Glenn Kessler Makes a Reasonable Point About What's Serious and What's Not

| Tue Mar. 12, 2013 5:42 PM EDT

Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post's fact checker, wrote a column yesterday that tried to judge whether President Obama's proposal to replace the sequester was truly a serious plan. Brendan Nyhan, in the course of criticizing Kessler for addressing a matter of opinion like this, points out that Kessler makes a distinction between two kinds of plans:

The first is whether each side has created a specific budget proposal that includes enough new revenue and/or budget cuts to avoid sequestration. The second is whether each side has acted in good faith to create and promote a compromise proposal that has a realistic chance of becoming law.

....Kessler wants to define “plan” using the second, more subjective definition above. In particular, he defines Obama’s plan, bizarrely, as “not really a plan” because it appears on the White House website but Obama has, to his mind, failed to make sufficient efforts to promote it.

Actually, I think this distinction is one worth making. When I criticized David Brooks a couple of weeks ago for not realizing that Obama has a sequester plan, I think that was legitimate. I expect columnists and pundits to do the minimal amount of research necessary to know the actual state of play on both sides regarding competing budget proposals.

At the same time, it really is true that Obama hasn't exactly been jumping up and down to make sure everyone knows about his plan. Overall, Kessler's criticism strikes me as pretty reasonable:

Obama has made passing reference to some of these spending-cut proposals in news conferences, but he has never made them the centerpiece of a high-profile speech. By contrast, he repeatedly—and very publicly—has stressed his interest in raising taxes on the wealthy. That’s why his ideas on entitlements remain a mystery to many Republicans—but they all know he wants to raise revenues.

The president’s outreach to Republican rank-and-file in the past week is a sign of seriousness, in that he is beginning to explain his ideas directly to the opposition.

However, the president has not directly taken on members of his own party; he also has not made the case for overhauling entitlement programs to the American people. Democratic lawmakers know that if the ideas just remain on a Web site, with little or no high-profile presidential push, they don’t have to take these ideas any more seriously than Republicans.

We judge people's actual priorities all the time by assessing how strongly they promote them. That's perfectly sensible, and it's especially sensible when you're dealing with politicians. Obama really does have a sequester plan, but it's hardly surprising that few people think he's very serious about it when he barely ever even mentions its details.

On a related note, though, I think Brendan makes a good point about whether something like this really belongs in a "fact checking" column. Kessler made it clear in his column that he agrees this isn't a classic kind of fact check ("We try not to fact check opinions, and that seemed to be the core of the debate between Boehner and Sperling about what constitutes a 'plan'"), and he didn't award it any Pinocchios or gold stars or anything like that. Still, Brendan asks, "why not give him a separate column for punditry and preserve The Fact Checker column for, well, facts?" That sounds pretty sensible too.

UPDATE: The White House disagrees, pointing out to me that Obama has talked about his plan in three weekly addresses and one press conference recently, and press secretary Jay Carney has also done a press briefing on the plan.

Fair enough. But here's the way Obama described his sequester replacement in one of the weekly addresses: "I believe we should do it in a balanced way — with smart spending cuts, entitlement reform, and tax reform. That’s my plan." This is his usual formulation, and he doesn't often go much beyond that. That's kind of thin, no? Obviously I agree with Obama that Republican refusal to accept even a dime of new revenue is the real deal breaker here, but I still think Kessler has a point.

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