Monday, March 11, 2013

Plans vs. Talking Points

I think Glenn Kessler gets maybe two things right in his column this morning about what constitutes a "plan" by a politician.

One is that there are times when a fact checker is better off just backing off and explaining a story without needing to award "Pinocchios" or whatever. The other is that there is, in fact, a difference between partisan talking points and a real, operative, policy commitment. At issue here is whether the White House has a "plan" to replace sequestration, and Kessler is right that "[I]n Washington, there are real plans and faux plans."

Alas, it all goes badly wrong after that.

Kessler winds up, basically, endorsing what I'd call a supersized version of John Boehner's talking point: that a "plan" is only a talking point if it's unlikely to be enacted as is by the current Congress and President (Boehner settles for able to pass one chamber of Congress, allowing him to say the Democrats have no plan if Republicans in the Senate defeat something by filibuster).

By Kessler's standard, the House sequestration replacement passed in the last Congress doesn't count as a plan because only Republicans voted for it (and therefore it had no chance in the Democratic Senate or with Barack Obama. The sequestration replacement that Democrats proposed in the Senate last week doesn't count, because Republicans successfully defeated it by filibuster. And Barack Obama's plan doesn't count because..well, apparently he hasn't put enough public emphasis on the parts of it that Republican want him to talk about. Which is a pretty goofy.

In fact, the Boehner/Kessler standard, which says that any proposal is a mere talking point unless you have the votes to meet some arbitrary standard, is ridiculous:
Person 1. What do you want to do tonight?
Person 2. How about a movie?
1. I don't want to go to a movie.
2. Fine. How about going dancing.
1. I hate dancing.
2. Go to a ballgame?
1. No, I'm not in the mood for that.
2. Fine -- what do you want to do?
1. Why am I the one who always has to propose something?  You never have any ideas!
Now, it is absolutely true that sometimes a politician claims to have a proposal when all she has is a talking point.

How to tell the difference?

If it's written down in sufficient detail, that's a major indication that it's a real plan.

If it's been introduced as a bill or amendment, that's a major indication that it's a real plan.

If serious policy analysis have examined it and found it to be, well, possible to actually analyze, that's a major indication that it's a real plan.

If the people who claim to support it have actually voted for it in the House or the Senate, that's a major indication that it's a real plan.

(Oh, and: no, it doesn't have to be unanimous to be a party's plan. 52 of 55 Democrats voted for their sequestration replacement in the Senate, with Harry Reid switching to no for parliamentary reasons; it's just silly for Kessler to say that lack of unanimity means that it's just a talking point. Nor does the successful GOP filibuster against it make it any less of a plan).

Okay, that's four things to look for. That still leaves plenty of judgement for any analyst trying to distinguish proposal from talking point. For example, budgets proposed by smaller House factions (or, for that matter, a single Senator) can still be "plans" rather than talking points even if they were crushed in a floor vote. Something sufficiently detailed may nevertheless be only a talking point...if the same people proposing it oppose those details and say they are just for illustration.

And, yes, it's perfectly reasonable for analysts to discuss whether some politician's plan is politically viable (that is, whether it can pass Congress and be signed into law as is), as opposed to whether it's a real policy (that is, whether the proposal actually constitutes a public policy that could, if passed, actually be implemented). That seems to be what Kessler is getting at, but it's a real mistake to confuse the two.

So: if a politician says he wants to balance the budget with spending cuts and furnishes no other detail or backup...that's a talking point. If he has dropped a bill with detailed spending cuts that can be scored by CBO and that actually do add up the way he suggests...that's probably a "plan." Even if not a single other Member of Congress would vote for it -- it's a politically unrealistic plan, but still a plan.

Kessler is correct that a plan should count for something above and beyond the credit a party or politician should get for mere talking points. But the next step isn't just to assess how politically viable a (real) proposal is; it's also to assess how open to compromise. A party which insists as a matter of principle that it will never compromise may have plans, but unless they have the votes to pass them alone it doesn't really matter. But that's really getting far beyond John Boehner's clearly false claim about the White House and the real differences between plans and talking points.


  1. I appreciate this thoughtful commentary. I added a clarification at the end of my column.

    1. Hope you linked to Jonathan's post!

    2. Yes, of course, I always link to critics.

  2. Nice of Kessler to reply, but here's the note he appended to his column:

    .....we are certainly not endorsing the idea that something is not a plan unless it passes both houses of Congress or is even politically viable. The test, in a period of divided government, is whether a politician is willing to highlight uncomfortable facts about their proposal, even at the risk of alienating their own supporters.

    I'm sorry, but why is that the test? Boehner & Co. aren't rejecting Obama's plan because it's uncomfortable for Obama's supporters, but because it's uncomfortable for their own. Once again, Kessler just seems to be letting whichever party is most instransigent define the terms of the debate. And nowadays, that's always the GOP.

    I think this whole "fact-checking" business might have worked in an earlier era. But by the time it came along, given what the GOP has become, it was already too easily gamed. Kessler should just give up and go back to doing something useful, like, y'know, reporting news or something.

    1. Yeah, this actually makes Kessler's position much worse than what Jonathan criticized. Kessler is complaining that Obama isn't defending entitlement cuts. That's insane--he's expecting Obama to go out and defend what he's giving as a concession to Republicans! This means that Republicans actually become the reasonable ones because they refuse to give any concession on revenue at all--therefore, under Kessler's logic, revenue increases are no part of their plan, and they have no obligation to defend them.

      The central political issue today is the ratio of revenue increases to spending cuts in deficit reduction.

      Democrats prefer the former. Voters also prefer the former. Therefore, Democrats want this dichotomy to be perfectly clear.

      Republicans prefer the latter. Some elite centrists also prefer the latter, at least when spending cuts take the form of entitlement cuts. Therefore, Republicans and anyone who who wants to see entitlement cuts want the dichotomy to be unclear. They want to see Obama out there defending entitlement cuts, even if his cuts are smaller than his opposition's, so that the GOP can repeat the 2012 game of attacking Democrats for "cutting Medicare".

      This is why fact checking doesn't seem to be working. Because some of the people calling themselves "fact checkers" don't actually want the public to understand what is happening. They want voters who oppose entitlement cuts to be divided and confused.

  3. On behalf of us PCers, I thank you for carrying the banner for us. We, the takers, are happy with your bashing the Republicans at any turn. Keep it up. I only want what's mine and theirs, too. Believe me, you are doing at great job. Seriously!

  4. On a lighter note, as Baldric used to say to the Black Adder: "I have a cunning plan."

  5. Thanks to Jonathan Bernstein and Brendan Nyhan for pointing out Glenn Kessler's astonishingly bogus piece of "fact checking" in WaPo. It discredits the entire fact-checking enterprise. I entirely agree with Nyhan's conclusion that if Kessler wants to write political columns stating his personal political views and observations, that's perfectly fine if that the Post wants to run them as opinion columns. But to present this piece as a "fact check" is ridiculous since it has little or nothing to do with evaluating empirical evidence. Kessler is setting out his own personal standard for what constitutes having a budget plan, which apparently does not include actually having publicly proposed a budget plan. Kessler's piece is a perfect example of the Beltway cult of bipartisanship, the mainstream media's embrace of false equivalence, and the all-too-frequent dishonesty of "fact checking."

    --Harris Meyer, Yakima, WA


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