest, marking one as what passes in journalism for a serious thinker. Consider New York Times columnist James B. Stewart's recent apologia for Rep. Paul D. Ryan, the latest GOP heartthrob.

Because President Obama attacked Ryan's "Trojan Horse" budget, the right-wing Club for Growth had reservations, and Rep. Ron Paul found his tax cuts too small, Stewart deduced that "he must be doing something right."

Of course, it would be equally logical to suspect that a plan disliked by Democrats and Libertarians alike might be a lousy plan, but that's not how the centrist mind works. Because when Stewart spoke with Ryan, the handsome congressman with the basset hound eyes "seemed anything but the polarizing figure that many of his most vocal critics have tried to turn him into."

Nice guy, nice plan. Never mind the arithmetic.

One thing Stewart thinks is great about Ryan's tax plan "which calls for lowering top rates to 25 percent and 10 percent, [is that it] could actually raise taxes on the ultrarich, since on average they, like the wealthy presidential candidate Mitt Romney, pay substantially less than an effective tax rate of 25 percent, and nowhere near the current tax code's top marginal rate of 35 percent."

Indeed, Romney, who has fully endorsed Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future" paid approximately 14% of his $42 million income in federal taxes in 2010 — the only year for which he's released his tax return.

"The question," Stewart judiciously asks "is what would happen to the big break that the wealthy now get — the lower rate on capital gains."

To find out, let's click "tax reforms" on the Roadmap for America's Future website, shall we? 

Immediately below a flattering photo of Rep. Ryan, we find a brief introductory paragraph with five bullet points. The fourth says the plan "[p]romotes saving by eliminating taxes on interest, capital gains, and dividends; also eliminates the death tax."

Got that? As written, Ryan's plan would practically eliminate income taxes altogether for somebody like Romney — virtually all of whose income derives from capital gains, interest and dividends.

Not to mention Romney's children, who could inherit hundreds of millions without paying a dime, largely on money that had never been taxed.

That's not pro-jobs; it's pro aristocracy.

But back to the herd mind. Does it shock you that the New York Times's Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist evidently neglected to read even the first paragraph of a GOP tax plan he was praising?

Well, it shouldn't, because this is James B. Stewart's signature technique. When it comes to failing upward the man has few peers. I first became acquainted with his methods in 1996, when Stewart published a tendentious work of pseudo-journalism called "Blood Sport."

Back then, Washington herd-pundits were obsessed with the so-called "Whitewater" scandal. Everybody just knew that Bill and Hillary Clinton's failed Arkansas real estate investment hid dark secrets and terrible crimes Stewart's brilliant sleuthing was expected to uncover.

To anybody who knew the score, the book was a joke. Filled with dramatized scenes and imaginary dialogue between people he'd never met, "Blood Sport" had so many telltale howlers it was hard to imagine Simon & Schuster had editors at all. Some were trivial, like his depiction of Hillary Clinton visiting her sick father months after his death. Others less so, such as Bill Clinton's supposedly appointing a thieving judge actually installed by his GOP predecessor. All the errors ran in the same direction.

Needless to say, Stewart found no crimes. He did, however, make an unintentionally hilarious promotional appearance on "Nightline" charging that Hillary Clinton had filed a fraudulent financial statement. Alas, it turned out that Stewart had missed a line on the document he was waving around that said "BOTH SIDES OF THIS DOCUMENT MUST BE COMPLETED," and failed to notice the allegedly missing data on page two—a classic journalistic blunder that cost its well-connected author nothing.

The standard, see, is herd membership. There is no other.

Cows, by comparison, are skeptical and inquisitive by nature. Easy to fool, yes.  Abuse their trust, however, and you've lost it forever.

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